By  on August 31, 2011

Step off the sixth floor at Barneys New York and there’s a clutch of mannequins at the ready, all dressed in the latest fall merch — Zero + Maria Cornejo, Stella McCartney, Erdem, M. Patmos. Representing the latter, Marcia Patmos’ fledgling solo label after splitting with Tina Lutz last year, is a pair of leather shorts topped with a gauzy purple pullover. The sweater is an intricate collage of knitted and patchwork textures — ribbing, pointelle panels — without a seam in sight. WWD was on the scene when that sweater — or one of the 81 produced like it — spilled out of a knitting machine like lasagne pressed from a pasta maker. The entire production time: about 45 minutes.

Few designers will broadcast the name of their factories and fewer still will offer to take you on a personal tour. But that’s precisely what Patmos did on a midsummer morning at the two-year-old Shima Seiki factory in Monroe Township, N.J. “It’s exciting to be able to do manufacturing here,” says Patmos, during the early morning drive over from Manhattan. “I know people in the industry can be secretive, but it’s good to be promoting domestic production.” Consider it Made in America, by way of a 51-year-old Japanese company.

Shima Seiki is a powerhouse in the knitting machine industry — its sales jumped 18.4 percent in the past year to a total of $211 million. Some of the brands that have bought into its apparatus include Benetton, Max Mara, Lacoste, St. John, John Smedley and Stefanel. Last year, company founder, president and ceo Dr. Masahiro Shima won an honorary medal from the Italian Republic for his contributions to Italian fashion. The Irish Times put it best in a 1994 article on fashion in Ireland, land of the Aran sweater and cable knit, when it said that Shima Seiki machines are “what other knitting machines want to come back as when they die.”

The two-story New Jersey plant was originally built in 1987 as a stateside outpost for the manufacturing and sales of Shima Seiki’s machines and the computer software and equipment that went along with it. Upon entering the 19,000-square-foot building, with wide swaths of grass on all sides, that’s the exact vibe: garmento showroom, albeit with more space and sunlight streaming through the many windows. The floor is part marble, part faded mauve carpet. There are knitting machines of all shapes and sizes on display, as well as pint-size dress forms sporting doll-sized cardigans, sweaters and sweater dresses — samples to show prospective customers what the Shima Seiki machines can do.

What they can do is this: produce miraculously seamless knits, which the firm termed Wholegarment in 2009. Despite the numerous knitting machines the company manufactures and sells around the world, the New Jersey factory only houses Wholegarment machines, for both 12- and 7-gauge knits. The reason is simple, if a little unconventional: “We wanted it to be like an advertisement for the designer or retailer to buy Wholegarment,” says Tsuno Akira, Shima Seiki USA’s knit design technical consultant. In other words, it’s a marketing move to drive the popularity of its seamless knits in America and, thus, those seamless machines.

As we sit in the lobby before a massive computer screen, Akira demonstrates Shima Seiki’s software and, in particular, how Patmos’ sketches for that purple sweater will soon be transformed into garments that look spliced but are completely seamless. In between the computer clicks and all the technical talk — 3-D digital stitches, calculating knit time, programming patterns — Akira weaves the Shima Seiki backstory into the conversation. The company began in 1962 with one of the founder’s earliest inventions: an automated machine that created seamless cotton work gloves. It’s that technology that eventually led to the development of the Wholegarment machine. Today, Shima Seiki has branched out into everything from the hospitality field (a Shima-owned hotel in the resort town of Shirahama, Japan) to medical products; the firm makes coverings for amputees (no seams make for less skin irritations), onesies for preemies and (confidential) surgical parts.

Moving into a nearby room, there’s a handful of machines, including one that’s churning out some of the M. Patmos fall merch. The designer, who’s long been an advocate of sustainable fashion (she also designs an organic line called Leroy & Perry) notes that Shima Seiki is a zero-waste factory. Wholegarment machines create the entire design at once, so every stitch ends up in the final garment; no extra bits are lopped off, and sleeves and torsos are not left behind to be sewn together. Hot off the presses, the M. Patmos knits are brought over to a nearby crew of women, some wearing green foam earplugs to silence the machine buzz, who add buttons and brush off lint. Patmos grins and gestures around her; there are more of her samples on tables and mannequins nearby.

“The company is really supportive of designers,” notes Patmos as Akira guides us past clear PVC-strip curtains into the warehouse. “The minimums are low — 50 pieces for your first time. In China, that would be impossible. And the fact that they’re right here, I can meet with them quickly and turn things around.” Here, there are even more machines and an even harsher din, like the heavy stomping of soldiers marching in unison. In the back, there are separate areas for washing, inspection and steaming, while over in the corner are boxes and boxes piled high, each neatly labeled with such major names as Richard Chai, Adam Lippes, St. John, The Row. Patmos says inside each box are spools and spools of thread because every designer is required to source his or her own yarn.

“Not every yarn works with the machines here,” explains Patmos, noting that not all her knits are produced here — her striped ponchos and chunky, cowl-neck cardigans, for instance, are made in Bolivia. “I brought a whole bag of yarn samples to go over with [Akira] for my spring collection.” So out they come, one fabric swatch after another, until the table is littered with a collage of samples. Akira stands over the table, stretching and touching each one. Linen is a no — too nubby for the machine’s needles. Linen viscose, however, is no problem. A Cariaggi merino-silk blend gets an enthusiastic thumbs up, and so on.

Back in the car, on our way back to New York, Patmos is asked again if she’s worried about unveiling the curtain behind her production. After all, designers can be a competitive lot. Patmos is nonplussed. “They never show someone else’s samples,” she says. “It’s what a designer brings to it. There are so many possibilities that no two people will come out with the same thing.”

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