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International Trade

From farm to fashion: your clothing's journey

People in the United States go to great lengths to dress a certain way. From haunting boutiques to staking out a place in line at a chic sample sale, being a fashionista isn’t easy. However, if you look at the bigger picture the business of fashion becomes even more complex. Fashion starts in the same way as many consumable goods: with natural resources. Somewhere out in the world someone is growing plants that will eventually become fabrics that will be used in next season’s huge, must-have item of clothing. We are going to take a look at the entire process that makes fashion possible, from the farm to the design to sales racks.

The Fabric Journey

Let’s start at the beginning of our clothing’s long journey: the field. While not all items are made from cotton or natural textiles, many of the non-natural materials like polyester and rayon have fallen out of fashion just like the leisure suit that once made copious use of non-naturals. Non-natural fabrics just don’t seem to absorb water, or sweat, in the same manner as natural fabrics – this makes them rather unpleasant to wear. Natural fibers start off as a plant, for example, cotton or bamboo, or as fur on an animal, such as wool.

Cotton, one of the main fabrics used in making clothing, is also one the United States biggest exports. The US sends more than 10.5 million bales of cotton into the world each year, which is more than a third of the global cotton export. Cotton is grown throughout the southern part of the United States, and must be picked at a specific time before it spoils and then processed through a dryer and cotton gin. Finally, the clean cotton is packed into bales which are checked and classified by quality. These bales are then sent off to manufacturers both in the US and abroad.

Manufacturers in the United States produce eight billion yards of woven cotton and three billion yards of knit cotton each year. Some of these mills sell the fabrics as is, as “greige” products, while other mills finish (dye and clean) the cotton products themselves. Manufacturers use a variety of methods to get the wide array of cotton fabrics that we see every day, such as dyeing the cotton before it knit or woven into fabric, dyeing it after it has been processed, or even screen printing a design over and over on the yards of finished fabric.

Once the cotton is a finished fabric it is ready to be used in garment design. The same goes for other types of fabric.

The Design Process

As the cotton plants are soaking up sun and water and growing into fuzzy cotton producers, the human side of the fashion process is also busy at work. Fashion never stops – even as we are busy wearing the latest and greatest styles, designers are already thinking of the next season’s top sellers. Figuring out what the next big thing will be takes a lot of scanning taste making blogs and trend data bases. It’s not a coincidence that most of the big retailers have products that exude the same style as they are pulling from the same data, trying to determine what colors, shapes, and pieces are going to popular. While considering the trends, the company will also have to determine the best source for the material they wish to use taking into account both how the fabric wears and feels, as well as its cost.

Once the main designer for a company has identified the trends that they want to use in their collection, they begin to sketch or do basic draping on mannequins. If you’ve seen Project Runway, you’ve seen this part of the design process in action. Sometimes designers will make a surplus of designs, and then pick the items they think will sell best to be made into actual products that you can buy from the store. Smaller lines will only spend time and money on a few pieces and send all of them through to be made.

After the design is finished, the company will order a certain amount of the design to be manufactured. This is called a “cut ticket.” The cut ticket determines how much fabric needs to be ordered. A pattern grader is the person who will scale the design up and down in order to create specifications for different sizes of the design, these specifications are called “tech packs.” Because a lot of production happens overseas, easily translatable and understandable tech packs are vital for the proper manufacturer of the clothing items. Even with accurate tech packs, it is important for the brand to have quality control measures in place – either with a technology that tracks the garment making process, or, even better, a real live human.

Garments that are made outside of the US will journey into the country via air or sea, and end up in a company warehouse where they are packed according to the buyers’ specifications and sent off to individual retail stores. The picking and packing process can be time consuming, as the items must unpacked, the pieces’ barcodes must be scanned, and then finally repacked as shipments for each store. Time is of the essence, as the season is only so long and once something is out of fashion it is likely to languish on the racks until it becomes a clearance item.

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