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Sewing industry shape-shifting

The sewing industry is responding to forces both within and beyond its control. Shifting circumstances are likely to change how shops move forward as fabrics smarten up and labor shortages intensify.

Feature | Apr. 1, 2021 | By: Pamela Mills-Senn

The Orion from Matic is an automated linear sewing machine specifically designed for sewing acrylic, polyester, technical textiles, PVC and other fabrics for the awning industry. It comes equipped with a traveling tray that moves the fabric under a stationary sewing head. Photo: Matic.

In January 2020, Archana Sharma, CEO of AKAS Tex LLC, a Bensalem, Pa., textile manufacturer/creator and designer of high-performance fabrics, says her company began receiving emails from Singapore, Australia, Japan and other eastern hemisphere countries inquiring about face masks and antimicrobial fabrics. 

“We saw the writing on the wall and immediately replanned production to make all our fabrics antimicrobial,” she says. “And we started the quest to find the best fabrics for reusable face masks.”

Pre-pandemic, AKAS Tex hadn’t made personal protective equipment (PPE), but by February 2020, the company had pivoted to manufacturing three-layer face masks as well as level 3 and level 4 gowns, and to making the fabrics necessary for these items. When its production capabilities couldn’t keep up with the huge demand, the company purchased five knitting machines to produce the three proprietary fabrics comprising the face masks, onboarding them between August and December.

“We were already knitting these fabrics, but only on two machines,” Sharma explains. “Now all the new machines are also being used for them. These new machines have doubled production capacity per machine. For example, the machines we were knitting on were with 48 feed. These new machines are with 72 feed, so the per-machine production has increased by 50 percent.” Sharma says these machines can be used with a wide variety of fabrics, allowing her company to accelerate innovation and expand its textile offerings.

The pandemic has pivoted many companies to PPE, converting their processes to making gowns, face masks and other protective gear. Henderson’s automated face mask machines can produce a variety of mask types such as the cup-type face mask shown here. Photo: Henderson Sewing Machine Company.

Technology, labor and pandemic timing

The combination of technology advancements, COVID-19 and ongoing labor shortages has forced and also made it possible for sewing shops to contend with daunting challenges of the past year.

Frank Henderson, CEO of Henderson Sewing Machine Co. Inc., headquartered in Andalusia, Ala., believes the changes wrought by businesses converting to producing PPE has substantially changed the sewn products industry by forcing companies to move toward automation. Henderson’s company is a distributor and integrator of industrial sewing machines, parts, supplies, automation and robotics. When companies began pivoting, Henderson also sold automated face mask machines, automated ultrasonic PPE gown manufacturing systems and other pandemic-related systems.

In addition to dealing with COVID-19, Henderson believes automation and technology can offer a solution to the labor shortages “hampering the industry” by boosting workforce productivity, making it easier to get by with fewer people, trim energy and transportation costs, and reduce the lead times required to fill orders. He hopes companies continue to push toward increased digitization.

“Digital transformation technologies will need to include more than just online purchasing,” says Henderson. “Automation technology, machine learning, artificial intelligence and digital access anywhere, driven by a digital platform, will be must-have technologies going forward.” He says that thanks to new financing and leasing options, automation and technology are becoming more affordable for even small operations. 

Christina Lefebvre, area sales manager, Canada and USA, for Matic, says her company is seeing an upswing in shops that were once reliant on manual labor transitioning to fully automated machinery. Headquartered in Barcelona, Spain (Matic America LLC is based in Newark, Del.), Matic offers full workflow solutions and manufactures automated cutting, welding and sewing machinery across the textile industry. 

The MACH2XS WHOLEGARMENT® flatbed knitting machine from SHIMA SEIKI enables items to be made in their entirety, allowing for the construction of 3D forms and tubing without sewing. Shown here is one of those 3D garments in production.

Lefebvre acknowledges that the initial capital expenses required to automate can be high; however, she says that ROI can be quickly achieved through production efficiencies, reduced labor costs, decreased waste, improved accuracy and the ability to offer an expanded product range.

“Shops relying on employees’ skills have a harder time competing with cheaper pricing coming from overseas, as well as longer production times for products manufactured mainly manually,” Lefebvre explains. “Investing in automated machinery also means it’s no longer necessary to hire skilled employees. It’s therefore easier to find employees, and shops will be less subject to skilled-labor shortages.”

Increasing innovation and education

The requirements of producing PPE have forced many companies to overcome their hesitancy about adopting new technology, especially as training and education improves and companies freely share their innovations and knowledge. 

Consider SHIMA SEIKI U.S.A. Inc. In early March 2020, the manufacturer of flatbed knitting machines released knitting data for 3D masks with engineered ear loops for better fit and a pocket opening for filter insertion. The company’s machine customers downloaded this data, modified it for their own designs, and were able to quickly adapt and offer 3D solutions, says Hayato Nishi, PR manager.

One of the Los Angeles-based company’s flagship products is the 3D WHOLEGARMENT® machine, which is capable of producing complete knitted items and allowing for 3D forms and tubing to be produced without sewing. Launched 25 years ago, SHIMA SEIKI recently introduced newer machines with movable sinkers for added hold-down of loops, increasing short-row capabilities, says Nishi.

One of the many features included on SHIMA SEIKI’s flatbed knitting machines is the top tension. Designed with a quality-control sensor that detects irregularities of yarn knots, the machine will stop for large knots and will slow down for small knots. Photos: SHIMA SEIKI U.S.A. Inc.

He is optimistic more companies will shift to 3D knitting and 3D weaving, and he says yarn innovations are a big part of that future.

“Since our technologies go from yarn to the final product, the yarns ultimately determine the functionality of the product,” Nishi says. “By utilizing conductive yarns, we’re seeing more people introduce products in the smart/wearables markets. Additionally, we’re seeing a lot more yarn companies introducing performance fibers or functional yarns.”

