why your brand needs a quality assurance plan
Ok brands, I hear you. You all want to make your clothing the best quality ever. You want them to be able to last for years and maybe even be passed down from generation to generation. But, how do you actually make that a reality? A lot of brands claim they offer top quality - but do they really? The secret- is having a good garment quality control procedures in place. This is often a step most forgotten about by new fashion designers because tbh it is the least fun or glamorous. But, I would argue it is the most important in creating a high-quality product. So, here is a reference, as always for free, of everything you need to check, test, and assure, in order to create the best product ever, complete with a garment quality control checklist to make things easy.
Does Ethically or Sustainably Made mean quality?
There are so many aspects of quality assurance. But, let's get one thing straight, quality assurance has nothing to do with ethical, sustainable, or fair trade. Quality is a totally different category on its own. To say, my clothes are made by artisans so they must be good quality is like saying, someone at McDonald's took the time to flip my hamburger, so it's healthy… it's incorrect, and the logic doesn't make sense.
When to test your product for quality
There are two key times to test your product for quality. They are during the product development and sampling stage. And, actively during production. This post is going to break down both.
Why is quality assurance necessary during product development?
A lot of brand's first reaction to creating a garment quality assurance checklist during the sampling phase is, "if my customer is never going to see this sample, then why does it even matter?" or "I only need the sample to look good for a trade show, why do we need test performance now also?". The problem is they aren't thinking holistically.
The goal at the end of the product development is to have one absolutely perfect sample. And when I say perfect I mean perfect. That sample will then be the gold standard of all of your production. Every piece of production will copy that single sample exactly, to a T.
So, skipping ahead for a moment, when following the quality assurance process, everything that is tested for and verified during product development and sampling will need to be tested for and verified again during production. Production is basically a carbon copy x1000 of your sample.
Don't make this sampling mistake
Production should be as simple as repeating the sampling process but at scale. Where a lot of small brands get into trouble is when they sample their line with a sampling house in NYC, LA, or somewhere in North America, and then try to send it overseas to places like India and China for better pricing during production. If you take anything away from this article, take away this… Where ever you sample is where you should produce. This is the ONLY way to guarantee quality in your production run.
Think of sampling like your dress rehearsal. It's a time to work out all the kinks and get everything just right. If you don't give a factory the opportunity to practice, and just jump straight into production, well you are in for a world of problems.
Sometimes factories will say, we will fix that in production. This is kind of like the equivalent of film people saying we will fix that in post. Nope. They won't, and if they do it is probably going to cost you more $$$. Make sure to get a sample of exactly what you want before you go into production.
So, how do you get a perfect sample?
The short answer is good product development. But what is good production development? Well, it requires a lot of testing and checking during the sampling phase.
In my opinion, sampling is the most important part of ensuring quality during the design process. It is the foundation of creating a product. So, how do you get the perfect sample? There are three things to look at:
- professional third party fabric testing
- professional third party garment testing
- visible testing that you can DIY
What is professional third-party testing?
These tests need to be done by a professional testing lab. Science. One of the biggest and most famous testing facilities in the apparel industry is Bureau Veritas. You can also try vartest and intertek.
step 1, have the fabric tested professionally
When sourcing fabric, ask for a test report. Big brands will regularly test up to 10 different things, or more, just for fabrics alone - color fastness, crocking, tear strength, skew, bowing, burst testing, abrasion resistance, yarn count, and those are just a few of the obvious ones. Fabric testing is always done before a garment is cut and sewn because the test reports are a clue as to how a fabric will behave in different situations.
But, what do all these tests even mean?
Tests for how well a piece of fabric keeps its color and does not fade over time. There are different types of colorfastness tests- like for UV light, washing, or even chlorine for swimwear. At the very minimum, you want to make sure your clothes keep their color after they go through one cycle in the washing machine. And, this is the absolute bare minimum. This test, like many tests that are subjective and require the eye of a trained professional, is usually scored on a 5 point scale with 5 being the color sticks to 1 it totally fades away.
Is a special type of color fast testing. It tests if a color can rub or transfer to another piece of fabric off with friction.
This is the force needed to tear a piece of fabric that already has a small rip in it. Why is this important? Well if someone gets a small rip in their clothes, will they be sturdy enough so the whole piece of fabric does not unravel?
Refers to woven fabrics only. In a woven fabric the warp and weft yarns should be at 90-degree angles to one another. Skew is when the yarns are at a different angle. Another term for this is off-grain. It can cause problems like garment twisting, so watch out for this.
You can do skew testing on your own and do not need to pay a company to do it for you. Simply rip a piece of fabric width-wise. Does the fabric have a straight rip? If so you are good. But if the rip is angled, especially if the angle is more than 20 or so degrees you might have problems with your garment.
