The art of making bras and the women behind them

5 Mar 2020 8:59 AM
Annica Svensson

Today, we visit our production facilities in Estonia to find out how bras are made. Follow us behind the scenes in the second part of our series about the women of Miss Mary.

Ten minutes outside of Tallinn's beautiful city centre in a building that may be green (or perhaps it’s blue, the opinions are split 50/50) Miss Mary's logistics centre is housed. The production facilities are located next door, almost wall-to-wall. With a few quick steps you easily run between the two buildings. More than 100 skilled seamstresses, cutters and other production staff work here, making a reality of all new items our designers create. Read more here about how our design department in the first part of behind the scenes articles.

”All manufacturing is made under fair circumstances”

Lace in various colours. Do you recognize what products in our collection feature this lace?

Miss Mary make high quality lingerie and we want our customers to get tremendous value for their money. The best way to ensure top notch quality is to have full control every step of the way. From the design and pattern making process to the test collection being sewn in Sweden, to the manufacturing, quality control and the warehouse operation in Tallinn. It’s quite common by clothing companies to let a third part handle the manufacturing, but we have chosen to not do this. It’s would be extremely difficult to retain the high-quality demands that we have, if we would hand over the responsibility to somebody else. It’s precisely because it is our own manufacturing, that we can have full control and ensure that all production takes place under fair and healthy conditions which are particularly important to us. We always think long-term, both when it comes to production as well as when it comes to employees.

“100 % of our employees at management level are women.”

Today 175 people are working at Miss Mary and our turnover has grown exponentially in the last few years. 97% of our employees are women. At management level and key positions women makes up for 100%. This includes our CEO Elisabet (whom you may have seen in numerous videos if you follow us on facebook or youtube, head of logistic- and planning Kaja, production manager Anneli, and all our designers and pattern makers which you can read more about here.

It was when I heard that Elisabeth got promoted to CEO when she was 7 months pregnant and had a year maternity leave in front of her, that I felt “Wow, healthy attitude towards women. That’s a place I would love to work here”. We are proud to say we are a brand that make products for women by women.

Shown from left: Kaja, head of planning and logistics operations, and Helina sales manager for B2B customers, have many years of experience of the lingerie industry.

Excellent planning is beginning and end of everything

The first thing you notice when walking through the door at the third floor of the green (possibly blue) building are the lime green walls. This time there’s certainly no confusion about what colour it is. (However, a colleague did whisper in my ear “It’s mustard yellow.”)

This is where we find Miss Mary’s planning department for all logistics operations (the warehouse takes up the whole ground floor of the building) as well as for the production. Excellent planning management is Alpha and Omega, and nobody knows this better than Kaja, head of planning and logistic. She oversees the whole operation making sure everything goes smoothly according to plan.

It takes quite a lot of work to plan for bras since a bra is available in a multitude of sizes due to its double size system (cups and band size). For instance, we produce our bestselling bra Lovely Lace in 63 sizes of which every size in its turn is available in 7 colours. That means we handle 445 different variations of only this one bra model! It’s frustrating for customers if certain sizes or colours would always be out of stock when they try to buy them. At the same time, you don’t want to produce too large quantities, so you end up with too many items in stock which you can never get rid of. When a product is discontinued and no longer part of the collection, but we still carry a quantity in stock, we always to try to donate the items to various nonprofit organizations, homeless shelters or women-oriented projects in development countries. We feel every woman deserves to experience the feeling of wearing a supremely comfortable bra.

“We offer 440 variations of some of our bra styles to accommodate as many women as possible”

An infinite number of bras. The warehouse staff collect items for our customers while driving on trolleys.

How you plan will determine the quality of logistics and impact sales number, whereas how you manufacture will determine the quality of the finished garment. It doesn’t matter if you create the most amazing designs and patterns, or if you use the most exquisite high-end fabrics, if the seamstresses lack necessary skills you will undoubtedly end up with a subpar product.

