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Looking to design your own T-shirt or launch your a knitwear collection? Outsourcing to China, or other low cost countries, may be your only option. In this article, I explain what you need to know when selecting a clothing manufacturer, substance regulations, material quality and managing the product development and production process.
Regardless of whether you’re an apparel startup looking to try out a new product line, or consider yourself the next Karl Lagerfeld, this article is packed with actionable advice for you. But first, I’ll explain why buying wholesale clothing from China is rarely an option.
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Buying wholesale clothing from China?
The Minimum Order Quantity (MOQ) of clothing and textile items is often 300 to 500 pcs, per design. That translates into a major investment, assuming you want to launch an entire collection.
Many importers assumes that the solution to this is by skipping manufacturing, and purchase off shelf clothing from wholesalers.
Of course, there are clothing and textile wholesalers in China. In fact, there are tens of thousands of them. However, these wholesalers, trade items manufactured for the Chinese market. Take a look at Taobao.com (China’s Ebay) and see for yourself.
You can get a T-shirt for 2 dollars and a pair of jeans for the price of a Big Mac meal. But, China is not a magic land where basic economics don’t apply. In other words, you do get what you pay for.
In fact, you might get a bit more than really want. At least in terms of regulated substances, such as Formaldehyde and AZO-colors. China’s substance regulations are more lax than those in the west.
Thus, buying wholesale clothing from China is rarely (if ever) an option, unless you are willing to risk having your items seized by customs – or face a forced recall.
Important factors when selecting a clothing and textile factory
Not all Clothing and textiles manufacturers are equal. Making a random factory selection online, without verifying that the supplier is able to reach your quality requirements, is likely to end up in disaster. Below follows an introduction to the three main factors that really matters, when selecting clothing manufacturers in China.
#1: Substance control and compliance with foreign textile regulations
Clothing textiles are regulated in most countries, including the United States, Europe and Australia. Most applicable safety standards, such as REACH (Europe) and FHSA (United States) regulate substances, such as formaldehyde, AZO-colors and asbestos.
Most Chinese manufacturers, especially the smaller ones, are not aware of the substance content in their textiles.
It’s a deeply rooted issue that goes way beyond the manufacturer. All clothing manufacturers purchase fabrics and components from subcontractors. The number of subcontractors can range from a two or three, to more than one hundred.
Ensuring that no non-compliant fabric slips through requires the supplier to test a large number of samples, which most small factories consider too expensive and time consuming.
For importers based in Europe, America, Canada and Australia, it’s critical to select a supplier that can show previous compliance with applicable substance regulations, and prove it.
For example, you can make a ‘compliance assessment’ based on the following documents:
- REACH Test Report
- OEKO Tex Standard 100
- California Proposition 65
- Heavy Metals Test Reports
- AZO Dyes Test Report
- Bill of Substances
To help you ensure compliance with all applicable apparel standard, we include the following in our Starter Package: Apparel & Textiles:
- Substance Regulations Overview
- Labeling Requirements
- Document Requirements
- Lab Testing Requirements
#2: Textiles labeling requirements
Clothing and textile regulations are not only limited to substances, but also product and packaging labeling. These labeling requirements vary greatly between different countries. However, most countries require labeling to cover Country of Origin (Made in China), textile fiber content and washing instructions.
However, a supplier cannot really be compliant or non-compliant with labeling requirements.
In fact, it’s your job to design the textile label, and verify that it’s compliant with applicable regulations in your country. The supplier’s job is to print it. That said, they must be able to provide you with information about the textile fiber content and washing instructions.
If you don’t fancy spending hundreds of dollars on designer fees for a set of label files, we include a set of ‘ready made’ label file templates with the Starter Package for Apparel and Textiles.
#3: Fabric quality
Good suppliers provide high quality fabrics and bad suppliers provides low quality fabrics. Right? It’s not that simple. A couple of years ago I learnt that myself, the hard way.
In 2011, we were tasked with managing the product development process of a new polo shirt collection for a European brand. They’d already selected a new supplier in the southern Fujian province to manufacture their new designs.
