Today was a very busy day full of factory visits! On our way to the first factory, we drove through the main city of Hangzhou. This is a very up & coming city, and everywhere you look, you can see construction cranes building new skyscrapers. The city itself is full of apartment buildings and offices, and it is huge! There are certain things about the architecture that are modern like New York, but you still can tell it's a foreign city. For example, we passed through an area where the houses had pagodas on their roofs. I've never seen so many housing developments in one place, but I guess in a country with 1.4 billion people, you really need all the homes you can get!
Our first stop was a print mill factory that prints and finishes knit polyester textiles, mostly for home goods like blankets and curtains. They buy already knitted fabrics and add finished to manipulate the feel of the fabric. The finished fabrics remind me of those soft, fluffy pajama pants that were really popular when I was younger. One process done in this factory to achieve this feel is napping, which raises fibers on the surface of the fabric to give it a softer hand. Another finishing process, brushing, smooths all the napped fibers so that they face the same direction (you know how on a pair of Uggs, they change color a bit based on the way you rub them. Brushing would make all of those fibers face the same direction!).
Some finishing processes take place before the screen printing, but once the fabric is printed, it will be washed with softeners to again improve the feel. The fabrics are washed at extremely high temperatures to ensure colorfastness once they are sold to the final consumer.
Next, we went to a nearby polyester weaving mill. The process of weaving used by this mill is very similar to what we observed at the Chenfeng linen factory on our fourth day. This factory uses 20 tons of yarn each day to produce their fabrics!
Our next stop was the Zhejiang Poipoilu Garment Company, and this was a particularly interesting visit. Poipoilu is a Chinese childrenswear company, but they market themselves as a French brand. The founder of the brand was inspired by a trip she took to Paris, during which she observed the close bond French children share with their parents. She wanted to communicate this through clothing, and so Poipoilu was born! The brand was founded in 1989, and they sell their products in multiple brand stores across China, as well as online (25% of their sales come from e-commerce!). They operate on a model of vertical integration, meaning they control every step of the production process, from sourcing fabrics to designing and selling the clothing.
We toured one of their stores and their buying showroom, which is currently displaying their Autumn/Winter 2017 collection. The brand will start developing a collection one year in advance. They begin with market research, and then they move on to designing and sampling the garments. Once the samples are approved, the garments are put into production and are sent to their stores! They do two collections each year, and their brand is priced at a middle to high end price point.
One thing I found to be interesting about the brand is that it is marketed as a French company, so as a shopper, you wouldn't expect the designing and production to be done in China. They do a pretty good job of achieving a European aesthetic, and this is just one example of how influential Western fashion is in China.
Poipoilu does their embroidery for their clothing on site, so they invited us to see the factory! The machines used to embroider are very similar to those I saw in India. These machines have 9 needles, so they can embroider up to 9 colors at a time. The design is outlined on the computer, and as the machine operates, it follows the computers instructions. While in India, the embroidery factory we toured made elaborate silk fabrics, so it was cool to see embroidery being done on more practical textiles today!
After we went to the Keqiao China Textile City. Located right outside of Hangzhou city, this is the biggest hub of textile trading in China and the largest textile center in the world! We were given a tour of the exhibition center, where we learned about the history of the textile industry in Keqiao District. Here are some facts I found particularly interesting from the tour:
-There are about 10,000 textile businesses located within this district
-16.2 billion meters of printed and dyed cloth and 100 million garments are produced annually in Keqiao
-The value of annual textile exports from Keqiao is $10 billion
So it's pretty clear that Keqiao plays an important role in China's textile industry and contributes significantly to the nation's economy. China Textile City was founded in the 1980s to bring together textile distributors. Since then, the market has grown to house over 29,000 companies and has relationships with about 5,500 international purchasers. The traditional trade zone, which is where we spent our afternoon, consisted of 8 different markets, which are organized based on the types of fabrics they sell. Beilian Market, for example, carries fabrics for curtains and window screenings, while East Market carries womenswear and knitted fabrics. These markets have become an important destination for designers, who sometimes take on the role of sourcing fabric.
