The way we develop products at Encircled is no different than anything we do in the business. It’s thoughtful, and intentional. We spend an immense amount of time working on not only perfecting the design, but choosing the right fabric and thinking about how we can design a piece that adds the perfect balance of function, and style to your wardrobe.
When we launched the Dawn-to-Dusk Sleeveless Top in early spring, we sold out our first production run within the first few days. Even still, we’re evolving the design slightly for our second production run - something we do with our collection regularly, as we design seasonless pieces that we want to have a home in your closet for a while.
On this week’s blog post, production team member Nina shares a recap of the step-by-step design process we worked through to develop one of our newer designs, the Dawn-to-Dusk Sleeveless Top.
STEP 1: IDEATION
The Dawn-to-Dusk top, formerly known as the “dressy tank” has been in the design pipeline for a while. One of the reasons was because we got very stuck on finding the right fabric for the design. Something sustainable, but dressy, and flowy but breathable. Fabric alone plays a big role in dictating the actual product design itself. There are certain styles that just don’t work with specific types of fabric.
Our collection desperately needed a dressier, ‘going out’ top. So, Stefanie, our Design Assistant, took on the task of designing the top as one of her first projects at Encircled.
This top has been in the design pipeline for a very long time and we knew there was a need for a sustainable ‘going out’ top. Stefanie remembers a sample of a “dressy tank” being one of her very first projects at Encircled. Despite excitement from within the team, and a need for a second dressier top amongst all of our basics (the first being the Evolve Top) it wasn’t quite the right design. So we went back to the drawing board.
STEP 2: THE INITIAL DESIGN
With springtime upon us, Stefanie’s next step was to take the design idea and bring it to life. Though this process varies from design to design, she typically will look to inspiration from tools like Pinterest. She’ll also develop a few sketches, first by hand, and then in Adobe Illustrator for a couple of design options.
During this process, Stefanie may also drape the design to get a better idea of what will work. Draping is like pattern design, but in reverse. It's the process of taking fabric and pinning it on a dress form (a sewing mannequin) to create the shapes or design you’re going for. We do this, especially with lighter fabrics, because it takes the guesswork out of pattern drafting because you can really see how the fabric drapes across the body and then go from there.
After creating the desired look, Stefanie cut away any excess fabric, and then pinned it in place on the dress form as if it were a finished top. Once she was happy with the entire look, she took it off and traced the shapes to paper to make a paper pattern. Then she cut out a sample from the paper pattern and sewed it up.
I remember watching Stefanie puzzling over a sewing mannequin, which we affectionately call Rachel (after Rachel Green from Friends), one morning with a pile of Plum Purple modal fabric. By the end of the day she had created the first rendition of the twist front you see on the final design today. She had also added the keyhole in the back neckline, which added something special to the overall design. It was beautiful, and we were all very excited, but that was the first of many more trials and errors.
The design idea is then presented at our Production & Design meeting, and approved by our team.
STEP 3: FINDING THE PERFECT FABRIC
Selecting a fabric that is beautiful, sustainable and suits the design is a very critical step in the design process. For the “Dawn-to-Dusk Top”, fabric selection was one of our biggest challenges. This is frequently the case as there are still very limited eco-friendly fabric options out there, and limited sources to purchase them.
Initially, we looked at using materials like silk, satin, chiffon or crepe (which is a weave typically made from silk that has a crinkled texture to it) for the dressy tank. While these materials are elegant, they’re not always comfortable or breathable, and often don’t translate well from day to night. They’re basically too dressy!
We wanted the top to layer well with a blazer or light sweater in the daytime, and be a stunning, stand-alone top in the evening. We needed a fabric that was stretchy, that would drape effortlessly, and have that perfect blend of comfort and style. The original sample was tested in the same fabric we use for designs like our Nomadic V-Neck, and Chrysalis Cardi, however it felt too heavy, and casual.
The team saw an opportunity for our Ultra-Luxe Modal that we’ve used in our popular Evolve Top in the summertime. It’s a finer knit than our Modal, and has a slight sheen to it. In addition, the colour pallete is gorgeous!
