You’ve put forth so much time, energy, and focus into capturing the design you want. Labored over colors, prints, manufacturers, and suppliers. One of the most exciting parts of the process is seeing your samples. We often refer to them as our “babies” in the industry. There is a good amount of labor and love that goes into getting that sample and by the end of the fit and development process, you will have a whole army of samples.
The fit and development process can be much more extensive and expensive than you think. Knowing the process ahead of time and what to expect can help take some of the surprise factors out of the process. We are looking at the different types of samples you can expect during the development process, what is needed to create a viable sample for each step, and who should be making your samples.
What are the different types of samples you can expect during the development process?
You might be surprised to learn that you will be looking at a small army of samples of your design before you even make it to the manufacturing stage. Each sample type has its purpose and a different set of needs. There are Proto Samples, SMS Samples, Fit Samples, Graded Run Samples, PP Samples, and TOP Samples and you may need multiple samples for each sample type.
Proto & SMS Samples
These are often the first visuals you will receive of your design. Samples at this stage are also unrefined so don’t be discouraged if your first sample isn’t all that you dreamed of when you set off to be a fashion designer. The development process is in place to help refine and work all the bugs out. Proto Samples and SMS Samples (salesman samples) are not usually meant to be put on body. They are visual representation only. For this reason, they do not need to be in the final fabric you will be using for production.
The difference between proto samples and an SMS sample is minor. Proto samples are for your visual-only while SMS samples are meant to be shown to others for sales purposes. Proto samples might have green as the body color and purple for the trims, an unintentional color combination. You should look at it and decide if you like the overall silhouette and the visual of the stitches being used. An SMS sample might need to look better. It might not be in the chosen Pantones you had carefully selected but it might at least be all a single color. SMS samples are often garment dyed so you get an overall color look but maybe the trims are a light gray while the body is darker.
The important thing to keep in mind is to know your target audience for SMS samples. If your buyer or investor has been in the industry and are the more creative type they might be able to imagine what the final sample will look like despite any flaws. If you are going to be showing these samples to a more business-minded person, they may take your samples very literally. If this is the case, you might have to wait until a sample has gone through the full development process, is with correct fabric and trims, and lab dips and prints have already been approved before showing them anything. The risk is higher the later in the development process you are. If you show the buyer or investor a sample at a late stage in the development you could have already invested a lot of time and money and they may not need it for the upcoming season.
The fit process is often the most surprising part of the development for new fashion entrepreneurs. On average, you should expect to go through at least three rounds of fit samples in your base size per style. The base size is your initial fit size. Size small has been the industry standard for womenswear and size medium for menswear but the base size can be whatever size you need it to be. You have to keep in mind that you will need to find or hire a fit model that is representative of your base size. It is not always appropriate to use yourself as the fit model as your opinion is the most important and you will not be able to see the garment in its entirety if it is on your body.
For each round of fit samples you will need to put the sample on a fit model, evaluate, go over all measurements and send comments back to your manufacturer, pattern maker, designer, or sewist for corrections. It can often take a month for each round of fit samples to be sent. The fit process can often take up the most time in the development cycle.
The number of fit samples you will need could be more or less depending on how fitted your styles are. At Music City Fashion Design, we use 3D technology to animate the pattern so you can see what your style will look like before moving forward with a sample. We have found this to reduce at least one sample from the fit sample rounds but it doesn’t eliminate the process entirely.
Fabric & Trims
Fit samples need to be created in the same fabric you are intending to use for production or an identical quality. If your fabric quality changes during the fitting process you may have to start the process over completely. The point of the print process is to perfect the pattern to that particular fabric quality.
It is also ideal to have final trims for your fit samples if they are functional such as elastics. A nonfunctional trim, such as a patch, does not need to be present necessarily. Griege, undyed fabrics can be used for fit samples since the visual is not important at this stage but you do want to avoid fitting with black or dark fabrics. The heavy pigmentation in the dyeing process can make a black garment fit slightly tighter than white or light fabric.