During our tour of the exhibition center, we saw examples of some of the fabric the market carries and learned about how they've grown since 1985 and how they plan on expanding further in the next few years. We also got to play with a virtual dressing room!
We spent about two hours in the market, during which we got see firsthand all the hundreds of thousands of options designers can work with when creating garments. Most of the fabrics purchased at the market are sold to garment producers in wholesale, but some of the students in our group were able to buy fabrics that they liked! It was amazing to see just how many different colors, patterns, and styles are out there, and I'm sure this market would be heaven for any fashion designer!
Today we were joined by another Cornell student, Alexis, whose family lives in Zhenjiang, China and owns an apparel production company. After shopping at the market, we were invited to her family's factory, where we learned about an innovative textile they've been working on: Microfiber Leather.
The Zhejiang Meisheng Industry Co was founded in 1994, and initially they produced a lot of suede. They have recently switched their focus to microfiber leather, a replacement for natural leather and low-quality faux leather textiles. The company runs their own research & development lab, and they are very focused on applying the latest research and technology to their products.
Alexis explained the unique technology behind microfiber leather. Essentially, when choosing to create a microfiber fabric, there are two options. Indefinite island, the first, is an older technique, which makes it cheaper to produce since the technology to do so is readily available. But, the quality is much lower. The second option is definite island, which is what this company uses. When looking at a cross section of a definite island microfiber, it is more defined, meaning the quality is higher, and since this technique is newer, it is more expensive. Within definite island microfibers, there are two choices for a solvent. The more mature style, the DMF solvent, is, again, less expensive to produce, but it creates toxic gasses as a byproduct, which is really harmful for the environment. The alternative option is a water-based solvent, which is much more environmentally friendly.
Their 100% water-based polyurethane microfiber leather is special because it can posses all the characteristics of natural leather, but it can also be manipulated to have more desirable qualities, for example improved air permeability or better colorfastness. The Zhejiang Meisheng Industry Co. was the first company in China to produce this kind of microfiber leather, and they've won many awards for their work! They are currently working with several car companies in China to provide artificial leather interiors, but they believe this fabric can have many additional practical uses, for example in furniture, luggage, or shoes!
We first took a look at their showroom, where some of their suede and microfiber leather fabrics are on display! Then, we got a factory tour where we saw part of the process of producing microfiber leather. We met Kevin, a chemical engineer who oversees the company's production processes, and he explained to us how the water-based PU microfiber leather is created. Follow along with photos below for the full explanation!
The microfiber leather begins in fiber form, as polyester (1). The company purchases the polyester fiber in massive bales, which are opened to add fluff, packed together (2), and rolled flat (3, 4, and 5). As they are flattened, the fibers are needle punched (6), which is a form of felting that allows the fibers to stick together. This is an example of a non-woven fabric (because it's not woven, obviously). The fabric is compressed purely by physical force. The finished product feels kind of like thick felt (7 and 8).
In the next step of the process, the water-based polyurethane solvent is added to the fabric. This is the step that differentiates their version of microfiber leather from other producers. Most companies add DMF in the solvent, which is the harmful chemical, but Zhejiang Meisheng adds water instead! Since this solvent coats the fabric, it is considered a mechanical finishing process, because it doesn't alter the chemistry of the fibers. After the polyurethane is added and infiltrates the fabric, the fabric is left to cool down. Once cooled, it becomes very stiff. We did not get to see the rest of the process, during which this stiff fabric transforms into faux leather, because the factory was closed for the evening. But Kevin explained that the PU adds strength and ultimately gives the finished fabric a better hand.
We finished our tour at the R&D lab, where we saw many of the same devices we use in our Product Quality course at Cornell! They have a wonderful machine that matches color swatches to dye combinations, which allows them to dye small pieces of fabric and get color approval before the bulk fabrics are dyed!
Afterwards, we enjoyed a lovely dinner with Alexis' family before saying goodbye! Today was by far the busiest day of our trip yet, and every visit was so informative! We are so lucky to have so many generous hosts who are excited to meet with us and show us their factories and companies!