Textile, apparel, and furnishings workers produce fibers, cloth, and upholstery, and fashion them into a wide range of products that we use in our daily lives. Textiles are the basis of towels, bed linens, hosiery and socks, and nearly all clothing, but they also are a key ingredient in products ranging from roofing to tires. This statement covers a wide variety of occupations related to the production and care of textiles, apparel, and furnishings, ranging from heavy industrial machine operators to craft workers who make custom clothing and upholster furniture.
Laundry and dry-cleaning workers, the largest specialty, clean garments, linens, draperies, blankets, and other articles. They also may clean leather, suede, furs, and rugs. Laundry and dry-cleaning workers ensure proper cleaning by adjusting machine settings for a given fabric or article, as determined by the cleaning instructions on each item of clothing. When necessary, workers treat spots and stains on articles before laundering or dry-cleaning. They tend machines during cleaning and ensure that items are not lost or misplaced with those of another customer.
Closely related to dry-cleaning workers are pressers, textile, garment, and related materials. These workers often work in dry-cleaning establishments and are responsible for starching, steaming and ironing clothing and other items to remove wrinkles. When finished, they assemble each customer’s items, bag or box the articles, and prepare an itemized bill for the customer.
Tailors, dressmakers, and custom sewers alter and repair garments in local neighborhood shops, department stores, or dry-cleaning establishments. Alterations may include hemming pants or dresses, and repairs commonly consist of patching or sewing a torn article of clothing. Some workers may be required to make elaborate custom clothing for special occasions or other unique events.
Most workers in apparel occupations, however, are found in manufacturing, performing specialized tasks in the production of large numbers of garments that are shipped to retail establishments for sale. Fabric and apparel patternmakers convert a clothing designer’s original model of a garment into separate parts that can be laid out on a length of fabric. They use computers to outline the parts and draw in details to indicate the position of pleats, buttonholes, and other features. They then alter the size of the pieces in the pattern to produce garments of various sizes and, in doing so, determine the best layout of pieces to minimize waste of material. Once a pattern has been created, mass production of the garment begins.
The first step in manufacturing textiles is preparing the fibers. Extruding and forming machine setters, operators, and tenders, synthetic and glass fibers, set up and operate machines that extrude or force liquid synthetic material, such as rayon, fiberglass, or liquid polymers through small holes and draw out filaments. Other operators put natural fibers such as cotton or wool through carding and combing machines that clean and align them into short lengths. Textile winding, twisting, and drawing-out machine setters, operators, and tenders make yarn from this material, taking care to repair any breaks. Textile bleaching and dyeing machine operators and tenders control machines that wash, bleach, and dye yarn or finished fabrics.
When the yarn or fiber has been prepared, the next step is to produce fabric. Textile knitting and weaving machine setters, operators, and tenders put the yarn on machines that weave, knit, loop, or tuft it into a product. Different types of machines are used for these processes, but operators may perform similar tasks, repairing breaks in the yarn and monitoring the yarn supply. Some products, such as hosiery and carpeting, emerge nearly finished. In other cases, the fabric goes on to the next step in the manufacturing process.
Textile cutting machine setters, operators, and tenders use patterns—those from patternmakers—to prepare the pieces from which finished apparel will be made. Sewing machine operators then join these pieces together, reinforce seams, and attach buttons, hooks, zippers, and accessories. In some cases, hand sewers may be employed to make adjustments and perform specialty work. After the product is sewn, other workers remove lint and loose threads, inspect, and package the garments.
Shoe machine operators and tenders tend machines used in making footwear. They perform a variety of duties including cutting, joining, decorating, reinforcing, and finishing shoes and shoe parts. Shoe and leather workers and repairers may finish work that cannot be done by machine. Most repairers are employed in cobbler shops, where they fix shoes and other leather products, such as luggage and saddles.
Upholsterers make, fix, and restore furniture that is covered with fabric. Those who produce new furniture typically start with bare wooden frames. First, they install webbing, tacking it to one side of the frame, stretching it tight, and tacking it to the other side. They then tie each spring to the webbing and its neighboring springs, covering it with filler, such as foam or polyester batting. Next, they measure and cut pieces of fabric for the arms, backs, seats, sides, and other surfaces, leaving as little waste as possible. Finally, they sew the fabric pieces together and attach them to frames with tacks, staples, or glue, while also affixing any ornaments, such as fringes, buttons, or rivets. Some upholsterers work with used furniture, often repairing or replacing fabric that is in poor condition.
Most people in textile, apparel, and furnishings occupations work a standard 5-day, 35- to 40-hour week. Working on evenings and weekends is common for shoe and leather workers, laundry and dry-cleaning workers, and tailors, dressmakers, and sewers, who often are employed in retail stores. Many textile and fiber mills often use rotating schedules of shifts so that employees do not continuously work nights or days. Working conditions vary by establishment and by occupation.
For example, machinery in textile mills is often noisy, as are areas in which sewing and pressing are performed in apparel factories; patternmaking and spreading areas tend to be much quieter. Older factories are cluttered, hot, and poorly lit and ventilated, but more modern facilities usually have more workspace and are well lit and ventilated.
