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If you’re a crafter selling your creations, then how you create is just as important as the end result. But how do you make money when your two hands can only make so many goods in one day?
It may seem counterintuitive, but many makers are producing their crafts through small batch manufacturing, commissioning a small amount of products from a factory that can still achieve the economies of scale necessary to make money. The factory gets just enough products made to avoid going broke, and the crafter gets to put their goods in more hands without being stuck with boxes and boxes of unsold products.
Case in point is Etsy. Since softening its definition of handmade, 5,000 sellers now rely on outside manufacturing to produce wares for their shops. The e-commerce platform also launched Etsy Manufacturing last year, a directory to help sellers find manufacturers. Etsy declined to share how many manufacturers are currently listed with Etsy Manufacturing but did say that more than 700 manufacturers applied to be part of the directory last year. Also facilitating the maker-manufacturer connection is Brooklyn-based Makers Row. Of the 10,000 nationwide manufacturers listed through their service, 7,000 count themselves as small batch capable.
Dana Mauriello, Etsy’s director of seller category growth, says the company still values the artisan as much as it does the entrepreneur, and that words like “manufacturing” and “factory” might be misleading because they can often mean another individual maker. In fact, about one quarter of the manufacturers who apply to be listed with Etsy Manufacturing are actually Etsy sellers.
“I think the word ‘manufacturing’ can be a little scary, but once you really see the partners you’re working with, it feels very right.”
— Dana Mauriello
At Makers Row, the company’s co-founder and chief marketing officer, Tanya Menendez, says both startups and established companies like Under Armour and Ralph Lauren turn to them to find small batch manufacturers. And a lot of those manufacturers listed are smaller outfits or individual technicians that help simply test an idea or make a capsule collection, Menendez says.
“That’s really telling of where the industry is going in general — more agile manufacturing where people can actually sell what they make and not hold a lot of inventory and have a quick turnaround time,” Menendez says.
By the numbers
In the government’s eyes, a factory or manufacturing facility is a small batch manufacturer if it makes $1 million or less and produces fewer than 7,500 units of a single product in a year. Factories meeting those benchmarks can register with the government for relief from safety testing requirements imposed on products like children’s toys and gear.
But in more practical terms, a small batch can mean a product order in the single digits, or even just a prototype. David Allen, president of Allen Manufacturing in Lewiston, Maine, says many clients order 50 to 100 items at a time. His company, which specializes in soft and small goods (except for clothing), considers a small batch to be no more than 400 items in a single order.
“Here they can do 100 and maybe the cost is higher than overseas, but you don’t have the huge investment in materials or the language barrier and the time barrier,” Allen says. “Somebody on the East Coast communicating with someone in Beijing can only talk for 20 minutes a day.”
Apparel orders can get much smaller. Philadelphia-based fashion designer Kristin Haskins, the founder of Krys Design and Manufacturing, went from designing to manufacturing when she couldn’t find a factory willing to produce small enough batches or even just samples of her designs.
“There was just a need I needed myself as a designer that I couldn’t really find as easily — the manufacturer that would do, like, 20 units,” Haskins says,.
“To me, at least, anything under 100 is a small batch, and most [small batch factories] don’t go over 1,000,” says Vesta Garcia, co-founder of Stitch Texas in Austin.
While Stitch Texas isn’t a factory, it will help apparel designers become factory-ready by refining the designer’s sample and then tackling pre-production tasks like pattern grading and digitizing. Stitch Texas will occasionally manufacture a design if it’s less than 50 pieces, but the end goal is to get a designer to another manufacturer.
“We would never turn away someone who’s just starting out, but we light up, when a client has sales background and customer base,” Garcia says. “[Someone who says] ‘I’ve been sewing these for a year and I can’t keep up.’ That’s my favorite client.”
Make it work
Be ready to let go. If you’re considering enlisting a manufacturer to help you make your crafts, Menendez says the first thing you should do is make sure you’re comfortable letting someone else’s hands be part of your process. “Start off with a small thing you’re willing to outsource,” she says.
Be prepared to do your research. Using a service like Makers Row or Etsy Manufacturing can help makers search by production stage, industry and capability, but with both platforms, the onus is on the designer to make sure the manufacturer meets expectations. Manufacturers apply to be part of Etsy Manufacturing and are screened, but they aren’t vetted or certified. The wording is deliberate, Mauriello says, since Etsy can’t audit every manufacturer on site. Makers Row takes a similar approach to avoid defining itself as a broker or liability, Menendez says.
Stay local. The best way to maintain quality control is to be present, Menendez says. Go with a manufacturer that lets you visit them during production and co-create a communication plan so you’re involved and informed at all times.
When it comes to materials, think 30 percent. If it costs you $10 to make a skirt, then the fabric shouldn’t cost you more than $3, Haskins says. “You’ve got to make sure you’re making something at the end of the day,” she says.
Embrace new approaches. Keeping materials in check can sometimes mean changing the way a design comes to life. It doesn’t have to mean compromising your idea, Haskins says, but it could mean tweaking certain things to make the design easier and faster to replicate, like a seam or a zipper. “I once had to help bring down a $200 wholesale child’s hoodie that was getting too specific,” Haskins says.
contributorVeronica is a Boston-based journalist and former managing editor of Sew News, Creative Machine Embroidery and Stitch magazines. Follow her on Twitter @vlhgraham or contact her through her website at veronica-graham.com.