By  on May 19, 1994

ATLANTA -- Producers of all-cotton shirts and slacks said they must be in the wrinkle-resistant business even if hefty investments in machinery are required.

"If you want to be in the cotton business today, you have to do this," said Steve Leslie, president of Thomson Slacks Co.

Greg Hannah, president of Cotton Supply Co., Winder, Ga., agreed. "I think you would cut your nose off to spite your face if you didn't [invest in equipment]. It adds intrinsic value [to the product] if you do it right."

Howard Posner, executive vice-president of Salant Menswear Group, which recently started up wrinkle-resistant production in its Andalusia, Ala., facility, called that move "a natural progression off the success of WR pants. We feel like it's right for the market."

Costs vary according to production size and the type of process (post-curing, pre-curing, garment dipping, or vapor phase) a manufacturer chooses. Bob West, president of Mahan Oven & Engineering, said batch ovens cost around $35,000, while an oven as part of a conveyor operation costs about $50,000. Larger ovens cost up to $85,000.

"It's a big investment when the high-end machinery you've been buying is pressing and sewing machines," West remarked. "Comparatively, it's a significant cost."

Richard Sussman, chairman of Sussman Automatic Corp., said that curing ovens cost between $20,000 and $75,000, depending on production. The only other cost is that of treated fabric purchased from the textile mill, which would add about 25 cents per garment produced. "It's not outrageous," he said.

It's less expensive to buy pre-treated fabric than to treat a garment after it's sewn; however, many apparel makers are opting for the latter process, which they say yields better results. Also, sewing machines must be adjusted to handle the treated fabric. If the apparel manufacturer does treat the garment, then a laundry and chemicals add to the expense of buying just the oven.

Of course, one way to get around some of the costs is to contract out to companies that are set up already.

It is also conceivable to retool ovens from the days of permanent press, Sussman said, but warned that this is not practical because the old ovens cannot meet the specifications of the new ones. Temperatures can vary as much as 30 degrees in older ovens, he said, adding that the temperature variation in new ovens is seldom more than five degrees.Mahan's West, however, said several of his customers are getting good results from older ovens. Temperature controls have been updated in those ovens, but their air-flow characteristics are comparable to many newer ones. Mahan recommends an evaluation.

A new oven should pay for itself in about three months, Sussman said, because the producer will be getting a higher price for the WR product. Anyway, he added, "if you're a men's casual pants manufacturer and you're not in wrinkle-free, you might as well close your doors and go out of business. And now, the shirt people are in it."

Sussman pointed out that Levi's is struggling to catch up to Haggar, Farah and Lee, which entered the WR market earlier. The company's entry, he said, will raise interest in WR apparel a notch higher.

"Now Levi's will start the whole wrinkle-free revolution all over again and everyone will be getting into it," Sussman said. "Even the women's wear people are getting into it."

"I think this eventually will become a standard for cotton slacks," West added.

Cotton Supply's Hannah said that his company started producing WR slacks in January doing wet processing. He already had a laundry with washing and drying. "It was easy to add an oven," he said. The product has taken off. WR represents 15 percent of sales for Cotton Supply and the company's private-label programs, a percentage Hannah believes is all plus business.

The company's capability also has helped it get new business from companies that are contracting their WR needs, including large accounts that are not pleased with results they're getting from Chinese facilities.

Steve Manning, vice-president of manufacturing, Thomson Slacks, said his company has been using the vapor phase process for six years to produce both all-cotton and cotton-blend WR pants. Thomson, which did not advertise those products heavily, is now benefiting from all the interest in WR slacks.

The company now has added garment dipping, where the sewn garment is put into a commercial washer with the WR chemicals, then dried on low heat, pressed and finally cured in an oven. Thomson contracts this out.

Thomson's ovens cost from $30,000 to $75,000, depending on capacity, Manning said. Thomson uses a contractor in the Dominican Republic that has its own oven, and Thomson recently bought a used oven, which hasn't been set up yet, Manning added.Most of Thomson's WR finishing, however, has been done with the vapor phase process, which requires equipment costing around $110,000, according to Manning. In this process, the untreated fabric is sewn into pants, pressed, put into the vapor chamber where steam containing the chemicals and catalyst are released. The chamber's temperature then is brought up to bake the garment and finally the garment is "clean-steamed" to get rid of residual formaldehyde. Manning said that lighter-weight fabrics perform best in this process.

The payback, Manning said, depends on the selling price of the garment. "I don't think you have to put a pencil to it because you would not sell it if it wasn't wrinkle-free," he explained. "That's the price of admission for cotton now."

Salant's Posner said his company has made considerable efforts to restructure manufacturing operations to maximize the WR performance of its shirt products, which will be in stores for Father's Day. He declined to predict the payback in sales and increased margins.

Salant is optimistic about the WR shirts' performance. "This shirt will stand up better during the day [than untreated shirts]," Posner said, an opinion echoed by other shirtmakers.

Posner said Salant evaluated all WR processes and found different fabrics performed better with different processes. For example, an oxford cotton shirt gets better results if it is post-cured.

Oxford Shirtings, a division of Oxford Industries, set up its own wrinkle-resistant facility recently to produce sport shirts under a licensing agreement with Farah. The shirts, which will be in stores in time for Father's Day under the label Savane, undergo a process developed by Farah U.S.A., Inc., called Savane Process 2000. In fact, Oxford is producing the shirts for Farah under a licensing agreement, according to John Brewton, Oxford's operations manager for Process 2000.

Brewton declined to discuss the costs of the operation, partly because Oxford has just started up the facility, but did say that Oxford purchases the fabric untreated from mills, sews the garment, puts the garment through a washing cycle with the Process 2000 chemicals, removes the garment and sends it to pressing. Finally, after making sure the garment has no wrinkles, it is sent it to an oven for curing. Oxford is able to save money by extracting chemicals in the washer and then reusing them.Oxford, Brewton said, has tested this process extensively. "It's a proven item," he said. "It has a very soft hand and gives the best appearance."

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