As a long-time sewer, I’ve become accustomed to sewing in a specific way. I’ve developed certain habits and techniques, such as obsessively pressing after sewing every seam; trimming extra seam allowances to reduce bulk and create a smooth finish; and finishing with hand sewing. Perfect for couture and custom sewing, but definitely not for ready-to-wear (RTW). Unlike couture and custom, which are one-of-a-kind garments, RTW is about speed, efficiency, consistency and using the right tools to achieve a beautiful finish. Our clothes are all made here in the San Francisco Bay Area in small quantities, which means we remain closely involved throughout and aren't really RTW, but it is interesting to understand the process.
For couture and custom, patterns are made and adjusted for each individual. For RTW, patterns need to be made into a range of sizes. To do this, the master patterns for a style are perfected in a mid-range size, generally a Medium or size 6 for womenswear. The pattern pieces are then graded – made proportionally larger or smaller from the master patterns -- to create sets of patterns for every size needed. While grading can be done by hand with a pencil and a ruler, a more efficient way is to digitize the master patterns and use a computer program to grade. Image from here.
Once all of the patterns have been checked and approved, they are made into a marker, which is a paper template of all of the pattern pieces for every size arranged to minimize waste when cutting out the fabric. Again, this can be done by hand, but is now more often done digitally. When cutting fabric, layers of fabric are stacked and the marker is placed on top to guide the cutter. Image from here.
There is a special machine that is used to cut through thick layers of fabric with accuracy and speed. Once cut, all of the pieces are bundled and ready to be sewn. Image from here.
Because efficiency is key, RTW garments generally aren’t sewn one at a time – from start to finish – by one person. Every sewer is tasked with a certain operation, such as sewing bias binding or sewing zippers. Once they finish, the garment pieces are moved on to the next sewer. There are specialized machines that make the work easier, faster and more professional looking than what can be done on a home sewing machine. Buttonhole machines and snap setting machines are just a couple of examples.
After the finished garments are checked for quality, they are pressed and packed according to the designer’s specifications. It is up to the designer to carefully check the garments for any quality issues upon receipt. While most problems would have been caught earlier, as the designer or designee would have been checking on the garments throughout the production process, there are always little things that pop up at the end.
Making RTW garments is definitely a well-honed industrial process, just like the manufacturing processes for other goods such as cars or furniture. It is so strikingly different from the artisanal process for couture and custom clothing, yet the results can be quite beautiful.