September 15, 2014

How Clothes Are Made: An Inside Look at Garment Manufacturing in SOMA

A partial view of the factory

Garment manufacturing is quietly thriving in San Francisco, thanks to a plethora of local designers producing handmade clothing here in small batches and independent companies like SJ Manufacturing. “SJ” stands for Seymour Jaron, the president of SJ Manufacturing, whose 55+ years of experience in the garment industry have granted him living legend status in his field. We recently went inside the SJ headquarters, located in a South of Market warehouse full of local start-ups and sewing machines, to find out how clothes are made in San Francisco.

When most people think of America’s fashion epicenters, either New York City or Los Angeles comes to mind, but San Francisco is currently experiencing a mini-manufacturing renaissance that’s worth noticing. In many ways, the rise in local manufacturing makes sense: San Francisco has both design talent and a long history in the apparel industry forged by household names such as Levi’s, Dockers and Gap.

Cutting the fabric according to the paper pattern

It’s more expensive to produce clothing in S.F., especially in large batches, largely because the minimum wage is higher here than in New York or Los Angeles. It’s even cheaper to manufacture a clothing line in China (though usually impractical for small companies unless the quantities are in the thousands), but more and more designers are deciding to produce locally, for reasons ranging from quality control to civic pride. So the thinking goes: when you build a relationship with the people producing your garments and actually see them being made, the process becomes more personal.

For many start-up designers needing small batches, the San Francisco garment manufacturing scene is just the right fit. In recent years, SJ has worked with numerous emerging Bay Area apparel labels, including Chi Wear, Hip-T, Alphyn Industries and Janine Marie Handbags & Accessories.

Hong Ning, SJ's Production Manager, working on an iPhone pocket in an Alphyn Industries garment

SJ specializes in sample making and small to medium runs, which range from as few 50 pieces and up to 1,000 pieces in a production. Hong Ning, SJ’s Production Manager, uses her over 40 years of experience to create the sample, as sample making requires a higher level of expertise to resolve any problems within the garment and find the best method for mass manufacturing.

Designers who are ready to manufacture come to SJ with sample garments and paper patterns (if they have them). Once the pattern is set, SJ will make a duplicate sample for approval.

With the approved sample, the pattern is then graded, or scaled into various sizes, and becomes ready for manufacturing.

After the pattern has been graded, a process that involves software, and printed onto paper in different sizes, fabric is stacked on a cutting table and cut into the necessary shapes and sizes. At this point, some pieces of the unfinished garment may be sent out for embroidery or printing before assembly.

The assembly process requires various machines specific to each task at hand– there is a machine for bar tacking, a machine for sewing buttonholes, a machine for lock stitches, just to name a few. The finishing touch? The labels. In order for a garment to be produced and sold legally in the United States, the designer must provide a label describing the fabric composition and care instructions.

Next stop: a store near you and – many designers hope – ultimately your closet.

Photography courtesy of Alexandra Naughton

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Alexandra is a San Francisco writer with a passion for style and creativity. You can find her on Twitter @theTsaritsa