September 18, 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

Party Scene: Fashion’s Night Out at Two Birds

San Francisco’s most dedicated fashion fans took to the streets on the evening of September 8th to enjoy an assortment of Fashion’s Night Out events happening throughout the city. At Two Birds in Noe Valley, independent designer Ali Golden showed her new fall line, local designers’ jewelry hung on the walls and labels such as Parker, Halston Heritage and Elizabeth & James beckoned from the racks.

Audrey of Two Birds in an Ali Golden dress that, amazingly enough, can be thrown in the wash and air-dried.

While many were downtown browsing through the offerings of Neiman Marcus, AllSaints, Gucci, Saks Fifth Avenue and others dotting Union Square and Maiden Lane, SF Indie Fashion partied it up at the Noe Valley shop, nestled on a quiet part of Castro street near the main 24th Street shopping drag. DJ Ry Toast kept the fun pumping on the ones and twos, spinning hip-hop classics intermixed with party anthems, while wine and bubbles were offered for refreshment.

Mika (left) of Lookaroo and Susanna of Two Birds mug for the cam in versatile wool coats in camel.

On display in the middle of the store was a rack featuring the Fall 2011 collection from local designer Ali Golden, who used to run the Bull & the Bear in Hayes Valley but recently headed for Oakland to set up a new studio. Royal blue, a smattering of polka dots, luxurious camel, pumpkin orange and other rich autumn hues composed the color palette. Flowing cropped blouses and voluminous sheer maxis were standouts, as were the oversized, one-size-fits-all wool coats. Sipping, sampling and a sale on Golden’s pieces made a good time for all.

The author wearing an oversized wool kimono sleeve coat by Ali Golden

Party-goers taking in the FNO atmosphere

DJ Ry Toast impresses us with her 'do, her earrings and her beats.

Fashion’s Night Out originated in New York, but the festivities have spread to other cities across the country in recent years. Prior years saw mostly mainstream stores participating, but this year a number of small boutiques featuring independent designers were on the FNO roster.

A pair of newspaper-covered birds adorn the checkout counter at Two Birds

No matter what your take on style, few would argue that San Francisco doggies are among the most fashionable in the world.

Photography courtesy of SF Indie Fashion (1, 2, 5) and Alexandra Naughton (all remaining images)

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