After sewing a sample in the fabric, we knew this could be a strong contender. One problem though: Sheerness. While it wasn’t totally sheer, we wanted to get fuller coverage on the front. So, Stefanie changed the design to be double-layered in the front. There are two layers of the Ultra-Luxe Modal in the front so you don’t see any bra peeking through!
STEP 4: TESTING THE DESIGN
At Encircled, we test our designs extensively before we launch them. We want you to have a design that looks and feels as much as possible like the one you got when you first purchased from us. The testing process includes several steps such a fit tests, wear tests, and wash tests.
A fit test is done typically on a model (usually one of our team members who is a size medium), and done to ensure that our pattern is accurate, and that the design works well both aesthetically, and functionally.
We wash test our designs to account for what the industry refers to as ‘shrinkage’ in design that’s caused by normal wash and wear. We want the design to wear as perfectly as it did when you first tried it on!
We’ll often test the fabric in several ways. First, washing a swatch of the fabric early on and measuring it pre, and post-wash. Then, on the final sample, wash testing that in a regular washing machine, and measuring it pre, and post-wash.
STEP 5: GETTING A DESIGN PRODUCTION READY
Taking a design from final sample to production ready requires a few extra steps that will explain why we tend to have a longer lead time for our new designs.
At this stage, Stefanie will make the final pattern for production, and the team will select which sewing studio will make the design. Selecting the right sewing studio is dependent on a number of factors including how busy they are, their skillset, and how many pieces we want to make. In the case of the “dressy tank”, we selected our Core Basics Sewing Studio. We wanted to run a higher quantity of the tops, and they already sew our Evolve Tops which are very similar in construction.
The Core Basics Sewing Studio took the final production pattern and made what the industry calls a “pre-production sample”. This takes into account our pattern, our technical specs (another fashion word for essentially the measurement and finishes of the garment) and our final sample to produce a ‘matching’ sample using their team and machines.
During this process, from time to time, we may have to make changes to the design/pattern. For example, some sewing techniques may not be optimized for larger scale production, and even though they look amazing, they’ll add unnecessary cost, or complexity to the sewing process. Another thing that’s common at this stage is that the design may shrink or stretch just from the sewing and industrial pressing process. If this happens, we’ll adjust the pattern again to account for this added or reduced fabric.
Often times, we’ll need the sewing studio to go back and make another pre-production sample. It’s not uncommon for this loop to occur repeatedly until we have it perfected! This is so important because the sewing studio will match the pre-production sample, and if that’s not right, the final production run won’t be. Every detail must be accounted for, including tag placement, thread colour, and finishing. This is why this stage of design takes a lot of time!
Once we have an approved pre-production sample from our chosen sewing studio, Stefanie will grade the pattern. Grading is just fancy fashion terminology that essentially means she’ll adjust the pattern based on a preset “grading rule” for the different sizes we’re going to make. Grading rules are NOT consistent across brands. Each brand generally has their own which explains why sizing can vary from brand to brand.
Typically, but not always, we start grading with size Medium, and then grade down to Small and Extra Small, and up to Large, Extra Large, and sometimes Extra Extra Large.
Each size has its own pattern that is arranged together in pieces, and carefully labelled so that production doesn’t mix up any of the sizes.
Concurrent with the pattern being finished, France, our Production Manager will work on the pricing. Our process for pricing a product varies with each design. Occasionally, we’ll reach out to you to get feedback also. Often, we’ll look at competitors in our space for guidelines as well. Ultimately, the cost of our fabric, and the cost of sewing the design (which comprises about 80%+ of the cost) will drive the price. We need to make products that are functional and beautiful, but that also are sustainable for us to produce. If we’re making a design, and losing money on it, it’s not something we can continue. It’s also critical to focus on the value the design is adding to our customer’s wardrobe - that too can play a role in our pricing.
Next, France will ensure the fabric is ordered from our supplier, and that it’s in-stock and en-route to our sewing studio. All of our sewing studios are in the Toronto area, but two of our four main fabric suppliers are not. So, often they’ll ship directly from Vancouver or Montreal to our sewing studio.