It was a good supplier. Clean facility, long history, plenty of capital, modern machinery and a strict quality management system.
The client received the samples and testing begins. A few weeks of usage and washing later, it was clear that the material quality was far below the clients expectations. While they wanted to match brands like GANT and Ralph Lauren in terms of quality, this sample would go straight to an outlet.
Obviously, the client was upset about this, and we submitted a complaint to the supplier. They made another batch of samples. But the result was the same. This was when we realized that this may be a reliable supplier, yet unable to match our buyers quality requirements.
It turned out that they were indeed specialized in making low end apparel, and pretty good at it too!
Before you get started, you need to get your fabric specifications in order. Never assume that a Chinese clothing and textiles manufacturer is specialized in making items matching your quality requirements, regardless of their technical qualifications.
One strategy that we have applied more in recent years, is to source two sets of suppliers:
- Apparel manufacturer
- Fabrics supplier
Relying on the apparel manufacturer when it comes to selecting fabrics and other materials is very time consuming, especially given that fabrics have to be felt.
In other words, it can be hard to communicate fabric quality requirements to a supplier, and it can take weeks or even months of emailing back and forth to get the correct fabric samples.
A better option, if you have specific fabric requirements, is to identify a fabric supplier and order samples directly from them. The fabrics supplier will then ship the materials to the apparel manufacturer in time for production.
Product development process
When you have selected a few suppliers (not only one, as explained further down in this article) it’s time to put them to the test. Keep reading, and find out how to manage the clothing product development and production process:
Step #1: Design drafting, material selection and product specifications
Chinese manufacturers are entirely accustomed to producing items according to buyer specifications. While some suppliers offer design services, they will certainly not help someone design a new collection based on a random inquiry on their Alibaba website.
Before you even bother to contact manufacturers, you need to get your specifications in order. These include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Design drafts
- Design elements (e.g. collar)
- Fabric type (e.g. 96% cotton and 4% spandex)
- Fabric weight (e.g. 120 gsm)
- Printing or embroidery (e.g. screenprint)
- Pantone colors
- Buttons (design, material)
- Textile label (design files and dimensions)
- Compliance requirements (e.g. AZO-free colors)
You may also complement a product specification with physical product samples, in case you intend to replicate a certain color, material or design elements of an existing product. However, certain components, such as buttons, are better left open until you know what the supplier has to offer.
In case you fail to provide sufficient product specifications, you are very likely to receive items of very poor quality. Misunderstandings occur easier than you could possibly imagine, and there’s no universal definition of what “good quality” is. Nothing should be left out of your product specification.
Step #2: Sample development
This is when it get’s interesting, but act with caution. First of all, it’s way too early to make a final supplier selection at this stage. Instead, you shall select at least three or four suppliers that produce clothing samples simultaneously.
In my experience, roughly 50% of the suppliers fail to manufacture satisfying samples. They might lack the precision to get the seams straight, provide low quality material or prove that they don’t really care that much about following your design requirements.
Samples take time to develop, and often require a few revisions. All the sudden three months have passed by. If you’ve made a final supplier selection too early, you might need to start all over again.
That’s why it’s critical to keep several supplier options at hand at this stage. Thereby, you can simply ditch supplier failing to produce satisfying samples, and move on with those that succeed.
Yes, it costs a bit extra to buy samples from four suppliers, rather than only one. But, considering the time and money you’ll save, it’s well worth it.
Step #3: Compliance testing
Previous compliance means that a supplier can prove that they’re able to ensure compliance. While that is a key qualification requirement, it’s not a guarantee for future compliance.
Thus, you shall submit material samples for compliance testing, before mass production begins.
But, this is also when it gets really complicated. Fabrics are purchased from subcontractors, and suppliers rarely keep them in stock. The fabric samples that are available during sample production may not be available by the time you place your order.
Even if the fabric used for mass production is visually identical, it may come another batch (thus it may contain other chemicals) or from a completely different subcontractor.
