Tuesday, December 01, 2009

made in New York

I've been spending some time in the garment district over the past few weeks (an interesting project I'm working on--I'll tell you more about it sometime), and just outside the window of the room where I've been working, in the next building, is a real working cutting room! Since small-scale manufacturing like this is getting more and difficult to find in the U.S., I thought you might like to take a peek (literally) at how it works. To give you a better sense of what you're seeing, the stripe of white you can see in many of these photos is the fluorescent light that is mounted above the tables:

This cutting room has two giant tables--each at least 40 feet long! First the fabric is laid out. A special fabric roller is used to spread fabric across the table evenly:

The fabric prep guys always work in tandem. Here you can see them feeding a layer of fabric across the table:

Here you can get a sense of how long it is. And this is just a small portion of the table!

After a layer of fabric has been spread, the fabric is weighted and cut at the end and a second layer is laid over the first layer, going the opposite direction. Multiple layers are added in this manner, and on the day I took these photos the workers were switching fabric colors every few layers so they could cut smaller quantities of each colorway in an efficient manner.

Once the layers of fabric are weighted and cut, the marker is spread across the fabric

and the marker is stapled to the fabric layers. A marker is the garment pattern itself, each piece positioned as closely to the others as possible to minimize fabric waste. Multiple sizes are cut at the same time, which is why the tables need to be so long!

Then it's time for the cutters to get to work. This, to me, is the most fascinating part of the job. These guys are so good at what they do--and they're incredibly fast! Their blades are completely hand operated but are powered by electricity. The motors sit on a small platform that is manipulated so dexterously it actually looks easy to do, but I promise this isn't nearly as simple as operating the simple rotary cutters many of us use at home when we sew.

I wouldn't want that to be my left hand located that close to the cutter...

When all the cutting is finished, the pattern pieces are stacked and ready for sewing.

If you look at these pieces sitting on the table, you can get a sense of the number of fabric layers that are cut at one time, just from seeing the thickness of the pieces:

Pretty impressive, yes? The garments are assembled elsewhere in the building, but that part of the manufacturing process wasn't really visible from my location.

If I have time one of these days, maybe I'll pay a visit to one of the sample rooms where I once worked. You might enjoy seeing how a sample room operates before they become extinct, too.


  1. I've seen this in person too! There is a small, very run down fabric warehouse in the middle of nowhere PA that sells their 'seconds' on occasion and I happened to stop in while they were cutting out little ballerina outfits to be shipped to Philly and sewn up. Those knives cut like butter!

  2. That is very interesting! Thanks for sharing that slice of life.

  3. Anonymous5:01 PM

    Fascinating! I saw a bit of this process in the recently aired documentary "Schmatta". Did you see it? Thanks so much for sharing!

  4. That is so totally cool. I loved peeking in. I wish I could have a cutting tool like that.

  5. So interesting My mother designed women's sportswear and I would tag along on my days off from school so I got to see a lot of the process. I've never really reflected on what a unique experience that was.

  6. Anonymous7:43 AM

    I really appreciate that you took the time to share this.