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Cut and Sew: Opportunity Abounds, But It's Not for the Faint of Heart

The addition of cut and sew services to a garment decorator's business can provide a true value-added service that has the potential to increase business and attract new customers.

By Bill Stein

It can open up new markets for customers who desire to add special, unique touches to their garments to better establish, differentiate and elevate their brand. However, while cut and sew offers entrée into a new world of possibilities, there are numerous aspects to consider before making such a business decision.

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  • Do You Have a Market?
    Before making the foray into cut and sew, it's important to ascertain whether there will be enough demand to support the investment. Depending on the exact nature of your business, you could be marketing to a customer base that's considerably different than with your traditional business.

    "When we started moving into decorating services, we found that a high percentage of people who were saying they wanted sublimation were really saying they wanted cut and sew," said Chris Bernat, Chief Revenue Officer and co-founder of Vapor Apparel, which specializes in blank performance apparel for digital sublimation printing and print-on-demand services. "For us, it became obvious that we were saying no to too much revenue, so we decided to dive in."

    It was much the same situation for Scrappy Apparel, an elite brand management and apparel division focused on high-end fabrics and embellishment techniques. "Our customers started asking for just a little more to be done, which led us to expand into cut and sew or at least start developing a program that would meet their needs and be profitable for us as a company," said Grant Kevins, co-owner of Scrappy. Cut and sew helped Scrappy solve problems with inconsistencies over the neck, seams and collar that occurred with all over screen printing.

    Two important considerations in determining whether you have a sufficient market for cut and sew include whether your existing or potential customers require a product that's unique and custom-made, and whether those products can be sold to end customers at a price point that works. "One of the first questions I ask my customers is what their retail market looks like," said CAS Shiver, founder of Sundog Productions, a T-shirt and apparel company. "Are they trying to sell something for $10 or $100? That answer will go a long way toward determining whether there's a potential market for custom-designed garments."

    Creating belt loops for jumpsuits. (Image courtesy of Sundog Productions.)

    Some of those custom features might include a drop tail, a longer back, a split V on the shoulder or sleeve, tape on the back or special pockets. "These are the things that we can do to help someone elevate their brand and differentiate it from a standard cookie-cutter garment they can get from any distributor," said Shiver.

    According to Bernat, the market opportunity for a North American sew house is more likely to be business to consumer or business to affiliate. Companies and organizations that may be good candidates for cut and sew garments include affiliates, sports teams, race and run sponsors, and local hunting clubs.

    Providing licensed content can also be fertile ground for cut and sew business. For example, Vapor Apparel is licensed to provide Mossy Oak camo garments. "Historically, if you wanted customized cut and sew Mossy Oak pants, you had to go buy the shirt and then get it screen printed somewhere," said Bernat. The ability to embed custom sublimation into licensed patterns or licensed artwork provides a good market possibility.

    "There's an opportunity for a decorator with really good customer service skills and really good art departments to potentially white label somebody else's production as long as they've got faith in that supply chain," said Bernat.

    He noted that while ad specialty houses and promotional product ad agencies design and sell a lot of product, they do not actually make it themselves.

    Fronts waiting to be assembled with finished product behind T-shirts. (Image courtesy of Sundog Productions.)

    Education is Key
    Decorators who have cut and sew find that education is an important part of the process. "Our job, whether as an embellisher, screen printer, embroiderer or something else, is to help guide customers or the people coming to us with requests on what the right thing to do is," said Shiver.

    "There's still an educational barrier with some brands that are just starting out and just learning the industry," said Kevins. To that end, Scrappy provides an extensive "how it works" page on their website to help people understand their cut and sew custom apparel options.

    Education also extends to product costs, which are often more expensive than prospective customers anticipate. "They may be comparing it with something that had 20,000 units and was made in Hong Kong," said Bernat. "You're comparing long-run offset digital sublimation and Chinese labor to digital printing with US labor." Bernat said customers also need to understand that overseas production can entail challenges in terms of language, time differences and other logistics.

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    The Challenge of Finding Sewers
    Finding qualified sewers can be quite difficult for those seeking to produce garments domestically. The work requires someone who's experienced sewing cut fabric and patterns together. Unfortunately, most sewing talent went to Mexico and Central America in the 1990s with the North American Free Trade Agreement, and not much has been replaced. Skilled sewers can be found in certain pockets of the United States, including the traditional textile centers of southern California and parts of the Southeast, but it remains a challenge.

    There are several ways to address the shortage of sewers. One is to target specific ethnic communities by advertising in publications read by Mexican, Central American and Asian immigrants. A second way is to develop your own seamstresses by having them perfect their sewing skills on products that are easier to sew. Another option is to find an experienced sewer who can share their knowledge with others seeking to learn. Lastly, it may be possible to get the machine supplier to train staff.