Is kind of related to skew, but for knit fabrics. You can test for bowing in knit fabric the same way that skew is tested for in wovens. Tear the fabric and see what happens. If the fabric looks like a U shape, this is not a good sign. But, remember there will always be a little bit of curve in the fabric, you just don't want too much.
Is kind of similar to tear strength, but a little different. It measures how much force it takes to, as the name suggests, burst through a piece of fabric. This is an important measure of performance clothing or exercise clothing. For example, you don't want to burst through your gym shorts while doing squats at the gym.
Is basically a test that rubs the fabric to see how well it holds up or if it wears down. Again, if you are making performance clothing this is extra important, you want a fabric with a good abrasion resistance that won't break down from a lot of movement.
Do you need to test for everything?
No. That's way too expensive for most brands. If you had to pick only one thing to test for, in my opinion, shrinkage is the most important test. If your fabric shrinks 30% during washing you are going to end up with A LOT of returns that will need to be resold as doll clothes. To prevent this, you will need to make sure the fabric is pre-shrunk.
Little checks like this make a big difference to the quality of your product and your companies bottom line. So, always ask for a test report.
I bet a lot of you reading this didn't realize that clothing design was so technical and scientific. Well, it is. And there is even more sciency stuff ahead. Did you know that there are garment industry jobs that only focus on quality? And some large companies have entire quality control departments that are in charge of all this stuff.
step 2, have the garment tested professionally
So, you tested your fabric. And, it's perfect. Next, we need to make a sample with it. And then, test the sample. Common garment tests are seam strength, seam slippage, and how well trims stay on and don't fall off, which is done with a pull test.
This refers to how much pressure can be put on a seam before it breaks.
Tests if the yarns in a fabric will slip and slide when sewn. This is most often seen in silks. The fibers are so slippery and the threads so fine, when the garment is sewn the fabric starts to pull and separate apart at the seams.
And lastly, pull testing
Tests how much strength is needed to rip off trims, because you don't want things like buttons falling off too easily.
Alllll the tests...
There are soooo many different types of tests. Literally, there are so many tests that they don't all fit into one book - they take up volumes of books. If you want to learn about every test check out the AATCC, American Association of Textile Colorists and Chemists, to learn more.
One more product testing tip
Remember, pick tests that are relevant to the integrity of the product you are making. For example, if you are making winter coats, well then you probably don't need to test for colorfastness in chlorine. But, you might definitely want to test for waterproofing or wind repellency.
step 3, visual inspection
After you have professional tested all the fabrics, and then the garment, and everything passes. Then, it's time to take a critical eye to the sample.
All of these tests can be done by you or the garments factory to ensure industry quality.
The following industry garment quality control checklist is everything you can inspect yourself.
dyeing and printing
- Uneven color in the fabric between different components or parts of the garment. Do the sleeves match the body? Sometimes if the fabric is cut from different parts of the roll there will be variance in color. You want to make sure that all the pieces of your garment match to one another.
- Fading or discoloration. Grab your color standard. Your color standard is the color you should have chosen for the fabric mill to match to. Pantone is the most famous color standardization system in the world. And then, make sure that the fabric matches the standard.
- Prints that are out of register or defective. If your garment has prints make sure everything is all lined up. Off register is an industry term that means the different colors of the print are not in alignment. For example, if you have a pink heart with a grey border. In the first photo the print is correct, the second shows the print off register. This happens because each color of a print is put on the fabric separately. And, sometimes the placement on one screen is a little off, and that can create big problems for you.
Check out this video to see how all the different layers of a print come together.
And, here are all the screens that need to be cut to make that one print. Each slid is for a different color ink.
miscellaneous fabric defects
- Holes and broken fabric yarns. Because no one wants to buy clothing that looks like it has been eaten by moths. Unless I guess that look is intentional.
- Weakness that could lead to a hole. Does it fell like the fabric is a little worn or thin in spots, or maybe there are some missing yarns in the fabric? This is a defect.
- Snagged yarns. Another culprit that can lead to a hole in a garment. Make sure no yarns are sticking out of the fabric, because they could lead to problems down the line.
- Machine lines. Sometimes sewing machines can leave lines in fabrics if the foot of the sewing machine (the little piece that holds the fabric down in place for the needle) is too tight.
- Foreign materials on the fabric. Factories are dirty, so make sure there is no dirt, dust, or stray materials on the fabric.
- The correct side of the fabric is used. This is a common mistake in factories. They will use the technical back of the fabric instead of the face for the outside. If you forgot how to tell the difference between the front and back of fabric here is a refresher.
- Nap direction. This is for fabrics like corduroy or velvet. Make sure on the garment the fuzziness is all facing in the same direction.
- Hem or hidden stitch visible. There are sewing techniques, like french seams, that keep seams hidden. If you are using them, make sure your seams are actually hidden.