Sharma agrees and says AKAS Tex is “constantly innovating” fabrics, sometimes combining existing yarns and fibers in different ways to create a new feature or exploring new yarns and fibers to see how they could be used. This process led to the creation of the company’s one-way wicking fabric, an advanced version of the wicking, stay-dry fabrics typically used for sportswear and incontinence applications. Sharma says the company incorporated three different synthetic yarns into the fabric, which wicks moisture away in one direction while not allowing it in the reverse direction.

“Once this was a success, we used a similar technology but used superfine cotton yarn on one side for superior comfort,” she explains. “The Zorb® 3D Dimples is another such innovation. We utilized the basic properties of certain fibers and combined them in a special three-dimensional construction to create a versatile super-absorbent fabric.” For the industrial market, the company combined different fibers into nonwoven fabrics, creating a mat that can absorb oil or other fluids/liquids.

AKAS Tex is continually innovating new fabrics either using existing yarns/fibers in different combinations or exploring new yarns/fibers. At left is the company’s one-way wicking fabric utilizing three different synthetic yarns to wick away moisture in one direction, not allowing it in the reverse direction. The center photo shows a multipurpose nonwoven mat for the industrial market created by combining different fibers and designed to absorb oil, water and other liquids. At right is the Zorb® 3D Dimples, which combines certain fibers in a 3D construction, resulting in a versatile, super-absorbent fabric. Photo: AKAS Tex LLC.

Pace of change is accelerating

Eva Osborne, the owner of New Holland, Pa.-based company Significant Difference LLC, an R&D consulting company, and also a textile specialist at Helixia LLC, where she innovates new technology techniques, believes the innovation now occurring will drive new markets and new technology, further accelerating the rate of change, which will pick up steam as emerging innovations are rapidly embraced. 

One innovation she devised is a joining technique that allows for the construction of 3D jacquard compression garments on a loom. The result is the Helixiabra, a woven bra that has no seams or sewing other than the band around the bottom.

“Helixia is the double helix used on the fill yarns to cover the elastomeric,” she explains. “I use a variety of yarn sizes and turns to create these yarns, which are very tiny. The smallest is a 152/2 cotton covering a 40D Lycra®. Layering the different yarns allows for moisture vapor transport; specific weaves can increase or decrease the compression, thereby improving shape and comfort.”

Photo: AKAS Tex LLC.

Osborne sees PPE production as something that could contribute to faster innovation across broader markets as more companies become educated about regulations and specifications around these products. She says this awareness will likely spread to other product categories, such as those utilizing smart fabrics. The subsequent understanding of the responsibility companies have to meet regulations and substantiate performance claims will potentially drive skill levels higher and fuel the development of specialties.

Opportunities for every shop

For now, technical and performance fabrics make up a minor part of the overall industry, with smart fabrics comprising an even lesser portion, says Osborne. She believes this provides continuing opportunities for small-business owners who may not be able to adopt advanced technologies. 

“There will always be something new, but at the same time, there will always be a demand for the old-school technology,” she says. “We need both. My advice is to stay flexible. Always have something in your shop that is challenging and bringing new experiences to your resources.”

Sharma says that AKAS Tex hasn’t yet fielded any inquiries about smart fabrics. “However, as more smart products are introduced, the consumer demand could grow. But again, it will be the technology people innovating the next direction to lead consumers to.”

Photo: AKAS Tex LLC.

She says the market requirements are still rather simple, with users seeking product characteristics that make their lives more comfortable and safer, without using toxic chemicals. But she believes the pandemic did accelerate the demand for antimicrobial-treated fabrics, spurring antimicrobial technology.

Nishi sees market demand moving even more toward sustainable products, action driven by IoT-influenced consumers.

“The increase in information and accessibility through IoT has shifted consumers to become ‘demanders’ who are no longer ‘consuming’ everything a brand sells to them,” he explains. “Therefore, brands need to shift towards realistic production to avoid producing any unnecessary waste.”

Designed for curtains, Matic’s NYX line of automated sewing machines will automatically sew the top tape and make lateral and bottom hems. These machines do not require a skilled sewer and can be operated by any person, making finding labor to run the machine easier. Photo: Matic.

As for the “factory of the future,” Henderson envisions one where there is collaboration, simplification and digitization, with total visibility throughout the digital textile supply chain.

“Imagine designing a product, digitally, one time, then distributing that design to any place in the world to be manufactured. Organizations must push for digital transformations to more quickly adapt to marketplace changes,” Henderson says. “They will need to consider more local options and a digital transformation strategy to mitigate risks and inform decision-making—quickly.” 

Pamela Mills-Senn is a Seal Beach, Calif.-based freelance writer.

SIDEBAR: Pivot, Expand, Hold?

Opportunities are everywhere, says Eva Osborne, owner of Significant Difference LLC, an R&D consulting company located in New Holland, Pa. The hard part for sewing shops thinking about adjusting their offerings is deciding what is best for their business. 

“Shops have to understand their products are application-dependent,” she says. “Everything—the fabrics, the techniques, the machines and equipment—will depend on what they’re going to make.”

Shops not only need to look at their expertise, they also must evaluate their equipment, production capabilities, logistics, laws and regulations they might have to meet, and inventory control requirements.

“For example, making load-carrying carriage for the military means your Berry-compliant shop is used to working on a billion small pieces, with accessory items that all have to come together and be identified and quality checked,” Osborne explains. “The equipment, the skill level, the inventory control, the logistics would lend themselves to, say, medical devices, things that may contain electronics.”

It’s also important for shops to consider who they know in the industry and how connected these resources are since their help might be integral to opening up new markets, she adds.

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