For the past 16 years, my company has been making clothes in China. Tens of thousands of items per year--and I've never been to China. I just never needed to go. I also didn't need to hire staff there to oversee operations, and neither do you.
Recommended Factories in China
At first, my arrangement with factories came out of necessity. I was essentially a one-man show when I started my business, and spending a lot of money and time traveling to China would have eaten up resources that could, should and did go to promotion to get my venture off the ground.
If you want to get started working with a Chinese factory, the most important part is finding the right manufacturer.
Stateside, if you needed a plumber, dog groomer or contractor you would ask your network for recommendations. The same approach holds true for manufacturing, and you most likely already know someone. Some advisors may be looking for a cut. But if you can get some good, free advice (or introductions) -- jump on it.
Finding Factories via Open Source Methods
If the personal recommendation route doesn't work, find a similar product that is manufactured in China and research where it is made. Sometimes this OEM (original equipment manufacturer) info is publicly available through Google searches, but often it's not published.
But, there is software used by importer/exporters called Import Genius, and that provides listings of the factory of origin for shipments coming into the US from other countries. These records are publicly available, so if you want to block your own sources from appearing in this software you'll need to take steps to do so.
You can also back into factories by searching for products on Alibaba and contacting the manufacturers through that channel for custom orders. I've had only limited success with this approach, and have not sourced any of my clothing factories that way.
I also encourage you to do price comparisons -- not every manufacturer in China is inexpensive, and costs are not necessarily consistent. Larger firms have higher overhead, but may also have better supplier pricing and quality control. Be aware and weight the pros and cons first, and always get a few physical samples to inspect from any factory before placing a large order.
Communicating with Chinese Companies
Communication is critical when working with any factory, especially one on the other side of the world. Different time zones, language, technology and culture can all factor into how smoothly your project is communicated and then executed.
Working extensively with Chinese factories taught me and my team how to communicate more effectively. We reply point-by-point in-line to questions. We use bullet points rather than long paragraphs. We'll send photos and sometimes videos to demonstrate how something should look or work.
Shipping from China
Ideally, you want to work with manufacturers who are already exporting goods to the US in your category. Most already are, but you don't want them learning how to fill out customs forms for the first time with your order, or finding a shipping service at the last minute.
Generally, you can get goods out of China by ship or by plane. The water route is much less expensive, but it could take a month (or more) for your shipment to arrive. The air route is a lot costlier (especially for bulky or heavy goods), but it may only take a couple of days. Don't forget to calculate these costs and consider the timing.
Chinese New Year is the major Chinese holiday, and everything shuts down. The dates change every year but mark it on your calendar. If it doesn't ship before CNY, it won't ship until after CNY.
QA or QC (for Quality Check/Certification) is critical. Do not leave it up to the factory manufacturing your goods.
I always hire third party QA firms to check out our products before they leave the factory. When you consider the cost of shipping a defective product to our warehouse - let alone all the way to a customer - hiring a QA firm is very cost-effective and 100% worthwhile.
Whether you go to China or not, don't underestimate the value of establishing a strong working relationship with your Chinese manufacturer(s). In your industry or work style, that might mean you need to get on a plane after all. That might also mean that email will be your communication tool of choice.
Ultimately, your goal is to find someone you can trust who delivers good quality products on time at a price that works for your business. China is not the only option, but as I approach two decades in business, I've found it to be the right option for my company.