An hour outside of Dongguan sits Shenzhen, a city best known for the huge factories that mass-produce most of our electronics. But the small PK factory we visited today is a far cry from these. Surrounded by vegetation, and housed in a single multi-story building, this facility was as nice as any we saw on our one-week tour.
Cut-and-sew factories—be it this one, or our tee factory in LA—are pretty standardized in the way they operate. Rolls of fabric arrive and are inspected. They’re then laid out into flat stacks and cut into their individual pieces. These are then sent in bunches to the sewing floor for assembly. Each sewer handles a specific operation—for instance, one might sew the neckband while another adds a yoke to a shirt. Finally they are pressed, finished and packed for shipping.
Established 10 years ago with 300 workers, this factory specializes in higher-end work. Garment workers in Shenzhen are known for their technical skills. On the surface though, there is not much that differentiates this factory from another one. Instead, it is the people in management that matter. Like a small neighborhood store, you begin to befriend the owners. You tell jokes, hear about plans for the future and discuss ways in which you can grow together. In the end, it is this relationship that dictates who we work with. When we can trust the owners to make a great product and treat people well—as we do here—it incentivizes us to stay and bring additional work to the factory.
In contrast to this morning’s factory, just 120 people work in this small, three-story sweater manufacturing facility. A relatively new enterprise, the Taiwanese owner moved his operations here in 2009 when rising labor costs shifted Taiwan’s economy further out of manufacturing.
Sweater knitting is a unique process. Rather than starting with rolls of fabric it starts with rolls of yarn. These rolls are placed atop expensive machinery that then takes the yarn through a back and forth motion to create panels of fabric. Each piece—the arm, the front body, the back body—is programmed via computer. This stage barely involves people. The workers only come in to stack the pieces and make sure nothing goes wrong.
After the knitting, stacks of individual pieces are passed down one floor to linkers. This step requires incredible skill. It’s truly an art to watch. Individual panels are linked together using a circular machine but only with tremendous dexterity and hand-eye coordination on the part of the worker. Those that can operate this equipment are the highest-paid workers in the factory, making upwards of 5,000 RMB a month (four times the minimum wage).
These are the two steps that create a sweater. In the last stages, the products are inspected with care, small imperfections are fixed, and the final sweaters are pressed and finished before being packed and shipped.
After the tour and away from the buzz, we learned from the owner that at the beginning of each Chinese year, factories compete heavily for skilled labor. It’s become increasingly challenging. As a result, owners here have taken two major steps: 1) They’ve increased wages and have instituted a guaranteed monthly income, three times that of the area’s minimum wage, and 2) they’ve improved working conditions. To that end, they’ve recently doubled the amount of money spent on food here, and are currently installing air conditioning units in all of the dorms. Indeed, the general atmosphere seemed positive and communal. Many workers were clearly friends and were also friendly with us.
The long-term goal for this factory is to stay small. Quality is important and the owner and his partner—a native of Los Angeles—are moving to higher-quality knits that are less likely to be off-shored to cheaper markets. Over time it will focus more on luxury: More expensive products allow for less volume and higher margins. At both factories we visited today, while grossly different in size, this was an overlapping trend.
Dongguan, China: Learning what differentiates cashmere. #EverlaneInChina
For the last 50 years, we’ve watched manufacturing jobs leave the US. Unable to compete with the seemingly bottomless pool of labor in Asia, America was forced to shift into a service economy. Today, China sits on a similar brink. Just beginning to see the bottom of its labor pool, the country is having a hard time competing with developing countries like Bangladesh, Cambodia and Vietnam. As a result, factories like the one we visited today are adapting their business in interesting ways to stay competitive.
This factory makes sweaters for a variety of popular brands, from the more mainstream ones to true luxury houses. They are experts in their field, and the operation runs like a well-oiled machine. The premises are clean and organized, and the employees seem happy and relaxed as they work—many smiled and waved at us as we walked through. Knitting, linking, quality control and finishing all happen under one roof. There are about 800 employees here in total.
But because China’s wages continue to rise—a good thing for its population—the cost to produce a garment is increasing. This factory is focusing on three things to stay in the game. 1) Higher-end clients, like us, are the future for them because we are willing to spend more for quality. Their lower-to-mid-range clients have already moved 2/3 of their business out of China to cheaper, and less experienced, markets. 2) The factory offers a good work environment, which they continue to improve upon. This is smart business because employees are now in a position to choose. 3) They are automating certain processes in order to rely less on labor and increase productivity. All three of these strategies are ones we saw the US implement over time as well.
