Byline: Karyn Monget

WILMINGTON, Del. — The hunt for new allover seamless products is reaching a fever pitch at the DuPont headquarters here, where research and development specialists are working relentlessly on new ideas and concepts.
The demand for breakthrough ideas is so strong that DuPont officials said there hadn’t been this much action in the high-security research and development area since the pharmaceutical and textiles giant developed such products as bulletproof jackets, puncture-proof tires and weatherproof nylon parachutes for the U.S. military during World War II.
This time around, DuPont officials say it’s fashion — not war — that’s fueling the insatiable hunger for seamless products, a classification that is expected to soon expand from underwear and daywear to activewear, children’s wear, men’s wear, casualwear and sportswear. The movement is already taking shape in swimwear, a crossover idea seen at the Lyon, Mode City trade show in Lyon, France, last September.
The goal is to go beyond basic seamless looks and into a new realm of knitted engineered features that give different levels of stretch and control in a variety of yarns. The process, which integrates fitting and sewing as well as shaping, dyeing and finishing, ideally will include new generations of engineered Tactel nylon and Lycra such as Lycra Soft, which gives various degrees of support in a kinder, gentler way than traditional Lycra.
“This is a whole new frontier for us,” said Kathy Smith, marketing manager for Lycra-intimate apparel. “The biggest driver for this trend is the newness it brings. It’s really a consumer concept where we’ve seen it initially in women’s underwear, and by all indication, activewear will be following suit very shortly.”
The technology responsible for the seamless trend comes from Italian Santoni machines, which have been an integral part of the hosiery business for 15 years. The most widely used unit features a 13-inch cylinder, but newer models appropriate for ready-to-wear were showcased in April at the International Hosiery Exposition that feature wider cylinder diameters of 15 inches and 20 inches, as well as double-knit machines.
This latest machinery — averaging around $95,000 per unit and between $15,000 and $20,000 for the software setup — has been created primarily for women’s apparel.
In addition to the U.S., DuPont is working on R&D projects at DuPont facilities in the U.K. and Geneva, and through partnerships in Italy. The company also is creating an R&D operation in Taiwan.
Smith said DuPont would conduct “seamless focus groups” next week in Asia, Europe and the U.S. to get a “global pulse” of what consumers perceive seamless to be. Seamless workshops for the trade are slated to begin midyear, and DuPont will exhibit seamless products and technology at two trade shows: SportsLab in Las Vegas in June, where a wider cylinder Santoni machine for rtw will be exhibited, and the Lyon, Mode City fair in September, where the exhibit will be housed in a Tactel and Lycra booth.
Commenting on the impact of Lycra in the marketplace, Smith said, “We are training women to know that Lycra is more than control. It represents resilience and richness in a product.”
Bob Kirkwood, DuPont’s global rtw technical manager, said DuPont would invest anther $8 million to $10 million this year “to renovate our labs for 2000 in knitting, weaving, dyeing and finishing technology.”
Kirkwood noted that new developments in the Santoni arena pop up so quickly that “it’s like keeping up with computer technology….Once you get a new computer, there’s a newer, better model out in the market.”
DuPont brought senior technologist Juan Cera on board this year. Cera’s 15 years of expertise and knowledge of Santoni machinery has made him instrumental in the design, knitting and mechanical operations of Santoni R&D at DuPont. There are a shortage of skilled Santoni technicians, especially experts such as Cera who can handle each medium of seamless technology, Kirkwood noted. The company plans to expand its R&D staff to include a design intern.
Cera, who was demonstrating how a Santoni machine works, said, “The one mistake that many mills are making right now is treating the seamless category as a hosiery business. You need to get the size and shape right.”
Just then, a black, allover seamless bandeau, which Cera had programmed the machine to produce, literally plopped out of a tube and into a canvas basket. It was spun out in about three minutes and featured different levels of seamless engineered stretch and control from several yarns that the eye could barely see.
“They really are circular knitting machines on steroids,” said Cathy Hamilton, a senior research associate, who noted that the demand for Santoni machines was much bigger than the existing supply. “We’re probably going to see some kind of shakedown. People who have one or two machines can’t make a business of it. The next shortage will be trained mechanics and designers.
“Wolford really is the one [manufacturer] who is exploring what can be done with all of the possibilities in creating seamless garments,” said Hamilton, pulling out several engineered stretch dresses and bodysuits by Wolford. The items had been neatly folded in flat, envelope-shape packaging that is typically used for legwear.
Hamilton added that “Victoria’s Secret took the concept of seamless from the consumer’s point of view and created an entire wardrobe of seamless items.”
To press her point, she showed a color brochure by Body by Victoria’s Secret, which featured a seamless convertible bra in a bold shade of curry and seamless stretch bodywear pieces that can be layered, such as a crop tank, halter tunic and capri leggings in black, brown and bright orange. Victoria’s Secret launched the new campaign in mid-April.
“I would like to see a computer programmer get into this and create a line between the person and the machine, without all of the intermediate drawing and fitting steps,” Hamilton added. “I would like to see a Web site…where you could use your home computer to customize your order online. If you wanted the product a little roomier in the backside, you could order it that way.”
For the moment, though, DuPont is working on partnerships with retailers and manufacturers.
“We are working to solve trade problems, quality problems,” said Kirkwood. “It’s exciting to see our clients come in and work with Juan in developing a concept garment. They can then go to a Sara Lee, a Tefron or Delta with a CD Rom and say, ‘OK, we’ve done 80 percent of the R&D, now you do the rest.’ “
Kirkwood added that seamless technology could rejuvenate certain levels of manufacturing in the U.S.
“It can bring garment production closer to shore,” he said. “What appears to be happening for U.S. textile manufacturers is, it’s keeping them onshore and making them more competitive with overseas operations.”