If you’re in the business of designing and manufacturing apparel, sourcing goods from China is a likely scenario; and knowing how to ensure accurate apparel inspections on orders fulfilled in China is the best way to guarantee quality products are delivered to your customer as well as to maintain a positive, long-term working relationship with your Chinese supplier.
Please note, a manufacturing inspection is not the same thing as a manufacturing audit—the difference is a matter of scale and perspective. An inspection generally looks at what has been done already, and its purpose is to determine whether or not the samples pass or fail quality control. Conversely, an audit looks beyond that by assessing systems, procedures, and protocol to reduce quality control issues from happening in the future.
Although both inspections and audits are essential considerations in ensuring quality control in the apparel manufacturing process, we focus here on inspections.
Unique Considerations in Apparel Quality Control
Because clothing is typically made by hand, and human error is inevitable, it’s essential to mitigate the flaws that occur. A high level of quality control is the best way to maintain acceptable standards of apparel manufacturing. This is accomplished by creating a comprehensive process of quality control inspections that should include the following:
- Dimensions of Tolerance
- Acceptance Quality Limit
- Inspection Levels
- On-site vs. Lab Testing
- Timing of Inspections
Setting clear parameters that allow for a slight margin of error on your garments at the onset of the production process provides all parties involved with specific measures that you, the Chinese factory, and the inspectors understand.
Dimensions of Tolerance
Depending on the kind of clothing, there are different standards of high and low tolerance for apparel. For example, a loose-fitting t-shirt can have a high tolerance for errors; while a fitted dress-shirt requires a more specific fit, and will have a lower tolerance.
InTouch Manufacturing Services notes, “Measuring dimensions is a critical aspect of quality control for garments. If an item of clothing doesn’t fit the end-consumer, they probably won’t buy it or will return it.” It’s important that you specify what the dimensions of tolerance are before your supplier begins production, and your professional inspector must be made aware of these dimensions as well. An inspector will use the dimensions of tolerance when it’s time to perform the inspections.
When assessing the garments, there are different types of on-site testing that your inspector can accomplish prior to receiving the completed order. In addition to testing the dimensions, these might include checking the raw materials, patterns, stitches-per-inch, and labeling.
Acceptance Quality Limit (AQL)
Since your expectations for apparel manufacturing should include some margin for error; it’s important to set this margin carefully, so that your sample size is representative of your Acceptance Quality Limit. AQL, according to QualityInspection.org, “…decides on the maximum number of defective units, beyond which a batch is rejected. Importers usually set different AQLs for critical, major, and minor defects.”
Essentially, this is where you determine the number of defects you think is acceptable in your market, or for your particular business. Just like with the dimensions for tolerance, setting this standard beforehand with your factory and your inspector is a sure way to keep the working relationship amicable in the event of production problems.
There are three kinds of defects: critical, major, and minor. Critical defects are those that can cause harm to the consumer. For apparel, this is almost never the case. Major and minor defects are more common in the apparel industry, and described as defects the consumer would have to think twice about before making a purchase.
An AQL table is provided by your inspector and will determine (based on your Inspection Level) the number of samples to test, and how many critical, major, and minor defects will be tolerated in the inspection to determine a pass or fail score.
This is why choosing the right AQL and Inspection Level is so critical. If you don’t test enough samples, you might miss a critical error. However, if you test too many, you’re likely wasting resources.
It’s impossible to inspect every garment that is manufactured. Random sampling is the most effective method for ensuing quality control of the apparel manufacturing process. Determining appropriate Inspection Levels is important—I, II or III—and may change over time depending on numerous circumstances.
Ninety percent of all inspections are a level II—it’s a baseline for samples of normal to good textile quality. At level I, the inspection level is decreased, and the sample size is smaller; at level III the inspection level increases, and the sample size is bigger.
Imagine that you’re confident in your manufacturer and have enjoyed a long working history; you might choose an inspection level of I. Similarly, if you’re unfamiliar with the factory and its work is less reputable, you might choose the level III.
There are also special levels of inspection, which can be determined by you and your inspector. This could be necessary for certain tests that require you to deconstruct or permanently disassemble the garment. These tests might be needed if a garment is expensive to produce.
On-Site vs. Laboratory Testing
Laboratory testing is another type of quality control. Unlike on-site testing, laboratory testing is done off-site and usually completed by a third party.
These tests typically cost more and take longer to complete. They provide detailed information about material composition, and would be most helpful in the event that you suspect your garments are not being made with the correct fabrics or materials.
Laboratory testing can identify issues that can’t be seen with the naked eye, so depending on the garment, this might be worth the resources at the beginning of the manufacturing process.
Timing of Inspections
The majority of all manufacturing inspections are performed just before the order ships out when the product is 80% complete. For some apparel items, this makes sense—the products have to be produced in order to test them, and importers are often looking for a final count and proper packaging in addition to quality control.
But be warned: at this point in production, there will be major delays in your order if something is wrong with the garments. This is why some importers choose to do their inspections at a different point in production, like during pre-production, to check up on raw materials and request changes if something unusual pops up. By leveraging a cloud-based apparel quality control tool, you can see in real time where issues arise.
Depending on your tolerance for risk, and your ability to mitigate other timely factors, picking the right time to do your inspection can save you time and money.
Your best bet is to get inspection data at the source before the factory completes production, and again after production is complete, usually for a final random inspection before shipping. This will ensure that you get the opportunity to catch potential errors, as well as follow up to ensure adjustments have been made.
Short of going to the Chinese factories yourself, to ensure quality control on apparel that’s produced more than an ocean away—check out Pivot88’s suite of Quality Control and Inspection Data gathering tools.
Knowing how to properly set up an apparel inspection is the first step toward achieving better quality control. Do you struggle with quality control issues in manufacturing apparel? If so, check out our case study on how we were able to help one International apparel brand improve quality, or contact us today.