Another thing to keep in mind is that if you are offering an extensive size range you may need to fit two sizes at the same time to make sure that you are making fit adjustments that are appropriate for both. One of our designers worked at Soma, for instance, that has an extensive size range from a 32A to a 46I. They fit on a size 34C and a 40G at the same time before moving forward with the graded run. If you are planning on carrying regular and plus sizes, it is likely that you will be using some different components for your plus range than your regular. This makes fitting two sizes at your base that much more important.
Graded Run & Wear Test Samples
Once the base size (or sizes) are approved, you will move forward with your graded samples. This is to test the grading of your style and make sure it is working well for your smaller and larger sizes. If you have an extensive size range, you might not receive every size but you can select a sprinkling of sizes to test before moving forward with production.
This is also a great time to run a Wear Test. Wear test samples are the same as a graded size run except you will be sending them out to volunteers to wear, wash, and test as much as possible in a week or two. This is advantageous if your styles are incorporating any type of technology that needs to be reviewed or if your garment has a very tailored fit, such as with lingerie. You want to get as much feedback about the product as you can to correct anything outstanding that you might not have seen during the fit process.
Another advantage that a wear trial will have is that it gives you the feedback you can use right away in your marketing. Good or bad, people pay attention to reviews and hearsay. If you are a new brand, authentic reviews can be a great way to earn your customer’s trust.
If you’re looking for more tips on how to get started building a fashion brand check our our Top Ten Items to Research list below!
PP or Pre-Production samples are samples sent for final review with all fit corrections made. It must be in the correct fabric and trims. This is the sample you will potentially use during quality control and must represent the final style in its entirety; down to the last stitch.
TOP or Top of Production samples is theoretically the very first sample that comes from the manufacturer using the same machines and labor hands that will produce your product in a few short weeks. Previously, your samples were likely made by only one person in a sample room. In a production setting, you will have a team of people sewing your garment and each will be in charge of a different step and operation. This sample is representative of this final lineup.
Now, the idea of getting a TOP sample is that the manufacturer will set up the machinery in the most efficient manner, have all of the labor hands ready and sew the one TOP sample that is then sent to you and they await your final approval before moving forward with production. I’m not sure if the fashion industry ever really operated as such but it is definitely not a reality today. If you are receiving that TOP sample then production is likely almost done or completely finished. This is mostly because it would be extremely inefficient for a manufacturer to set up a whole room of machinery and not have it being used. They cannot afford to wait for your final approval at this stage.
Any issues you might see at the TOP stage can be vexing as this is most likely what you will be getting in your production. A lot of brands will ask to receive one TOP sample for each style, color, and print. If you have an extensive color palette, this could add up to a lot of samples quickly!
Combining Sample Types
Creating a sample can be expensive. You are paying for fabric, trims, and the labor to have it sewn each time. It also takes up a lot of time as it can take up to a month for an overseas manufacturer to send samples. This is why most brands will combine sample types where they can. Combining a Proto and SMS sample for instance is easily done. Most brands even use the proto as the first-fit sample. Keep in mind all of the different needs that each sample type requires. If you combine the SMS and fit sample then the samples must be correct both visually and using correct fabrics and trims.
You will need to go with the flow a bit when it comes to sampling combinations as you can’t always count on it. You may plan to combine the PP and TOP samples for instance. But if the sample comes in incorrectly or you want to make another tweak, you may have lost your chance to make any changes since the manufacturer has likely moved forward with the whole production.
Who Should Make your Samples
It is possible to work with a seamstress to create your samples and move them through the development process and then hand them off to your manufacturer. It’s possible and can sometimes be less expensive. However, it is always best to move through the sampling process with your manufacturer. Your sewist is likely using a home sewing machine which will have a very different finish than the industrial machines your manufacturer will be using. Even if your seamstress has industrial machines, they are likely not the same ones that your manufacturer will use.
The point is, we would hate to see you put so much effort and time into developing the sample with a sewist that is not the end manufacturer only to have to repeat some steps of the process or start over completely once you get to your manufacturer.
We hope you feel more confident about the sampling process. Drop us a comment or question below if you are uncertain about anything. We would love to have someone from our team answer any outstanding questions you may have.
We will be writing a separate blog about the sample commenting process and everything you need to know so you can give the best feedback and get the results you need to shorten your development timeline.