    "If you live in Los Angeles or a part of the country where there's a lot of sewing, you may be able to get away with subcontracting your sewing," said Bernat. "But any time you do that, you need to make sure it's a tight supply chain because the more you contract out, the more accountability you're leaving to other people."

    Cutting can be done manually or through automation with laser-based systems. (Image courtesy of Vapor Apparel.)

    Selecting Equipment
    Determining the type of equipment to use for cut and sew is not easy. For starters, a number of different pieces are required for specific processes. There are machines that do nothing but seams, and others dedicated exclusively to collars, joints, ribs and pockets.

    The equipment required is also dictated by the way you choose to produce your garments. You can print and cut out afterwards or take cut pieces and marry them up with a roll of printed paper. If you're pre-making cut pieces, you'll need a robust cutting table and fabric spreader, which can be done either manually or automatically.

    The more automated the equipment, the better, as time is obviously a crucial determinant of cost. "If I have a machine that does nothing but sew pockets, I can do that in less time than on a more generic machine," said Shiver. "You have to amortize the equipment, but what you're really paying for is the time."

    Some of the more common brands of industrial sewing machines include Brother, Juki, Jack and Yamato. If you're outsourcing, you can get a feel for some of the different names and types of equipment. An excellent resource for learning more about equipment options is the Sewn Products Equipment & Suppliers of the Americas (SPESA).

    A Deep, Experienced Production Team is a Must
    In addition to skilled sewers and equipment, you'll need a production team experienced with large-format digital sublimation printers and a calendar press. "A lot of people can give you artwork for screen printing with spot hit sublimation, but very few clients can fill a custom template for cut and sew," said Bernat.

    There's a considerable amount of work that goes into setting up a design. Once graphics are finalized, a pattern has to be made for each size. "If somebody's ordering small, medium, large and extra large, it's not like you just go in and resize everything," said Bernat. "It requires creating a different template for each size unless you have automated software for designing a cut and sew garment, and that can require a six-figure investment."

    The ability to differentiate requires significant graphical resources. "If you have an art team that's smaller than three people, it's going to be tough for you to absorb a large cut and sew order and not have it bring everything else to a standstill," said Bernat.

    The Subcontracting Option
    For printers who would prefer to avoid the problems associated with amassing labor and equipment, subcontracting out the entire order may be an appropriate approach. "We first produced everything ourselves, and then as we grew, we came to the question of whether we wanted to expand our print shop, buy more machinery and hire more people," said Kevins. "We decided to step back and rely on printers that could very well be better than we were."

    Scrappy subsequently developed a strong network of high- quality manufacturers to help them reach their goals. They've accomplished this with both offshore and domestic manufacturing solutions.

    According to Kevins, they started the same way that every brand has to start - sourcing the fabric, visiting the facility and providing guidelines to ensure quality. "There are a lot of bells and whistles that go with cut and sew manufacturing outside of whether you do it in house or you contract it out, so we do a lot to ensure quality control and that clients are getting what we advertise," he said.

    In addition to maintaining those relationships and those specifications with factories, there's also the logistical side of the business with freight forwarders, third-party inspection, etc. "All of this goes into compiling a successful cut and sew program," Kevins continued.

    Proceed With Caution
    A 2017 SGIA survey of garment decorators found that 22% offer sewing services, down from 26.5% in 2016. While it's hard to pinpoint the exact reasons for the change, it's possible that offshore competition is hindering the ability for apparel manufacturers to hit customer price points. It may also suggest that some businesses are realizing just how difficult cut and sew can be or determining that they don't have the right customer base.

    Indeed, managing a new business service such as cut and sew requires different skill sets, machinery, markets and logistics. It's something that many print shops are not typically prepared to do. It can be beneficial to outsource cut and sew services, at least initially, so you can continue to learn more about the business while assessing your role in the market. This will also allow you to learn valuable customer support lessons along the way.

    If you're aggressive and up to the challenge, there are many opportunities for garment decorators who want to bring cut and sew into their business. For less than $100,000, digital sublimation printers can obtain the equipment they need - printer, paper, heat-transfer presses, sewing machines, etc. - to be in the cut and sew business. But it takes a concentrated effort and considerable homework before you're ready for prime time. For a garment decorator, cut and sew is not for the faint of heart.

    Bill Stein is a freelance writer and communications consultant. He's written on a variety of topics for industries ranging from healthcare to imaging to finance and insurance.

    This article appeared in the SGIA Journal, Summer 2018 edition and is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2019 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association ( All Rights Reserved.

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