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Apparel Industry Job Descriptions, Careers in the Apparel Industry, Salary, Employment

Definition and Nature of the Industry, Education and Training Requirements, Getting the Job

The apparel industry makes clothing and related products, including men's, women's, and children's outerwear, underwear, sleepwear, bathing suits, hats, hosiery, furs, and many other items. In 2004 nearly 41 percent of the approximately 701,000 people employed in the industry helped to produce wearing apparel. The others were involved in the production of articles such as bed and table linens, curtains, tents, and other goods made from cloth.

The apparel industry consists of many small firms and a few large companies. Most firms employ fewer than twenty workers. New York City, once the United States' chief garment center, remains important, but many firms are now in the South and in large cities in other parts of the country. Some firms specialize in making one kind of clothing, such as inexpensive sports shirts or expensive evening dresses. Other firms specialize in one part of the manufacturing process, such as cutting fabric or sewing garments together.

Like most industries, the apparel industry employs office, sales, managerial, and maintenance workers. It also employs many workers unique to clothing manufacturing, such as fashion designers, patternmakers, cutters, sewing machine operators, and finish pressers.

Fashion designers, or clothing designers, create new styles of clothing or update existing styles. They may sketch a design on paper or work directly with fabric. Designers must understand the entire production process and the costs involved in making each kind of garment. Large manufacturers sometimes employ several designers. By contrast, small firms often purchase ready-made patterns or designs or simply copy designs.

Once the original design has been created and made into an experimental garment, sample makers follow it closely as they prepare a sample garment, which must be approved by the company's managers. After a design has been approved, patternmakers study the sample garment and prepare a pattern for each

The apparel industry employs a wide variety of workers unique to clothing manufacturing, such as fashion designers, pattern makers, cutters, sewing machine operators, and finish pressers. (© Sie Productions/zefa/Corbis.)

section of the garment. Pattern graders then adjust each section of the pattern to fit the various sizes in which the garment will be made. Many large firms use computers to help or complete this step.

After the patterns are completed, work begins in the cutting room. Here, several kinds of workers prepare cloth for sewing. First, bolts of cloth are laid out on the cutting room tables in the exact lengths needed. This is done by hand spreaders or, more often, by machine spreaders who use machines to lay the cloth out evenly. The cloth is piled layer on layer, sometimes reaching a thickness of nine inches, depending on the kind of cloth. Markers use chalk or carbon paper to trace the outlines of the pattern pieces on the top layer of cloth. Cutters then follow these outlines as they slice through the stack of cloth using an electrically powered knife. Today, this process is often completed by a computer-controlled cutting machine, which may use a laser instead of a knife. After the cloth has been cut, assemblers (also called bundlers or fitters) collect all the cut pieces for each individual garment into one bundle. They include the linings, tapes, trims, and other accessories needed to complete the garment. Each bundle is marked with an identifying ticket and routed to the sewing room.

Several kinds of workers are employed in the sewing rooms of apparel manufacturers. Sewing machine operators—the largest group of workers in the industry—operate special heavy-duty industrial sewing machines. Sewing machine operators usually specialize in one sewing operation, such as hemming blouses, setting in sleeves, making collars, or stitching the completed section together. Some kinds of clothing need hand sewing at various phases of construction. Hand sewers work with needle and thread to stitch linings in place, baste lapels, or take care of other details. Expensive clothing is sometimes made entirely or in part by tailors or dressmakers, skilled workers who sew by hand and by machine. Sometimes parts of a garment are not sewn but are bonded together by heat and pressure. Fusing machine operators use special equipment to do this. Once a garment has been completed, it is inspected. Loose threads, basting stitches, and lint are removed by hand trimmers. Sometimes special tailors, known as bushelers, repair defects in tailored garments.

From time to time during the sewing process, the various parts of a garment need to be pressed. This work is done by pressers, who use hand irons or special steam pressing machines. Many pressers specialize in underpressing, which involves the flattening or shaping of various parts of a garment during the construction process. Others do the finish pressing of a completed garment.

Most clothing is made from woven cloth, but more and more garments are being made from knitted fabrics. Knitted garments can be completed in a knitting mill on special machines set up to knit stockings, underwear, or even dresses. Knitted fabrics are also cut and sewn by clothing manufacturing plants. Many materials are used to weave and knit cloth, including wool, cotton, rayon, and nylon.