From left: Adjustable shoulder straps features many small detailing. To the right: A seamstress work on the Broderie Anglais bra.

Not anyone is a great seamstress

The sewing hall in the production facilities is brightly lit and flooded with daylight from the tall windows decorated with pink and floral curtains, made from fabrics left over from a collection. It’s quieter than you would expect from a factory. After all, a sewing machine isn’t that noisy, they produce more of a buzzing humming sound. Excellent lighting conditions while sewing is extremely important for the quality outcome. Every seamstress has additional light source at her table, so she can adjust the light according to her need. A bra features many small details compared to a dress, a t-shirt or a pair of trousers. The seams of a bra are short and most of the time they are also curved. If you sew them wrong, even by just a few millimeters, it will be quite noticeable on the finished garment. In the worst case it may make the difference between a perfectly fitted bra and one that’s only adequate. Knowing this, we never underestimate the importance of skilled seamstresses! Our seamstresses are very meticulous and precise, and among the best ones available in the industry. A seamstress needs to be very skilled and experienced to work for us. Sewing lingerie differs quite a lot from sewing clothing in general. A bra in particular, is one of the most difficult garments you can sew.

"The right feeling of a seamstress touch takes several years to build up"

For a company like us, that makes high-quality lingerie and devote hundreds of hours into product development and pattern makings for each bra, it is extremely important that the staff are not only skilled, but also happy. Employee happiness is the most efficient remedy against high turnover among staff. Many of our seamstresses have worked here for 20 years. The magic touch of a skilled a seamstress’ fingertips takes several years to build up, so we are extremely grateful that our seamstresses chosen to continue working with us.

Two of our skilled seamstresses - Oksana (left) and Natalja. They have worked for Miss Mary for 23 and 19 years, respectively.

There’s a quite big difference between experienced seamstresses and those who have just started out. Even with years’ worth of experience sewing clothing or home textile, such as pillow cases, they may not always succeed at sewing lingerie. High-quality bra making requires lots of technical skills.

When sewing lingerie, the seamstresses must work with vastly different types of materials. From easy-to-sew cotton to delicate lace or embroidery. From firm to very elastic materials. Other times it may be glossy fabrics that may easily slip away from a less experienced seamstress’ touch. A single bra may combine all these materials in the same garment. Just the cup may feature elastic lace, firm cotton, and glossy lining. Quite a difference compared to sew a pair of denim jeans!

Sewing for home use or at an atelier compared to sewing for production are different skill. At a production facility everything must be extremely efficient while at the same time not compromising on quality. Well, for some brands quality may not be an important factor, but for us, world-class quality is the whole pillar of our brand and what makes or breaks us. Because of this we will never compromise on quality.

Cut fabric pieces for the Cotton Dot bra are waiting to be sewn together. Sneakpeak of the new colour English Red which will be launched next year

Another difference is that our seamstresses never use any pins. We don’t allow them for safety reasons. Nobody would like to buy lingerie and suddenly feel the pain of a forgotten pin pricking your skin! Ouch! Additionally, if a needle breaks on the sewing machine whilst in the middle of a seam, we discard the whole garment.

"Button pins aren’t allowed to be used by a seamstress”

But the biggest difference compared to at-home-sewing is, of course, the fact that during production sewing, there isn’t only one seamstress involved from start to finish of a garment. Instead, each seamstress is responsible for a few steps. For instance, more than ten seamstresses work together to make one bra!

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A regular bra consists of about 35 parts. Each bra features an average of 60 seams and is put together in 65 steps. The reason why there are more steps than actual seams is that some of the steps may include threading the underwire by hand into the wire band or cut off any loose pieces of threads. None of the 65 steps includes preparation or cutting of the fabric or lace. That’s a whole other set of steps

"One bra has 60 seams and is put together in 65 steps"

After 60 years in the bra industry, we have built up efficient routines. Most bras are produced in a similar way, but occasionally a special design shows up that requires a different method or some additional steps. When our sewing technicians were about to make the sewing instruction for our luxury collection Visionary launched earlier this year they had to think twice. The items that were designed by Swedish royal couture master Lars Wallin were anything but common and featured many special constructions.

