This article is a continuation of Part One, about “Managing the PLM, S&OP, Supply Chain and Sourcing” in knitwear. In this article, I look at the different processes and a few case studies when converting yarn fibers into fabric and sweaters.

This is a top-level overview, where I share my insights, expertise, and experience.   I do not get into the discussion about the policies, procedures, systems, processes, manuals, and people required to ensure a smooth operation.

Knitwear for fabric

Looking at the processes from the yarn producers to the knitter (mill) to the converter to the dye house to the fabric washing houses, and vertically integrated suppliers, truly knowing your vendor strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.

Understanding the vendor breadth and depth, what are they really good at making (Warp, Weft, stretch or non-stretch)?  Going beyond what they tell you, to really understand their operation (budgets, planning, scheduling, ethics, compliance, on-time deliveries, returns, etc.).

What is their depth of knowledge, the skill of all processes, understanding the yarn fiber, machinery limitations, your relationship with that vendor, what is needed to keep them happy, and how will they keep you happy? So it’s a win (vendor), win (you), win (consumer) for everyone.

I visited this smaller fabric converter in Northeast China; notice how the floors are again wet for processing.

Knit fabric is defined by the number of loops (loop density) per square inch or square cm, which may be defined as the yarn count (24/1, 32/1, 40/1), the larger the number the tighter the stitch.   Controlling the loop density will define the thickness, drape, fabric appearance, and weight.

At a smaller converter in the county of Shandong province (China), the individual is inspecting the fabric for holes and inconsistencies with a light bulb.

In the following paragraphs, I discuss potential quality issues and fabric defects that should be avoided before, during, or after production.  As well in this section, I look at a few case studies.

Case Study – The barré that almost got away

Early on in my career, I witnessed faults from someone who lacked the expertise, experience and requested a type of knit fabric in a specific quality and finish but did not take into consideration all the variables.

The Canadian fabric converter accepted the order and figured their experts would figure it out in production. The fabric production took eight weeks and then was delivered thousands of kilometers (miles) that took one week for transportation.

The product was finally put on the cutting table after being relaxed for 48 hours, but as the fabric was being laid on the table, the experienced cutter noticed repetitive issues with the fabric.   I was brought in for consultation and together we determined that the fabric had a barré issue that affected over 20% of the bulk fabric. We had to send samplings to the fabric converter and they agreed with our findings. They apologized and said they could have replacement fabric within 6 weeks. This whole issue would have taken 20 weeks to get the replacement fabric, after adding in the production time we decided to cut our losses. This single production issue cost the company over $120k in lost revenue, as well wasted precious time, resources and energy.

The lesson learned was to be proactive in your analysis of your supply chain. The importance of validating and vetting your suppliers, providing onboarding, and reviewing their equipment, the maintenance records, staffing, QA/QC protocol, production strengths, and weaknesses.

We could have avoided this issue by requesting:

  • Prequalifying, validating, and vetting this supplier to really understand their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats
  • An analysis of the process that was going to be used to produce this fabric
  • A fully documented inline quality control report
  • 10 meters (yards) of the fabric for approval from the first rolls off the production run
  • A final inspection of the fabric before it was shipped to our premises

If we were truly proactive we would have discovered this issue, before allocating the production and choose a more suitable manufacturer. But unfortunately for this production, we were reactive and missed the early stage issues, but thankfully we were proactive to stop it before it got to the retail selling floor.

Looking at fabrics for trends, texture, feel, and smell to ensure you get the desired finished product.

Potential issues with fabric defects are:

  • Yarn fiber length (short/long)
  • Yarn evenness (non-conformity)
  • Yarn twist (torque)
  • Yarn friction (tension)
  • Lint (yarn fragments)
  • Worn needles
  • Machine set up (oil, cylinder, dial)
  • Machine gauge (yarn count)

Fabric imperfections can be but not limited to:

  • Bands (stability)
  • Streaks (barré, stop)
  • Stitch (bowing, skewing)
  • Needle line
  • Dropped stitch
  • Cloth press off
  • Cocked
  • Tucking
  • Puckered
  • Crack
  • Hole
  • Float defects

It is important to control the quality of loop consistency; a good quality assurance system should start with start with the selection of good quality fiber yarns and proper maintenance of machine parts.

Case Study – The supplier who saved a few thousand dollars that could have cost the brand millions

The issue is about a vendor and factory who knowingly switched the bulk fabric (process, weight, and finish) so they could make thousands of dollars more on this single production run.

As I had ongoing issues with this supplier (trust, transparency, management) of five years and the product was already cut and in production, I requested to personally do an inline inspection as we had multiple styles with this vendor and factory.

A small challenge to be aware of when travelling in China, I arrived at the airport one hour before my domestic flight, the flight was on schedule but departed one hour late (sometimes it can depart three hours late and rarely does your plane depart on time), then we sat inside the plane on the runway for another hour for a three hour flight. Upon arrival at the city where I was doing the inspection, it took one hour to travel to the factory. So the travel time was 7 hours for this 3-hour flight. This is a common occurrence when traveling in China as 97% of the airspace is controlled by the Chinese Military compared to 3% in the USA.

The following day I reserved the full day to look at all products in production.   When I got to this style, I was shocked to find the streaking throughout the production that was being sewn.   Then I began the discovery process to determine how did this happen and why wasn’t I notified about this issue, as it was clearly visible to the human eye.

As a proactive, responsible, and accountable leader that was residing in China at the time, the lesson I learned is the importance of dealing with a transparent supply chain, being prudent with inline inspections, and knowing when to trust a long-term supplier that gives your company great credit terms and has misinformed you in the past. Fact, for the 7 years I resided in China I discovered that over 90% of the factories do not tell you the truth. This includes the long-term vendors and factories that you trust.

