Why handmade is best
The alternative title to this is How to start a home based handmade sewing business pt4 but I didn’t want it to get lost in the shuffle and besides, it applies to everyone. I want to address comments from yesterday’s entry (also see pt one and two) before going on because I know that what I said is highly controversial. Let’s start with a comment from Ragga:
Very nice definition of handmade, but I have to disagree with one small point which is that even if something is made by one person from beginning to end it does not guarantee quality. The quality depends on the skill level of the person who made it by hand. I say this because here in L.A. there seems to have been a handmade trend going on for the past couple of years which in some cases seems to glorify amateur level craft. Nothing wrong with it when you’re giving your handmade from home items away but questionable when it is being sold in “boutiques”.
I understand what you’re saying. First, yes, quality can -in part- be controlled by an operator (no operator can cure a mis-cut piece or a bad pattern). I’ve also seen caliber of work such that you describe, stuff so bad you can’t tear your eyes from it but some RTW is pretty bad too. The guy at the coop says these $20 train wrecks sell well. I can match the price and do a better job of it but the hassle of schlepping stuff around and collecting puts me over the top and out of the market. It depends on how hungry you are. It proves to me that there’s still a lot of opportunity in shopping bags. Ragga continues:
I think you mean that batching is problematic when spread around between several sewers. Am I getting this right? I’m not sure I agree that batching is always bad, I do it on the very rare occasions I have agreed to do small production, or when I do dupes. I am very confident that there is no difference in quality when I batch my dupes and it definitely speeds things up.
I am a reluctant convert to lean production -although not to lean processes such as cutting to order. Lean manufacturing doesn’t look the same in all industries -or even within the same industry. As Carol mentioned:
…if I’m making belt loops, I’m better to use a long strip, do the seaming in several long passes, than cut it into sections, trimming the weird ends. I would never be able to get a clean, true piece doing each little section.
Belt loops are an example of a sub-assembly. A sub-assembly is something that has to be sewn independently of the item before it can be added to it. A strap is another example. I argue with lean people all the time about sub-assemblies. I think it’s a case by case basis but agree belt loops should be batched like Carol says.
Returning to Ragga’s point of there being no difference in quality, I must reluctantly disagree. Vesta, one of our members, conducted a very interesting experiment. Having some time on her hands, she agreed to sew up 500 bags for her local farmer’s market association. She said:
OMG, OMG, OMG. I had to jump on and say I ran a little experiment for myself and Kathleen. I batched the first couple of hundred bags. Overlocked and stacked. Then later got on the lockstitch and hemmed, inserted the straps, trimmed, and flipped. Then I put the remaining couple of hundred bags through one-piece-flow. Cut pieces to finished bag. I had a U-shaped pod, with tables at the start and finish for cut fabric and finished bags. AND I was scooting around on a chair, rather than walking, which I’m convinced would have shaved a chunk of time off my average.
So? You ready? One-piece-flow was FASTER. It took me only about 86% of the time that it took to batch. And that’s not counting the time moving piles around in the batch phase: stack, move stacks periodically to a larger table, move them back later to the lockstitch machine…I’m floored. Totally. And I can’t tell you how much the quality improved when I stopped batching.
Anyway, I’m just writing up an internal summary of the project and couldn’t believe it when I averaged up my times. I thought I was going to be happy with a slightly longer time for the lean process, because of the quality difference alone. I don’t have to make any excuses for this one.
["One-piece-flow" is manufacturing-speak for "handmade".] People on the forum were suitably impressed and when asked for more detail about why the quality improved so much, Vesta said:
This paragraph from Kathleen’s post on how to prevent sewing defects is why the quality improved when I moved to lean:
Another way that lean saves you money is related to learning and the ability to self correct. For example, if an operator is only doing one step in the process as with bundling, the operator may not realize they’re doing an operation incorrectly. If they’re producing the entire garment, it will soon become evident further along in the process even if they don’t know to whom or what they can attribute the problem.
With all of the problems I encountered sewing, it was either me sewing a previous step less-than-optimally, or me working against the machine somehow. When I overlocked 200-odd pieces, I had to then deal with the shortcomings in every one of those pieces when I moved the batch over to the lockstitch (a week later). Then when I moved to the lean method, I realized I could be overlocking them in a way that would make my life easier at the lockstitch; and I perfected that as I completely sewed each bag.
I don’t expect anyone to believe that one piece flow (handmade) is faster and higher quality; it is something you have to experience for yourself to believe it. I think humans are hard-wired to prefer batching, it was the key to our survival as a species. Ron Pereira did a little video using the example of stuffing envelopes. The results were dramatic and controversial. Nobody enjoys having their sacred cows slaughtered.
Returning to what I said about lean production being different in each industry, Carol said
…as I remember it, one machine and a skilled operator to recalibrate it is better than five machines each custom-set. How long does it take to reset the machine?
In lean, single purpose machines are discouraged because they’re only good for one thing. This doesn’t really apply to sewn products because our machines, while they may be configured to do a certain operation, are infinitely adjustable to other operations that may be needed later on. Mike gave a great answer but I’d stress something that many homebased producers don’t quite understand (not Carol specifically).
Most people are used to the idea of one machine per person. In mass production, the ratio of sewing machines to operators is something like 1:1 because they do batching. There’s a few extras but that’s the rundown. In lean manufacturing, to prevent the waste of time spent switching out sewing feet or attachments, you have many more machines than operators. It is typical to have five or six machines per operator. And even that is misleading because operators share machines. In a pod like Mike has, there’s 11 or 12 machines and 2 sewing operators. Each operator uses each machine, they’re shared.
The problem with adapting this process to most home based producers is often space, they don’t have room for several machines and it could also be money although sewing machines can be very inexpensive. I think this is the biggest problem of small producers. You can’t sew faster without more machines but you can’t earn the money to rent space or buy equipment if you can’t sew faster. This is why I think homebased workers are attracted to batching, it gets them through a hump. However, from personal experience I know there are other ways to generate time savings that are not short cuts.
Speaking of short cuts, people think short cuts are the rule in the RTW industry. It is exactly the opposite. We take more time at the outset to do things in a certain way so that sewing takes much less time. We actually do more work, not less and in total, it takes less time to do it. For another thing (as Mike said) making things in one piece flow (handmade) means mistakes are caught and corrected immediately meaning you don’t waste time having to unsew something to fix it. How much time do you spend making corrections? At close, I’ve included links to entries that can help you understand ways you can sew faster.