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Copyright 2006
Cornell University.
All rights reserved.


Custom Production

Courtesy of the
Cornell Design League
Custom products and services are, by definition, unique. Each is produced individually, usually by an artisan, craftsperson, or tailor, to meet the size, color, style, and cost needs of the client. Custom products are one-of- a-kind items that involve customers in the materials selection, design, or individualized fit. They can be swimming suits, wedding gowns, men’s suits, or other product types.

Custom products innovate through uniqueness. They often carry greater value than mass produced products in developed countries today as they are scarce and require much production time. This contrasts with developing countries including the US before the industrial revolution. Economies were household-based rather than factory and technology-based then. Because only custom or home-produced products were available, mass produced or machine-made products were sometimes valued more than custom products.

Apparel and sewn products sometimes take on special meaning due to their design, materials, or acquisition. Regardless of production method, items with religious, ethnic, or family significance hold special value for the owner.

Crafts persons and artisans often build their reputations on design innovation and quality. Reputation is their main marketing tool and customers use past work to decide whether to place an order. Satisfied customers will place more orders and recommend the craftsperson to family and friends. If the quality of innovation or production is not acceptable, the craft person’s reputation and sales will fade.


Courtesy of the Cornell Design League

In the apparel and sewn products industry, there is a time dimension for certain styles called fashion. Fashion is defined as a style of the times. Fashion is where many people adopt a style - cropped or bell bottom pants, monograms, or black colored clothing. The fact that many people are adopting the style makes it fashionable. The presence of a fashion element to a product often makes the length of its popularity dependent on the style, designer, or company. Unless a designer’s product offerings continue to be innovative, adding new designs regularly, it will not continue to be classified as fashion. This could actually advantage custom production. If a designer specializes in one-of-a-kind products made one at a time, it is very easy to change design direction quickly without tremendous investment in new technology, patterns, and processes.

The main disadvantage of custom production is production time. Custom produced apparel takes more time and costs more money than other production options due to handwork, individual styling, unique production processes, and individual fittings. There is the time for interactions between designer and client, time for individualized production, and time for consultations for fitting and changes along the way.

Most products and services are priced according to material and labor inputs. Even though your production will get faster with experience as you develop shortcuts and repeat procedures, individual attention costs more. In addition, custom production does not provide the instant gratification or opportunity to buy on impulse that people enjoy with ready-to-wear and sewn products.

Brill photo
"That kind of twisting is easier than a spinning wheel spinning. The touch is easier to learn…to make something maintain an even twist.."

Amy Brill hires independent contractors to twist the yarns and to knit the sweaters using flat bed knitting machines. She trains them, writes specifications for each design, and sends them materials for each sweater as orders come in. Amy Brill Handmade Sweaters produces sweaters only to order. This requires enough lead time for the yarn twisters and knitters to produce the sweaters.


Some products and services lend themselves to custom production and others do not. For example, there has always been a niche for custom wedding dresses, men’s suits, upholstered furniture with choice of fabric, and individualized embroidery or printing services. When a product’s value-added features focus on the match with body, lifestyle, or community, custom products or services may be appropriate if the cost is kept in line with the customer’s expectations.

1. What are some of the advantages of producing and selling custom apparel and sewn products? What are some disadvantages?
2. Why is the element of fashion easily accommodated by custom production?
3. How does the designer’s reputation contribute to the value and cost of a custom product?





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