In Australia, you are brought up to believe that name brand clothing production is done by underpaid immigrants and children in poor working conditions as global corporations get rich off others' hard work. Whilst I recognize that there is a problem, I personally think that my parents just used this as a guilt trip so that they did't have to fork out for the latest pair of Air Jordans or Reebok Pumps or whatever it was that was cool back then.
Today, in a society that embraces equality and social justice, this kind of practice is heavily frowned apon, despite our ever increasing consumerism and capitalist driven economy. Many companies pride themselves on providing higher than minimum wages and better working conditions and the term 'sweatshop' is a four letter word. Even in China, a country renowned for cheap labour costs, the clothing manufacturing industry is beginning to change. After years of economic growth, workers are turning their noses up at factory labour in search of something more ennoble, causing wages in factories to rise. This, coupled with increasing costs of textiles in China and a shortage of original designs has raised alarms over China's ability to continue to provide quality, low cost manufacturing.
Now I know what you are thinking... why the heck am I talking about this??? Well, for two reasons: Firstly, I read an article about it the other day in the only English newspaper I could find in a cafe. Secondly, today I went across the border into China to check out the Champion System clothing factory.
Thanks to mass media and scare tactics from my parents, my expectations were of a single warehouse packed with sewing and printing machines. Boy I was wrong. The process of designing and making custom clothing is extremely complicated from start to finish and after witnessing what is involved, I will never again complain about how long it takes. Below is a shortened, more abbreviated version of the production process.
Firstly, apon deciding to have some custom cycling gear made, I need to send in the logos and artwork. These need to be high resolution files so the JPEGs I made in Microsoft Paint need to be redrawn by the art team and approved before going onto the design department. Here, over a hundred people at computers place the artwork on garment templates. This needs to be done for every individual clothing size so that logos are always proportional to the garment, something that few manufacturers will do.
After design and colour approval, the designs are then printed out on huge printers with special imported paper and ink. These prints will be transferred onto fabric so it is vital that they are kept free of imperfections and impurities. Consequently, the room is kept cool and clean with stacks of drying racks. This is one of the most time consuming processes as EVERY individual piece of clothing ordered requires its own printed copy. Its like waiting for 30 coloured photocopies of a 100 page document from a single inkjet printer...
These prints are then sent to the sublimation room where they are transferred onto an imported white fabric. Sublimation is a process in which the dyes from the print are transferred to the fabric using heat. The heat tends to make fabric shrink so to prevent any errors, the fabric is preshrunk. Sublimation is not like an iron-on t-shirt print that essentially puts a sticker onto fabric, but it actually transfers the dyes themselves onto the fabric to create a high quality printed fabric that still feels like, well... fabric. Sublimation produces better quality prints and allows for a wider range of colours and designs. Using this process, you can actually print photographs onto fabric. The limitations are that sublimation can only be done on polymer fabrics or polymer coated fabrics but Champion System are always in search of better dyes and materials to work with. The dyes that are used now are also water-soluble so that the paper can be recycled after the sublimation process.
After another colour and design check, reflective striping and embroidery is done before the prints are cut out by hand (which is actually faster than a machine) or by a special laser cutting machine for some items. This leaves a perfect seamless edge that melts the fabric as it cuts to prevent freying.
From here, it is off to the sewing room where the pieces are put together. There is major attention to detail here, from hidden zippers to tapered collars and removal of any excess threads. If a mistake is made here, it is back to the printing process to start all over again.
After the garment is finished, they are quality controlled and placed on manikins for size and fitting. If everything is okay, they are tagged and packaged for delivery to my door. This is the process for most garments and there are a few exceptions. One of those is socks...
Have you ever wondered how socks are made? I haven't. But one would assume it is just material sewn together. As it turns out, Champion System have huge sock machines that draw from massive spools of thread to produce a seamless sock. It takes a few minutes to do one sock and the left and right sock are done separately! After the ends a joined together to create a seamless seal, the socks are ironed flat and packaged for shipping.
So that is where cycling clothing comes from. Typically, in Australia, when looking for custom cycling clothing you hope for two things. Firstly, a quality, well-made product that feels good and does its job. Secondly, the privilege of being able to put your own designs and logos onto the clothing. Unfortunately, it has become a bit of an expectation that you must sacrifice one for the other. After my tour of the factory, Champion System has proved that they have a philosophy based around both and are leading the way in many of their design innovations. For a better view of the factory itself, check out the video below...