Renaud Anjoran is the founder of Sofeast, a quality control agency based in Shenzhen, and a leading expert in quality assurance. Renaud is also a regular contributor to the Chinaimportal Knowledge Base.
In this article, he explains what apparel and textiles importers must know about preventing and managing quality issues.
Keep reading, and learn more about the types of quality issues in the apparel industry – and how they can be avoided.
Based on your experience, what are the most common quality issues, that Buyers of Apparel and Textiles must be aware of?
I would distinguish between three types of quality issues.
First, some quality issues are due to the materials and accessories. For example, the yarn was not dyed in the wrong color, or a zipper does not come from the agreed supplier or brand. They are widespread on many or all garments. I would include non-conform packing materials here.
How to avoid these issues?
a. If you purchase high volumes, have your suppliers work with directed sub-suppliers that your company vets. Prices might go up a bit, but you will usually get it back through fewer issues. Note, this is especially true of packing materials, and not always applicable to fabrics or to the main accessories. Some companies buy the materials and accessories and pay workshops for a CMT job.
b. Have the supplier make a pre-production sample in the bulk materials. Review that sample, as well as fabric swatches (not small ‘lab dips’) for other colors, if any.
c. Send an inspector in the factory to check all the materials and accessories.
Second, some problems are due to the patterns or to the way the fabric was cut. A common temptation for factories is to reduce fabric consumption. It generally takes two forms:
1. Cutting just a bit smaller. As a consequence, finished garments tend to be smaller than requested – sometimes an entire size under expectation, especially if sewing operators don’t respect the ‘sewing allowance’.
2. Positioning the shapes so as to improve efficiency, irrespective of the desired direction of threads. On underwear this can affect fitting, and more generally it can trigger bad visual defects such as twisting or puckering. This is quite common in China.
There are many other potential issues coming from the cutting. They are more common on knit fabrics since they are not always processed adequately (insufficient time to retract, too many layers…).
How to avoid these issues?
1. Very few importers check this step of production. The best is to send an apparel technician to check the way the factory prepared their ‘paper patterns’ and the way they lay and cut the fabric.
More generally, work with good cutting and sewing workshops!
2. Finally, many problems come from poor workmanship. They can take many forms – the machines are not set properly and stitchings break when stretched; front pockets are placed without a visual aid and are not symmetrical; the thread ends are not all trimmed. Unfortunately, you will not see this if you ask factories to send you a few samples.
Note: You might request samples from production, but in China 98% of those samples will come from a dedicated ‘sample room’ and won’t be representative in terms of manufacturing quality.
How to avoid these issues?
1. Again, work with a good cut & sew workshop. And make sure they don’t subcontract to a cheaper workshop.
2. Don’t push them to rush production. If you have a firm delivery deadline, make sure all the samples’ approvals are done well in advance.
3. Many buyers send an inspector once during the sewing process, and again after production is done. By catching issues and giving feedback to the sewing line leaders, this approach tends to improve quality. Pre-shipment inspections are the last time quality can be checked in China and are essential.
What do you think are the main causes of these quality issues?
Garments, as a product category, are inspected more often than other consumer goods. This is due to the production process (a succession of manual operations performed, in general, by workers who are encouraged by their pay scheme to spend little time on each piece).
This is also due to the constant flow of new styles, which prevents the whole supply chain from doing the pre-production work necessary to reduce risks.
“Fashion apparel” induces two perverse effects:
a. First, there is intense pressure on timelines. Pre-production approvals often drag in time (this size sample doesn’t fit well, that wash effect is a bit off…), compressing the time allocated to dyeing, cutting, sewing, and finishing. It is quite frequent for sewing workshops to ‘cut corners’ in order to ship on time.
b. Second, developing new styles multiplies risks. Let’s consider two extremes. On the one hand is the production of fashion apparel (no engineering work done prior to production), and on the other is OEM car parts, to be made in very large volumes with the same materials and processes. The initial work requested by Western car brands (called the ‘PPAP’) takes hundreds or even thousands of man-hour per new model, but is nearly entirely skipped by garment manufacturers. The attitude is ‘the styles are approved, let’s jump into production and fix issues as we go’.
In addition to that, the constant pursuit of the “cheapest needle” pushes some buyers to work with lower-grade manufacturers.
When the end products get sold in price-conscious retail channels, this is probably the major source of quality issues.
When it comes to the production of fabric rolls, the main source of issues is the lack of process controls in complex chemical operations. They don’t always control the temperature, the humidity, the amount of solids in baths, and so on.
Different lots have different colors and different properties.
What sort of tests and quality checks are essential in Apparel manufacturing?