Another material used in the apparel industry is fur. This requires special treatment by skilled workers. Fur cutters select, match, and cut the pieces of fur that are to be used to make each coat, hat, or jacket. The cutters tell fur machine operators just how the pieces should be sewn together. Fur nailers wet and stretch the various garment sections and nail them to a drying board in the exact shape needed for each garment. Once fur machine operators have sewn the stretched and dried sections together, the garment is completed by fur finishers, who sew in linings, make pockets, and take care of other finishing details.

Hats and caps form a specialized area in the apparel industry. Workers in the hat industry are often called hatters, hat makers, or milliners. Hats and caps are made from many kinds of materials. Special pressing and shaping equipment is used for making some hats.

Given the automation of the apparel industry, new technical positions are being created. Today, there are jobs for production managers, who plan and supervise the production process; industrial engineers, who plan and purchase the machinery and set the rates paid to operators; technicians and mechanics, who service the machinery, much of which is computerized; and quality control technicians, who check that the final garments have been made correctly and will stand up to wear.

Education and Training Requirements

Most production workers in the apparel industry train on the job. It takes anywhere from a few weeks to several years to learn most jobs. Although there are no specific educational requirements, high school or vocational school graduates have an edge in getting the job and advancing to better positions. Some workers get their training in formal apprenticeship programs, especially for skilled jobs, such as those of tailors, patternmakers, and cutters. Several schools offer specialized courses in sewing, tailoring, patternmaking, and other disciplines.

A college degree is usually required to get a job as a fashion designer or production manager. A few colleges offer special programs to train people for the apparel industry. Some designers and managers advance to their current jobs after working in various areas of production for many years.

Getting the Job

Your high school, vocational school, or college can give you information about job opportunities. You can apply directly to apparel manufacturing firms. Jobs are often listed with the state employment office, Internet job sites, newspaper want ads, or trade papers and magazines. Sometimes companies post openings on a sign outside the plant. Local unions are another good source of job leads.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

There are many avenues of advancement in the apparel industry. Tailors, cutters, and patternmakers, for example, sometimes move into jobs in design. Sewing machine operators can become supervisors. Most workers, however, stay in the jobs on which they are fastest. Advancement consists of higher wages for higher piecework output.

The job outlook is expected to be poor through 2014. Employment is expected to decline because of growing competition from foreign imports. Some processes are being accelerated with labor-saving equipment, so the demand for new workers is unlikely to increase. However, increasing demand in other countries for apparel manufactured in the United States may offset some of the declines in the industry, as should the development of new high-technology textiles. Designers can anticipate facing heavy competition because many people want a career in fashion design.

Working Conditions

Working conditions depend on the plant and on the specific job. Overall, work in the apparel industry is not physically strenuous, although some jobs are monotonous. Most production workers are paid by the piece—that is, by the quantity of work they do. Therefore, they may be under pressure to work quickly. Many jobs require good eyesight and manual dexterity. Sewing machine operators and other workers in the sewing room are often exposed to the noise and vibration of machinery. Pressers must tolerate the heat generated by their equipment. Designers, cutters, and patternmakers usually work in more pleasant areas. Most newer plants have well-lit, comfortable work areas.

Many production workers belong to unions. Hours generally range from thirty-five to forty hours per week. Because apparel work is seasonal, production workers may have periods of unemployment. However, during slack periods many firms reduce the number of working hours for all workers rather than laying off some workers.

Where to Go for More Information

American Apparel and Footwear Association
1601 N. Kent St., Ste. 1200
Arlington, VA 22209
(800) 520-2262

Fashion Group International, Inc.
8 W. Fortieth St., Seventh Fl.
New York, NY 10018
(212) 302-5511

275 Seventh Ave.
New York, NY 10001-6708
(212) 265-7000

Earnings and Benefits

Because workers in the apparel industry are paid by the piece, earnings are low compared to those in other industries. They vary depending on the specific job, the location, and the employer. Apparel workers at all levels may receive such benefits as paid holidays and vacations, health insurance, and retirement plans.

Additional topics

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesManufacturing & Production