In a worst case scenario, this means that you could end up with clothing made of non-compliant fabrics, even though the pre-production fabrics passed compliance testing.
However, despite this risk, pre-production fabric testing is critical. One way to minimize the risk further is to have fabric samples compliance tested as soon as the batch used for your items arrives in the supplier warehouse, but before mass production begins.
That way you can at least avoid a situation where you are left with an entire batch of non-compliant apparel. Sounds complicated? Not so much, if you follow the process below:
- Select fabrics and confirm applicable substance regulations
- Ask your supplier if the fabric used for mass production originates from the same batch and/or from the same subcontractor
- Collect and submit pre-production reference fabric samples to the test laboratory
- Supplier begins mass production and order fabrics from one or more subcontractors
- Collect and submit batch sample reference fabrics to the test laboratory
- If compliant: approve production
As one material, and sometimes color, requires a separate compliance test, costs increase if you use many different fabrics and colors. If you’re on a small budget, try to limit the number of different fabrics used in your apparel.
Step #4: Sales contract
Before you pay the deposit and production begins, a Sales Agreement shall be signed by the Clothing manufacturer. The main purpose of the Sales contract is not to get prepared for future disputes, but to prevent them.
First of all, it shall prevent misunderstandings. Thus, it shall include product specifications, design drafts, material specifications and color samples. You may also attach physical samples, for the supplier to sign and stamp.
However, these specifications may be useless unless you put pressure on the supplier to actually comply.
This is can only be achieved if you make the supplier understand that you will verify compliance, and that you have a bargaining chip at hand, in case they wouldn’t.
In order to verify compliance, you need to follow up with Quality Inspection. I’ll get back to that in a bit. The payment is also critical. If you pay a supplier 100% in advance, they no longer have an incentive to remake or repair defective items, in case the Quality inspection would fail.
This is why the final balance payment shall be withheld until the quality is verified.
Step #5: Quality control
Manufacturing is not a science. Quality issues are certain to occur, to a varying degree. They can’t be completely eliminated, but they can be managed and reduced to a degree that they don’t affect the viability of your business.
Forget about returning defective items to China. Low cost manufacturing is cheap for a reason. Instead, you must verify that your clothing reaches your quality requirements before it’s packed and shipped.
Thus, a Quality Inspection shall be executed in the manufacturer’s facility, after production – but before shipment.
There are a number of defects that may occur when manufacturing clothing. Below follows a list of defects I’ve stumbled upon:
- Poor seams (e.g. not straight, loose threads)
- Skewed embroidery
- Incorrect dimensions
- Loose buttons and zippers
- Dust and dirt
However, certain quality issues cannot be detected during a single factory inspection. For example, poor quality fabrics may lose fitting, only after a few washes. This is why extensive sample testing, and actual usage, is critical, before production begins.
Feel free to contact us, if you have further questions about finding reliable and compliant Clothing manufacturers in China.
Follow up orders
The idea is that you establish a long term with one supplier, that you can work with for future re-orders. With a contract in place, and complete techpacks, you don’t need to go through the supplier vetting and product development process each time you order.
That said, the quality assurance procedure must be repeated for each order:
- Submit Techpacks for supplier confirmation (all documents must be stamped)
- Proforma invoice is issued by the supplier
- Pay 30% deposit
- Production start
- During production quality control (optional)
- Pre-shipment quality control
- Lab testing
- Pay 70% deposit (if quality is approved)
As textiles are mostly shipped by sea, you need to place your orders at least 4 months before the deadline.
Do you want to launch your own clothing product?
It can be hard to go from a design drawing to finished product. To help you manage the entire process – from creating a specification, to sampling and quality control – we created a Starter Package for clothing:
a. Clothing Manufacturer Lists
b. Product Specification Templates
c. Clothing Label Samples
d. Tutorials, Video Walkthroughs and Task Lists that guide you step-by-step through the entire process
In addition, you can also book quality inspections, lab testing and shipping directly from the platform. Click here to learn more.