Looking Good For Lots Less
The Business Of Clothing
By James F. Brown
Apr 25, 2009 - 11:25:24 AM

VARIOUS—In this column, we’ll continue with more about the manufacturing process in the clothing business.


Manufacturing of clothes is divided into three separate steps. Each step is performed by specialized industries that can be located anywhere on the planet. The end product of each industry is sent onward to another industry that may be on another continent.

First is spinning and weaving, where the threads used to weave fabric are made and then woven into fabric. For animal-derived fabrics, wool must be sheared, cleaned, and carded before it can be spun. Silk has to be unraveled from the cocoon as a single long fiber and cleaned. Plant fibers also require processing. Cotton bolls must be separated from seeds. This is called ginning. Linen and ramie fibers must be extracted from the stalks and cleaned. Synthetic fibers, from either cellulose (rayon, lyocell, acetate) or petrochemicals (nylon, polyester, acrylic) are simply the end result of the manufacturing process used to create them.


Once the threads are made, they’re woven into fabric. Today, spinning and weaving are highly mechanized and automated. Indeed, the Industrial Revolution began with mechanical looms in factories replacing cottage-based manual weaving. Fabric mills are enormous, capital-intensive operations, costing tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to construct and operate. The industrialized nations of the world still hold an advantage here.

The second manufacturing step is cutting fabric. Patterns are developed where many pieces of fabric are assembled and sewn into a completed garment. Again, this is a highly automated process where developed nations can compete. Computer-controlled knives or lasers cut many layers of fabric at one time. The individual fabric pieces are cut from the bolts of cloth in such a way as to minimize wastage and get the maximum number of pieces per bolt.


The third and final step in clothing manufacturing is assembling the cut pieces and sewing them together. This is where the cheap labor costs of the Third World have a huge advantage. And it doesn’t cost much to start up a sewing operation. Automation is non-existent. Mechanization is limited, with one person hunched over an industrial sewing machine running one garment at a time through it. It’s typically an assembly-line process; each person sews one particular part of a garment. After sewing, garments are inspected and packaged for shipment and delivery worldwide.

Third World
sweatshops with their low wages, brutal working conditions, and grueling pace of production are continually in the news. Adverse publicity has been a powerful tool of advocacy groups to pressure attire companies to improve wages and working conditions in their foreign subcontractors who perform the assembly and sewing of products.

We’ll continue with more about the business of clothing in the next column.


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