- Contrast stitching uneven. Sometimes designers will use a pop of color to sew the seams of a garment to add contrast. If you are doing this it becomes even more important that the seams are straight and even, because if they are not it will really stand out.
- Broken stitches. Watch out for these because they will cause your seams to unravel.
- Tension not correct or uniform. Often sewers in sewing lines will play with the tension on their machines to try and sew faster (this is because they are usually paid by the piece they sew, and not by the hour). If the seams feel tight, like they are pulling on the fabric, or if they are loose and saggy, the garment is now sewn properly.
- Check for a monofilament thread. Generally, unless called for in the tech pack, seams are sewn with poly or other monofilament threads. Staple length thread will tend to lead to issues during prolonged wear.
- Skipped stitches. Make sure the stitching is uniform and consistent.
- Needle damage. This is especially important when working with silks or other delicate fabrics. Silks actually require a special needle to prevent needle damage. Look for holes and gaps around the stitches and seams.
- Seam puckering. This is when the seam gets all wavy, and is a telltale sign of hasty and careless sewing.
- Correct stitches. Did you ask for a flatfeld seam and instead the factory gave you serging? Call this out, and reject the sample.
- Correct SPI (stitches per inch). Stitches per inch measure how many stitches are in one inch of the seam. Sewers will often decrease SPI to sew faster. Don't let the quality of your product be compromised because sewers are trying to finish the work faster.
- Side seams match. This is important if you have a print like a stripe or a plaid. Do the stripes line up? Are they going in the same directions?
- Engineered print placement is correct. Engineered print placement means the print on the fabric falls on a specific part of the garment. If there is a logo that is supposed to be in the middle of the shirt, make sure it's in the middle and not off to one side, too high, or too low.
- Oil, dirt, spots. This one is an obvious no-n. And, considered garment defects.
- Rings from noticeable cleaning. Sometimes when factories try to get out stains they end up making the fabric a little too clean, and you are left with spots from the cleaning agent. Look out for these too.
- Curled, puckering, twisting, etc. Here are a few photos of what to look out for and reject.
- Open seams. This means that they forgot to sew a seam. It's an easy fix, and the garment just needs to go back into the sewing line and have the missing seam sewn.
- Grinning seams. In the industry when something shows through from the back to the front that is not supposed to it is called grin through. An example would be a black print on a white shirt. If the white fabric shows through the print, that is grin through. The same goes for seams. Can you see the stitching from the inside of the garment on the outside?
- Uneven seam margins. Are some seams 1/2 inch from the edge of the garment, some 1" and other 3/4"? All seams should be uniform, unless the tech pack calls for variation.
- Wrong direction of seam. Are there seams on the outside instead of the inside of the garment?
Thank you Textile Merchandising for this amazing reference photo to explain the perfect seam, and demonstrate seam puckering on too tight seams.
- Buttonholes are within specs/tolerances. Sometimes factories will make the buttons holes a little too small, and you can't get the button through, or a little too big so the buttons fall out of the hole. Check them to make sure they are just the right size for the buttons you are using.
- Buttons or snaps in alignment. This is an obvious one. Button or snap up the shirt. Does the shirt start to twist or skew? The holes and buttons might not be in alignment.
- Securely sewn. You don't want your button falling off, or your zipper sliding down.
- Speaking of zippers, exposed zippers. If the garment calls for a hidden zipper, like the back of a women's dress, make sure the zipper is hidden and not visible from the outside.
- Wavy zippers. Do the zippers wave? This is a sign of poor quality.
- Logo right side up. This might sound obvious. But, so many times I have seen factories sew in labels and logos upside down or in the wrong direction. Make sure to check for this.
- Color matching. Are you making a navy shirt that calls for matching buttons, but the button are instead royal blue? Make sure all the trims like buttons, zippers, and threads match to the Pantone color you want.
- Even in size shape and location. In cheap clothes, you can see that sometimes pockets in shirts are not in alignment. One is a little higher than the other. Make sure everything is even.
- The shape of the pocket flap. Another hasty mistake, if the pocket has a flap make sure it is sewn well. For whatever reason, this is one of most factories favorite spots to skimp on quality. I think because they think no one will notice… but we will.
- Pleats or puckering. Again, are the seams wavy? Are there folds of fabric stuck in the seams of the pocket that creates a pleat?
- Color/print matching. Does the pocket fabric match in color and print direction to the rest of the garment?
- Labels are correct. Make sure the care instructions (how to wash the clothing), made in, fiber content, and all other details listed on labels is correct.
- Position of labels is correct. Were the labels sewn into the correct spot? You want to make sure labels are in places where they won't annoy the wearer.
- Labels do not have defects. Check the labels for holes, stains, or other imperfections.