One of the most difficult and complicated materials to sew is spacer fabric, which can be found in our Confident bra. Spacer is a great example of a case where looks are deceiving. It looks so simple, until you touch the material. The spacer material is a thick but lightweight three-dimensional fabric made of 3 layers (see photo below). The airy middle layer causes the top and bottom layers to constantly move back and forth in opposite directions while sewing. It turned out to be quite a challenge even for our skilled seamstresses! For more information about this high-tech fabric with unique qualities, check our previous article about Spacer.

Close-up of the spacer fabric which is used for the Confident bra. Spacer is one of the most challenging materials to sew, as the middle layer cause the top and bottom layer to move back and forth.

Don’t underestimate the value of preparation

At our fabric warehouse, several people are busy rolling out the fabrics on a huge table surface. Under bright lighting, each centimeter of the fabric is being meticulously checked for possible defects or stains.

Nothing is better than a pair of human eyes. That’s why we don’ t use machines to screen the fabrics, even though this probably would have been more time efficient. That’s how it often is when we manufacture bras. We stick to old traditional craftsmanship methods. Quality above all. A flawless result requires time.

Prior to cutting the fabric, every inch is carefully checked so it won’t have any thread errors, colour defects or stains.

It’s also quite common that lingerie features lace or embroidery, and when using such delicate materials, they require utmost care. When cutting lace, you need to stack them in a pile, layer on top of layer, and placed in the exact same position, so each cut pieces will have the same lace pattern. We thread the lace on thin, vertical sticks nailed into the table (see photo below). The sticks prevent the lace from moving. To avoid damaging the lace, we utilize the natural “holes” which belongs to the lace pattern. This whole step is done manually.

Prior to cutting the lace, it needs to be stacked layer-by-layer and placed in the exact same position. They are kept in this position by metal sticks nailed onto the table surface.

“Fragile lace and embroidery need to be handled with care”

The lace pattern most of the time have placement design, meaning the pattern must look symmetrical on the left and right side of the garment. Perhaps a flower needs to be in a certain place of the bra. A challenge related to placement design is the various bra sizes. An A-cup is obviously much smaller than an H-cup, a flower on that’s only on the top-cup on a bigger size, may take up the whole area of the cup on a smaller size. Most of the time you really need to search for the best positions to place the pattern pieces, so it will look great in every size.

The position of the pattern pieces onto the lace require manual planning to make sure left and right side of the garment will be symmetrical.

When a bra has lace detailing on the cups, we carefully place paper cut-outs of pattern pieces on top of the lace, making sure the left and right sides will feature the same lace pattern. After we have places all the sizes, we draw with tailor crayons onto the lace and mark the size with small stickers. See the photo above. We then use this piece of lace as a reference and cut the rest the same way.

Layers of lace for the bra model Lovely Jaquard & Lace waiting to be cut.

Meticulous quality control

Once all the items are put together, every garment will go through a rigorous quality control. Not a single item is leaving the building unless it pass our high quality standard. Every little detail and every seam are scrutinized. The garment is also measured to ensure it’s the correct size.

"100% of all garments are run through a rigorous quality control”

We scrutinize and check every seam on every garment in our quality control to make sure they our high quality standard. Pictured here is Inna checking the Summer bra in colour English Red. Inna has worked at Miss Mary for 23 years.

Arriving at the warehouse, the garments are run through an additional quality control. From this warehouse all our items are shipped all over the world, to our resellers or directly to women who has bought them at our various webshops.

Individually packed Miss Mary items, waiting to be shipped from the warehouse to their new owners.

Products made with love

With all the work that goes behind the making of a quality bra, we hope that a Miss Mary bra will adorn your body, and not be left unused and unloved inside a lingerie drawer, because our bras are designed to be one of your most comfortable and beloved garments. They are made with love and care and we hope that shows.

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