Often times I have wondered why we designers complain about so much and yet refuse other viable options that are available simply because of certain mindsets. I'll give you an example...
The typical complaint with designers and fashion entrepreneurs in this industry are local tailors or lack of competent machinists to work with. Of all the "challenges" I asked designers to send me during the Designers Connect gathering, predominant on the list is the issue of tailors. From late coming to bad work to bad work ethics.
I have worked with local tailors in the past and I know the edge I had above them was my ability to sew and other viable options. Where one left me in the lurch, I would simply call my local tailor to assist me churn out my work based on patterns I gave her and together we would churn out the work. Other times when I was less busy, I tested her competency by sending a simple design for e.g. a boubou and asking her to do her normal "free-hand cutting" on a piece of paper so I could have a template to work with. And she always obliged. Where she went wrong, I would correct her. Why was I doing all this? I was trying to work out a process where she could easily create simple patterns and get my machinists to sew up the toile for testing. Of course I paid her for her efforts.
Why am I saying all this?! I have realized that designers complain without wanting to do their part or even entertain suggestions to current work procedures. Due to the mindsets we have, we are averse to change. Listen! We need to change our mindsets and break up the production process! You cannot own or be directly involved in the whole production process from start to finish! It is simply not sustainable in the long run. I know! I have been there! You cannot expect to get a different result if you keep doing the same thing over and over again! In the same manner, how can you expect a normal local tailor, who is not super human, to churn out so much work in so little time and with much accuracy.
First we need to train our staff no matter how experienced we think they are. Why?! Simply because work cultures are different and they need to understand your work process, especially if they have limited skills. Like hello?! How many months do fresh graduates or even experienced staff spend in training school for banks and accounting firms before they start to work. I know when I first started at KPMG, we were at a retreat for 3 weeks learning the KPMG culture and basic accounting to prepare us for work. Even those who were already in the system still had to go through the orientation programme called KBAC.
So why oh why do we not train our tailors and expect them to deliver fabulous work?! How can we get a tailor today and throw him on the job without first training them to our standards and then complain that they are incompetent. Are we forgetting we also run businesses?! No matter how experienced you are, production methods vary in different establishments! What you think is great might be awful to me so it is my job to ensure my tailor delivers good work... except of course he has simply refused to learn! And oh.... let us also not forget the fact that if you can break down, so can your local tailor! I know... I have been there and also made these same mistakes.
When I first started out, I just found good tailors, ran a small test for them and just threw them on the job. Of course, my business suffered dearly for it when I had to redo some garments I had already been paid for 3 times and other times, the tailors would burn them! I sat down and began to review my methods and almost slapped myself! First I never trained them. These tailors were used to working with ankara and I was working with wool for suits. They were used to high temperatures during their production almost to the point of "cremating" the fabric but it never affected the ankara fabric. Of course they would use the same heat to steam wool which would obviously burn! After searching deep within and realizing the fault was with me, I sat down to think of how things could work better.
I compared my business to the places I had worked and almost beat myself up. How could I have learnt all these things without applying them?! And that was when I changed my strategy and it worked. Yes, it took a while because most people I worked with were averse to patterns but eventually, seeing they failed all their tests, they conformed.
You know what I think the solution to this tailor problem is?! Simple! Break up the production process, let them handle only a fraction of the process, perhaps only the "cutting". What I mean is if you have a good tailor, get him to do only the cutting, and then take it to someone else to join for you.... or better still... get joiners in your production unit and start a small production line and get them to join it for you! And I know it works!
One of the easiest ways to retain staff in my opinion is to teach people limited skills in certain areas and get them to rise through the system.. Sort of like a promotion. I know the day I asked my local tailor to create a pattern for me, he was ecstatic because I was giving him a chance. Of course he bungled but at least he realized he was moving up the ranks and my plan was to get him to start assisting me with pattern-making so I could find joiners he could oversee because he already understood my construction methods.
I think more of what designers in the industry need are machinists rather than tailors. And what are machinists?! Simple! They are called joiners in the local industry? Someone who can run a machine and who can sew straight stitches. I tell you I believe that is the only way forward! Why do I think so?!
- First they have limited skills so there's really nowhere else for them to go.
- Second, you can begin a form of promotion system where they move on to the next stage (which is essentially more responsibility) after they have perfected their sewing skills. That way they also feel they are rising up the ranks.
- Third, you begin a form of production line where different people know their areas of responsibilities and become specialized in those areas. You can rotate them but ONLY when they have earned the right.
People wonder why things seem to work in other countries?! Simple! Division of Labour! This is how proper factories operate worldwide. I recall during my internship programme about 50 people, give or take, worked on a pair of trousers. And guess what?! Some didn't even know where their work ended up in the whole garment. I found it surprising but it made sense. They only sew straight lines and where they do not show up, you can simply get someone else who can sew a straight line and take her place. And of course since they know they can easily be replaced, they stay... in fact some had been there for 25 years!
No you do not have to have up to 50 people. You can set up a small production line with just 3 people. When I started, I created the patterns, one person sewed the garment, the other person sewed the lining and the third just did all the running around like the steaming, tacking, buttons, etc. They worked as a team and that way, we could identify problems before delivery to the customer. Yes it was frustrating and a lot of hard work at first but after a while, things became much better.
So how can you as an aspiring designer get this system to work for you?! Simple!
- Get some basic formal or informal training in pattern making and garment construction so when you relate with your staff, they know you know your stuff.
- Do not rely on your tailor for everything. Get him/her to only your "cutting" and even the pinning. Of course you do your proper homework by giving him proper well labelled drawings and fabric swatches not just some sketches of just the front of your garments and expect him to know what is going on at the back. How would he know?!
- Get machinists who you have tested and trained to sew the seams together. Where you get stuck, call your tailor to explain it to you. That's what my staff did and I would explain the stuff over the phone to them simply because I created the patterns and they had detailed pictures to assist them. And you take it from there.
So in conclusion, I think we designers need a reality check and need to get over ourselves. We need to start doing the needful and relying less on our tailors and more importantly, we need to start changing our mindsets! Who says things always have to remain the same way even if they seem to be working for you much less when they are not?! There are always better ways to do things. This is how it is always done does not mean it is right especially if you have evidence of the contrary. It is simply a fallacy!
The truth is when you break up the whole process and everyone knows what they are meant to do then life will be easier and guess what?! Work eventually becomes faster and you can more easily allocate your costs and charge better for your garments!
Here's wishing you all the very best in the new week and hoping you do things differently!
I leave you with some pictures I took during my internship programme. Yes this was a huge factory but I'm hoping this will stir us up to create our own small CMTs and hopefully we will begin to run proper garment manufacturing outfits in this environment!
OH... PS! I have some machinists / joiners....looking for work. Had to go to the middle of Lagos Island to look for unemployed youths who have taken the time to learn a skill and find jobs for them in the industry in a bid to alleviate poverty and make life easier for designers as well. But guess what? The same designers who are complaining have refused to give these people a chance. But you know what?! Someday, it will make sense!
So if you are a designer and you share my position and require machinists, please contact me. I will also send the information out to members in the Designers Connect Network. Warning, you will pay a token finders fee to compensate me for the stress I went through going to the deepest parts of Lagos Island for 3 days, testing them to check their level of competence and leaving wayyyyy after sunset when it was already dark to root them out. Many thanks! :-D