The chemical and physical tests that are required on fabrics & accessories are covered in your buyer’s guide, so I won’t cover them here.
Some tests are not compulsory but highly recommended, such as color fastness (especially on ‘risky’ fabrics such as a polyester dyed in red, dark blue, or black). Rubbing the fabric and placing it in a washing machine are sufficient to have a good idea of the risks involved.
When it comes to the garments themselves, here are the common checkpoints:
a. Appearance: do they look good as presented at point of sale, when unpacked, and when worn? Are colors and fabrics the same as approved?
b. Conformity of workmanship: is production conform to approved pre-production samples?
c. Construction: are the stitchings strong, will the garments survive normal wear & tear for a little while, etc.
d. Measurements: will the fitting be good, in each size?
e. Finishing: are the garments ready to be sold, or need further work?
g. Packing and labeling: is it conform to the buyer’s requirements?
Is it possible to verify fabric fiber composition, without submitting samples to a laboratory?
This is not always easy. Even an experienced textile engineer might be unable to confirm a complex composition in certain fabrics, just by visual and hand-feel check. And I was fooled quite a few times by polyesters that were as soft as polyamide.
On the other hand, a 92% combed cotton / 8% spandex fabric is very, very different from 100% cheap cotton.
Should Buyers draft Quality Inspection protocols on their own, or rely on their Inspection partner to do so for them?
One particularity of apparel and accessories is the seeming all-importance of of the ‘golden sample’, since touch & feel play such a role.
However, the buyer should definitely specify the way the garments should be labeled, folded, packed, etc. They can usually do a good job at it by themselves.
Where many buyers are lost is the categorization of common defects. I consider it as a must to do this before production starts and get the supplier’s written confirmation.
To understand what I mean, I listed a few common defects below.
Would you categorize them as critical, major, or minor? If you are not sure, work with a quality assurance agency to get this all ironed out.
- Untrimmed threads of 1cm or more
- Stain / dirty marks of 0.5cm or more in diameter
- Hole on fabric
- Pulled yarn on fabric
- Press marks on fabric
- Color shading
- Skipped stitching
- Broken stitching
- Open seam
- Symmetrical problem
- Puckering effect
- Mixup of SKUs (e.g. one piece in size L labeled as a M)
What sort of product information must the buyer provide to the Inspection company?
Many professional importers provide a “tech pack” that includes:
- Types of fabrics and accessories (in detail)
- All labels
- Size charts
- Comments about successively reviewed samples (this is useful because the same issues might be found in production)
And they usually have a packing manual that provides general rules about the size of cartons, shipping marks, polybags, folding way, and so on.
For a small company that starts to purchase garments, this is not a super-human effort as long as they have a template for inspiration.
What kind of equipment is needed to carry out the inspection?
The very least is to bring a garment measurement tape, as well as a digital camera. For a rub test, bring a white cotton cloth. If labels include barcodes, bring a barcode scanner. All of these are traditionally carried by the inspector.
It is quite common to check the main fabric’s weight. Since the cutter and the digital scale are heavy and fragile, the supplier is usually expected to provide them. Same thing for the scale for cartons.
When it comes to inspections of fabric rolls, of course the factory is supposed to have a checking machine.
Is a Pre-Shipment Inspection enough when importing apparel, or should buyers also consider one or more inspections during production?
If you already have a history with that factory, you place a re-order, and you know your order is not subcontracted, a final (pre-shipment) inspection is sufficient.
If that’s not the case, you are highly advised to proceed to an in-line inspection. It serves as an early warning system, and corrective actions can be taken before it is too late. Once all the goods are made, the factory often refuses (overtly, or through their behavior) to rework/reproduce them.
The best timing for an in-line inspection is not always obvious, though. Let’s take the example of a pair of jeans that requires sand blasting:
1. Fabric is cut;
2. Main sewing operations are done (good time to catch sewing issues that will impact fitting);
3. All pieces are sent out for sand blasting;
4. The finishing work is done (good time to check sand blasting and finishing, but way too late for checking main sewing and measurement);
5. All pieces are packed (good time to check the quantity and the average quality, as well as labeling and packing).
How can Sofeast help importers prevent quality issues when buying Apparel and Textiles from China?
Sofeast helps buyers secure their entire supply chain:
- Define a quality standard (what defects are critical, major, minor)
- Document expectations related to the garments, their packing, and their labeling
- Audit and vet a potential supplier’s factory
- Review pre-production and production samples
- Review the paper patterns and the cutting process
- Perform in-line inspections
- Drive corrective actions if needed
- Confirm average quality via a final inspection