We could have avoided this issue by:

  • Continually validating/vetting our existing long-term and new suppliers
  • Properly on-boarding existing and new suppliers with our changes in policies, procedures, systems, manuals, and requirements
  • Having the production allocated by a trusted and thoroughly knowledgeable company representative outside of the country of production (This production was placed by an individual in the head office who never travelled to qualify, validate, vet, or work with any of the suppliers, allocation was based on price, available production space to meet the delivery, and credit terms)
  • Requesting thorough inline inspection reports done by someone from outside the country of the production.

I am disappointed to see way too many products on the retail-selling floor that are substandard, as many senior managers seek to control the chaos to maintain their position and status within the company.   The department, brand and corporate integrity are jeopardized for the individual needs.  I pray for the day when we can have proactive, accountable, responsible individuals who are fuelled by empowerment and success of others by hiring, training, managing, and leading a team to product and corporate success for the ultimate benefit of founders, shareholders, the corporation (brand), and ultimately the consumers.

It is essential to control your dye lots by managing your shade cards to make sure there is consistency when cutting, bundling, and sewing the garments to ensure the final products are made from the same dye lots.

I have witnessed products that were made with production cuts (first and recuts) from different dye-lots, if it is not made from the same dye-lot you risk the chance that other cut components will be made with slightly different color shades and weight variables (+/-5% is allowable from dye-lot to dye-lot).

Regarding recuts, sometimes this is necessary as they missed cutting the panel, lost a panel or the fabric is damaged on the first cut and they need to recut. The manufacturer will not recut the entire style; they will only recut the missing, lost, or damaged panel.

Knitwear for sweaters

The process for sweater knits is intricate and complex with a depth of options including but not limited too, yarn structure (length and thickness), stitch types (weight), needle size (gauge), and dye-lot. I like to determine my yarn needs from the type(s) of animal fibers, synthetic fibers, or natural plant fibers.   Understanding the complete processes from the yarn to the finished product and the timelines, restrictions, and limitations associated with each area.

A photo from within the factory documenting how they attach the sleeve on the garment and highlighting the QC process for inspecting the seams, fabric, and final products.

Understanding how the length of the yarn when spun together will affect the finished products, as shorter yarns will ball easier. The different type of machines available to spin the yarn, that are made in the USA, Italy, Turkey, Japan, and China, with sophistication in the way they prepare, spin and finish the yarns, their different techniques (setup, operation, maintenance), and processes.

It is best to be fully versed and aware of material restrictions, limitations, and potential issues that can happen when your consumer uses and washes your product(s). Understanding the capacity of the supplier, what they can do and what they can’t, know when they will outsource parts or all of the processes and the reason for them to exist in your business.

The above premium Cashmere styles were made at the vertical factory from yarn fiber to the finished product in Northwest China.

Looking at trends:

  • From the yarn to the content, to the techniques, the processes, the finishes, the producers, to the retailers, and online to fully comprehend what is happening in the marketplace.
  • In sweater knits, traveling the world and researching online to find the latest retail styles that are setting the stage for up and coming designs, fits, processes, knits, finishes, appliques, and retail strategies.
  • At the producers, seeing what others are doing, working with the vendor on new techniques, new knit strategies, combining and blending yarns to make unique and better quality products.
  • At trade shows to see what is happening in which regions, who are the core vendors, who are the up and coming companies, who is producing the yarn at the level (quality, price, delivery) that will eventually be knit into your sweater.

Understand trends and how they play into your regional, national, and global growth strategy.   It goes beyond the retail operations, products, people to marketing, branding, and GTM (go-to-market) strategies.

The above premium knit Cable Cashmere styles were made at a vertical factory from yarn fiber to the finished product in Northwest China.

 The above photos were produced at a finishing house outside of Shanghai; these fine premium cashmere products highlight this manufacturers strengths with intarsia and embroidery applications.

Once you have determined the types of sweaters. You should understand the variable qualities of finished yarn in the marketplace, understanding the price restrictions and the true TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) to make the finished products.

When developing a collection or product, I prefer to determine the retail price point and then work backward to review all the stages to ensure I am sourcing realistic vendors for each stage. I don’t want to waste everyone’s precious time or make investments into product research and developments to find out the sweater you wanted to retail for $200 is coming in finished at $400 or $500, over 100% more than your target market is willing to pay.

Now that everything above is addressed your final decision will be to choose if you will purchase the yarn and allocate to your knitting mill, or select a particular yarn producer as a dedicated vendor for that type of yarn(s), and tell your knitter or converter they must purchase from these approved vendors. This will apply to all vendors throughout the entire PLM.

About the Author

I have over 25 years of experience and a breadth and depth of insights and expertise in providing knitwear solutions to international brands (Fortune 500, specialty brands/retailers, and innovative startups). I have lived in the manufacturing countries to be closer to the heart and soul of the product, understanding the people, the cultures, the languages, the strengths, the weaknesses, the opportunities, and the threats.

I understand (practice, preach, and mentor) all information published in this article and more, some of which I discuss in this article as it pertains to Knitwear, but can crossover to the entire supply chain and business operation. I have traveled all over the USA, Europe, Latin America, South America, and Asia to analyze the GTM (go-to-market) market and product trends, source new products, manage the PLM, supply chain, sourcing, product, and people to elevate the product world to greatness.

If you have any additional questions, needs, or concerns, please send me an email or leave a comment below.