- Labels are readable. Sometimes when labels are sewn into seams the factory will be careless and sew over what is written on them. Make sure all your text and entire logo is visible.
- The application did not cause damage to the garment. Like sewing marks, ironing marks, adhesive, etc. One of the most common issues here is that the tags are sewn on and the sewing thread shows through to the front of the garment. Check to make sure the sewing is not visible.
- Wrinkly garments? If they are they need steaming and ironing.
- Garments are not damp. If the garments are still damp from steaming and the factory packs them like this, it can cause mold to grow during transit and ruin the entire garment.
- Correct pressing, ie direction of pleats. Make sure all the pleats in a garment are facing the correct direction.
- Marks from sewing or clamps. Sometimes clamps hold the fabric in place during the cut and sew process, make sure there are not visible indentations.
- Check for iron burns. Great, so the garment isn't wrinkly, but make sure they factory did not burn the fabric in the process.
threads and yarns
- Loose threads. Little pieces of stray threads. These should be cut off and removed during the last quality assurance check.
- Wrong thread color, size, type. Make sure the factory is using the correct threads.
- Threads match. Does you tech pack call for DTM (dye to match) threads? If it does make sure they match the fabric.
measurements and construction
- The garment is symmetrical. Look out for one sleeve longer than the other, or other defects like the neckline not being even.
- Front and back are even. This one is self-explanatory.
- Garments sleeves and legs are not twisting. The garment should not twist or distort while on a hanger.
- The garment measures to all of the sample size specification on the tech pack. That means that the fit and all the lengths of sleeves, waistbands, etc are correct.
mends, repairs, and damage from fixes
Sometimes the factory will try and fix their mistakes, make sure they don't create even more problems while doing this.
- Excess threads on the inside of the garment. These need to be cut off during quality product inspection.
- Loose threads from repairs. Did they repair the issue well? Is it going to last? Or, fall apart?
- Obvious repairs. Unless the design calls for sashiko (ps, if you are into DIY mending check out this awesome kit!), the repairs should be discrete and nonvisible.
- Stitching is noticeably different. Did they use a totally different yarn to correct the sewing mistake? This is a no go.
Does your sample pass ALL of that?
That's everything you should be looking out for when you get your first product development sample back. I know, it's a lot. Most people don't realize there are so many little things to pay attention to in order to assure product quality. But, I hope these garments quality control procedures will help make it a little easier for you.
Once your sampling is perfect, then, and only then is it time to place your production order.
How to ensure your product quality is maintained in production
To take your season from development and sampling to production should be easy once you have the perfect sample.
production Fabric quality assurance
During sampling, a test report from the mill is fine. But during production you are going to want to third party test the fabric yourself to ensure what they promised is what you got. During production, random cuttings of fabric are taken from random rolls and sent for product-specific testing. Once the testing comes back with an all ok, everything passed, then and only then can the fabric be cut and made into garments. Again, the most important thing to check for here is shrinkage, because no one wants clothes for their cat coming out of the washing machine.
turning that perfect sample into production
Again, you want your finished product sample for the factory to copy to be absolutely perfect, down to each and every stitch so copying it for production is easy. I can't say this enough. The same garment quality control checklist we made for product development should be used by the factories quality assurance team to ensure your production comes out just as perfect.
All of the real heavy lifting gets done during product development. That is where you work everything out. Production should be as easy and pressing control alt c and control alt v.
Why is the garment quality control checklist so important?
You don't have to use this exact list I made for you. you can also make your own. The important thing is that everything you are checking you write down in one list.
With one list to follow everything is right there and easy to follow. It also allows for a built-in control system so nothing ships that is not perfect.
During production, the factory will go through the same garment inspection outlined above for every single piece. If it does not pass it does not ship. By having a clear checklist no details slip through the cracks.
Other quality assurance tips
It is necessary to regularly audit the factory. This means checks in on them and make sure they are following procedure and process. This can be difficult for a lot of small brands. That is why a lot of businesses hire someone like virtue + vice for project management - to be their eyes on the ground, and take on some of the responsibilities of managing the garments manufacturing process.
shipment quality inspection
As an added layer of protection, have a final shipment inspection. This comes even after your final inspection at the factory. During a shipment inspection, random pieces are pulled out of the shipping crates to check and ensure for quality. This is usually done by a third party, and not the factory. The last thing a new brand needs to pay for shipping costs, only to discover their product is all wrong when it lands 1/2 way across the world.
Work with your supply chain partners to help them understand your level of quality control. And, remember garment quality control procedures are a learning process. Your first sample is not going to come out perfect. There will be lots of call-outs and things to fix. But, as long as you and your supply partner are learning and growing together, you are one your way to a high-quality product.
I hope these insider garment manufacturing tips help, and you use the garment quality control checklist to help you create the best product possible. Leave your comments and questions below!