Nina, our Apparel Production Coordinator, will curate all of the notions that go with the design. A notion is another fancy fashion word that means labels, buttons, or thread. For a design like the Dawn-to-Dusk Sleeveless Top, we’d just provide care labels and brand labels. The sewing studio provides the thread.
Only when all of the fabric, notions, final patterns and pre-production approved samples are at the sewing studio will the production be scheduled. Our studios have busy schedules, and only want to start when everything is ready! The sewing studio will layout the fabric, cut the design, and sew, trim and then press it.
While the “dressy tank” was in production, we began the process of selecting a name.
We love creating new and creative product names. The naming process started with brainstorming a few name options internally, and then Angela, our Content Marketing Manager posted the options on Instagram. You, our brilliant customers, then voted on your favourite names. The final name of the “dressy tank” is the “The Dawn-to-Dusk Sleeveless Top”. It actually wasn’t even one of our options - it was a customer idea from that Instagram post!
For the Dawn-to-Dusk Sleeveless Top, the production took about four weeks. On average our production timelines are about that long, though it does depend on the time of year. Making our clothing in Toronto allows us to be a lot more agile than most brands. Overseas, timelines usually start at 16-weeks. We produce in season at Encircled, which is a huge benefit.
Once the tops were finished production, they took that long 35 km journey from the Core Basics Sewing Studio in Scarborough, Ontario to our studio in downtown Toronto. When a product arrives in our studio, the first step is quality control.
Though products are always quality checked at the sewing studio, we do a second pass for our standards in-house. Our production team will look for any fabric or sewing flaws, and relegate those items to our sample sale, or sometimes in rare cases write the piece off, and donate it.
As the initial run of Dawn-to-Dusk Sleeveless Tops were sold out on pre-order, they didn’t even make it to our back stock room. Instead, our Customer Love team picked, packed and shipped out all of the pre-orders.
We waited eagerly to hear feedback from excited customers and, as with any new adventure, there are sometimes unexpected problems.
STEP 6: CUSTOMER FEEDBACK + CONTINUOUS IMPROVEMENT
Getting customer feedback on our designs is imperative. It’s one of the advantages we have by being an online-only brand - a direct connection to you, our customers. This is why when you order from us, we automatically send you a notice to complete a review within a few weeks of receiving your order.
Customer reviews are important because they help you find the right size/fit, and though it does make it easier for customers to decide if it’s for them, it’s also great for us to know how we’re doing on design and production.
In the case of the Dawn-to-Dusk Sleeveless Top, the initial launch had mixed reviews - some glowing, and some with constructive criticism.
Some customers found that the neckline was sitting lower than they had anticipated. When we looked at the design, it appeared that in production, the design stretched more than we thought, and the weight of the fabric when wearing would add to this factor. Additionally, though many customers loved the flowy feel of the top, they wanted the middle section of the top to feel more secure.
Though we did test the Dawn-to-Dusk Sleeveless Top fit on our team, we didn’t try sitting down in it. It was a bit of a rushed process as production was delayed already, so we skipped our traditional wear test. For example, with our Minimalist Legging II, Kristi, our Founder, wore the leggings for almost a month to test the fabric.
It turns out that this little detail changed everything! Going forward, we’re going to wear test our newer designs at least for a full day to see how it performs.
On the second production run of the Dawn-to-Dusk Sleeveless Top, we made a few changes to improve the top. We raised the neckline about one inch, high enough so it would still give good coverage if it stretched lower during wear, but still low enough to have the “day-to-night” look we intended. We also placed a second stitch, hidden in the double layers of the wrap, in the centre of the body. We had an impromptu try on party in the office, and everyone available put on a Dawn-to-Dusk Sleeveless Top to test the changes. We stood, we sat, we danced around, and the minor changes worked!
So here we are, on our second production run! Similar to the first run, we had to do another pre-production sample with the minor changes just to make sure we were on the same page with our sewing studio.
Our “dressy tank” has come a long way from sketch to real garment, and the second production run will be en route to customer’s closets in a few weeks.
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