Textile machinery operators use protective glasses and masks that cover their noses and mouths to protect against airborne particles. Many machines operate at high speeds, and textile machinery workers must be careful not to wear clothing or jewelry that could get caught in moving parts. In addition, extruding and forming machine operators wear protective shoes and clothing when working with certain chemical compounds. Work in apparel production can be physically demanding. Some workers sit for long periods, and others spend many hours on their feet, leaning over tables and operating machinery. Operators must be attentive while running sewing machines, pressers, automated cutters, and the like. A few workers may need to wear protective clothing, such as gloves.
Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that full-time shoe machine operators and tenders experienced a work-related injury and illness rate that was higher than the national average. Laundries and dry-cleaning establishments are often hot and noisy. Employees also may be exposed to harsh solvents, but newer environmentally-friendly and less-toxic cleaning solvents are improving the work environment in these establishments. Areas in which shoe and leather workers make or repair shoes and other leather items can be noisy, and odors from leather dyes and stains frequently are present. Workers must take care to avoid punctures, lacerations, and abrasions.
Upholstery work can be dangerous, and upholsterers usually wear protective gloves and clothing when using sharp tools and lifting and handling furniture or springs. During most of the workday, upholsterers stand and may do a lot of bending and heavy lifting. They also may work in awkward positions for short periods. Full-time upholsterers also experienced a work-related injury and illness rate that was much higher than the national average.
Education & Training Required
Most workers in these jobs have a high school diploma or less education. However, applicants with postsecondary vocational training or previous work experience may have a better chance of getting a more skilled job and advancing to a supervisory position.
Machine operators usually are trained on the job by more experienced employees or by machinery manufacturers' representatives. Operators begin with simple tasks and are assigned more difficult operations as they gain experience.
Precision shoe and leather workers and repairers also learn their skills on the job. Manual dexterity and mechanical aptitude are important in shoe repair and leatherworking. Beginners start as helpers for experienced workers, but in manufacturing, they may attend more formal in-house training programs. Beginners gradually take on more tasks until they are fully qualified, a process that takes about 2 years in an apprenticeship program or as a helper in a shop. Other workers spend 6 months to a year in a vocational training program.
Custom tailors, dressmakers, and sewers often have previous experience in apparel production, design, or alteration. Knowledge of fabrics, design, and construction is very important. Custom tailors sometimes learn these skills through courses in high school or a community college. Tailors who perform alterations usually learn informally by observing other, more experienced workers.
Laundry and dry-cleaning workers, including pressers, usually learn on the job. Although laundries and dry-cleaners prefer entrants with previous work experience, they routinely hire inexperienced workers.
Most upholsterers learn their skills on the job, but a few do so through apprenticeships. Inexperienced persons also may take training in basic upholstery in vocational schools and some community colleges. The length of training may vary from 6 weeks to 3 years. Upholsterers who work on custom-made pieces may train for 8 to 10 years.
Other Skills Required
In manufacturing, textile and apparel workers need good hand-eye coordination, manual dexterity, physical stamina, and the ability to perform repetitive tasks for long periods. As machinery in the industry continues to become more complex, knowledge of the basics of computers and electronics will increasingly be an asset. In addition, the trends toward cross-training of operators and working in teams will increase the time needed to become fully trained on all machines and require interpersonal skills to work effectively with others.
Upholsterers should have manual dexterity, good coordination, and the strength to tightly stretch fabric and lift heavy furniture. An eye for detail, a flair for color, and the ability to use fabrics creatively also are helpful.
How to Advance
Some production workers may become first-line supervisors. A small number or workers in shoemaking and leatherworking occupations begin as workers or repairers and advance to salaried supervisory and managerial positions. Some open their own shops. These workers are more likely to succeed if they understand business practices and management and offer good customer service, in addition to their technical skills.
Upholsterers, too, can open their own shops. However, the upholstery business is highly competitive, and successfully operating a shop is difficult. Some experienced or highly skilled upholsterers may become supervisors or sample makers in large shops and factories.
Overall employment of textile, apparel, and furnishings workers is expected to decline rapidly through the next decade, but outlook varies by detailed occupation. In addition to some employment growth in a few specialties, the vast majority of openings will stem from the need to replace workers who leave the occupation each year.
Earnings of textile, apparel, and furnishings workers vary by occupation. Because many production workers in apparel manufacturing are paid according to the number of acceptable pieces they produce, their total earnings depend on skill, speed, and accuracy. Benefits vary by size of company and work that is done. Apparel workers in retail trade also may receive a discount on their purchases from the company for which they work. In addition, some of the larger manufacturers operate company stores from which employees can purchase apparel products at significant discounts. Some small firms and dry-cleaning establishments, however, offer only limited benefits. Self-employed workers generally have to purchase their own insurance. In the manufacturing industry, many workers are union members. Workers who are covered by union contracts often have higher pay and better benefits.