The linking room is a great example of this modernization. Just two months ago, they invested $500,000 in new machinery and an advanced hanger system. The result? Output per worker increased 30%. That means they can lower cost and be more competitive.
This transition is only natural. It’s the same one that many developing nation go through as they fully industrialize. Wages have increased 10x in two decades and continue to rise. China will quickly become a primarily high-end market and lose much of its volume to off-shoring. It is likely that at some point, its economy will look much like ours—service-based with small manufacturing pockets.
Because many of the factory employees in China move from the farmland to the city in order to earn more money, it is common for factories to have dormitories right on the premises.
At the factory where we make our Backpacks, Weekenders and Reverse-Denim Totes, we asked to see the housing. There was no problem—we visited rooms freely as long as the residents gave consent. Usually three people share a dorm room but there are also two-person couple rooms.
The dorm we visited was built ten years ago. Designed by the owner himself, it emphasizes open-air spaces. There is an outdoor atrium at the center of the building and every room also has its own balcony.
The cafeteria serves a variety of food, and the owner says he often joins employees for the meals there. They get a kick out of it, and he says the food is good. The lunch and dinner break lasts an hour and a half so that people have time to nap between breaks. When we visited at the end of lunch, some people were napping while others watched TV.
The humorous part of the tour? Discovering that the beautiful grounds also make for a lot of romance. We were told that every month there are at least two or three new couples.
When we drove up to this property just outside Dongguan, our Florida-born videographer, Quinn, was surprised. “This looks just like Miami,” she said. It’s true. The air here is dense with humidity, the grounds are a lush green, and the factory owner has spent a small fortune on palm trees.
He believes that if you create an environment that people enjoy, among other things, your employees will stay with you longer. And in an industry that sees operators come and go after a few months, he told us the 1600 workers at this facility stay for an average of 4 years each.
We visited this factory for the first time two years ago on our first trip to China. It changed the way we viewed manufacturing in this country. We were lucky to find a factory that makes beautiful products in a beautiful place, and an owner who understands the value of treating employees well.
Cutting, sewing, shipping and packing all take place in one building. It’s been that way since the factory opened 20 years ago.
During our visit, the Reverse Denim Backpack was on the production line. About 15 sewing operators were working on them. Each sewer managed a different operation depending on his or her expertise. The bag started in piles of cut pieces and took shape as it moved down the line. In its final state, it was cleaned, inspected and then packed for shipping. At the loading dock stacks of Everlane boxes sat ready to be put on a boat and sent our way.
Today we produce over 30,000 units a year here. We started small, but given the quality of product and the way in which the owner works with his employees, we expect this factory to be an integral part of our production for years to come.
Ningbo, China: Inside our cashmere spinning factory. #EverlaneInChina
Spinning cashmere is a lengthy but highly automated process. In the two areas we visited, machines groaned tirelessly to pull, comb, separate fibers, blend colors and ultimately create fine cashmere yarns of different length and thickness.
These spaces are large, bright, impeccably clean and set to a specific temperature (30C) and humidity (80%). The impressive machines here are imported from Italy, and there are nearly as many of them as there are employees. This is common among mills, as opposed to cut-and-sews where the work is far more manual.
In two days, we’ll be visiting our knitting facility for cashmere. We look forward to seeing this final stage in what is the incredibly-long process behind creating our cashmere sweaters.
They call cashmere the “gold of the grasslands” in some circles, and it’s easy to see why. Each bundle pictured up top weighs 80kg and is valued at $12,000. In the storage space we visited there are 500 tons.
Raw cashmere—washed in Mongolia and then packed tightly in giant bags—is shipped to this large facility just outside the historic city of Ningbo. At this revered cashmere complex, the storage space is just one floor in a building that also houses a small dye house and spinning mill.
At the dye house, men bathe large bundles of cashmere in distinct colors. They’re then dried in an industrial dryer much like ones we see at home. In the final stages before spinning, the dyed cashmere is sent two floors up for a final review.
Here in a large windowed room, fans whir as a group of older women quietly inspect the cashmere for any impurities. It’s a process one would expect to be automated, but we’re told that the care and craft is necessary to ensure the yarn is of the highest quality.
Perhaps this is how this facility has become one of the most reputable in the industry. Founded in 1999, by a then 26-year-old entrepreneur, it now processes over 1200 tons of cashmere each year.
Ningbo, China: Cashmere gets a dye bath. #EverlaneInChina