Please give us a brief history of the company.
The American Knitting Company goes back to when I was in college, which was not too long ago – I graduated in 2014. I became interested in locally sourcing sweaters, knowing that locally-made products are very important to today’s buyers, but discovered that there were very few sweater manufacturers in the US. So about nine months ago, we set up shop in the Brooklyn Army Terminal. We started out with a really barebones team of five people, two being management, three being actual factory employees. And we’ve grown now to have an average of eight. As we scale up in production within the next year, we’ll have about fifteen, and very quickly up to twenty or twenty-five employees. And importantly, by recruiting people who have run knitting facilities in the past, we’ve brought in thirty to fifty years of industry experience, as you’ll see on our website. Eric Schiffer, our senior director, is crucial to the operations here. He grew up in his grandfather’s knitting mill in Brooklyn many decades ago and he brings a very long history of made-in-USA knitwear knowledge to the team.
What kind of specialized equipment do you use?
The most important equipment here is the Stoll knitting equipment. It’s the most technologically advanced, computerized, full-fashion knitting machinery on the market. In addition to that, we have linking machines which link the parts coming out of the knitting machine together to ultimately produce the final garment. We also have a steam table and washing and drying equipment.
What is full-fashion knitwear?
Full-fashion construction and cut-and-sew: those are the two ways to make a sweater. The lower cost option is the latter. Cutting and sewing a sweater looks like big sheets of fabric stacked on top of a table, twenty-four lays high. You throw a pattern on top of it and take a band saw, cut out the pattern, and then sew all the pieces together. There’s a lot of waste there – usually about thirty percent – and it’s a very high-volume way to produce a sweater. The other way to make a sweater – which is what we’re doing – is full-fashion knitting. What that means is that when a piece comes off of the knitting machine, everything is knit to shape. There’s no waste. That’s why a lot of our customers are using higher-end wool or cashmere even: because there’s no waste on the raw materials side. After the piece comes out, in full-fashion knitting, then its linked together, meaning that the end loop that is on the side trim of a piece is connected to the matching loop on the other piece, and then linked. So it’s essentially a final knitting process which replicates, you could say, 3D printing or your grandmother knitting you a hand-made sweater.
Can you elaborate on the kinds of materials you use?
We’re really producing with the kinds of materials that our customers send us to produce their sweaters, which includes wool, cotton, cashmere, and a host of other specialty yarns. Cotton is second to wool, given that knitwear is primarily a Fall product. So when we’re outside of the Fall season, we’ll be knitting with cotton yarn. The specialty yarns include cashmere and other kinds of space-dyed lurex yarns for shiny products.
Is any of it sourced locally?
A lot of the wool is coming out of Italy, but there is still a number of companies producing yarn in the US. For example, there’s Jagger Brothers up in Maine: a spinning mill about a hundred years old. Yarns from there are sent to a local dyer: Saco River Dyehouse. You can see the supply chain as the yarn coming from Jagger Brothers, going to Saco to be dyed, and then ultimately coming here to be knit into a final product. So there are still local suppliers of yarn but, like the knitting industry, it’s a very small number of people.
How has your industry changed over the years?
Twenty or thirty years ago, you would see knitting mills and spinning operations and dye houses all throughout Brooklyn, Queens, and over into New Jersey and Connecticut. Eric, who really lived that experience, since his family was in the knitting industry, says there were probably 100 to 150 knitting mills alone. However about twenty or fifteen years ago, all those mills essentially closed down and went to China. Everything has been over in China for the past fifteen years and right now we’re really seeing a resurgence in demand for made-in-USA product. There are many reasons for that, but included is the rising costs in China. They are beginning to have a tough time competing, especially on the high-end side. Volume product will always come out of China or a country that can provide the really really low cost, but for the customers that we’re dealing with, who are in the contemporary market and selling sweaters between 200 and 500 dollars, it’s really making sense financially to produce here, given that you have to pay duty, you have to fly to China if you want to be really involved with the initial development phase, and given shipping costs and the like.
How has The American Knitting Company been able to come into that evolved industry and see success?
When we reach out to our target market through the network that Eric’s been building over his entire life, the response that we get is “finally there’s a domestic knitting source that we can rely on” and they either launch a new specially made-in-USA, Made in NYC, or made-in-Brooklyn collection of products, or instead of doing business in China or in Italy, they give their production to us. So we have had a really lucky time in going to market and we’ve received a really great response.
How much does your ability to do this have to do with computer numerical control machines rather than traditional methods?
Our ability to knit full fashion relies totally on the capability that we have through the machinery. For example, if you came to us to make a sweater and gave us all the specifics, the first thing we would need to do is have our programmer, who knows a specialized programming language, create a program for your sweater in the computer and then send it to the machine. It’s highly reliant on computerized machinery.
Who are your major clients?
Right now we’re working with Tanya Taylor, an up-and-coming designer brand selling in the high end markets. They came to us to produce a sample sweater – a really quick turn (the ability to produce something really quickly for someone is another advantage that we have). They submitted it to the women’s national Woolmark prize and advanced to the regional final. Our core market is the designer market, which includes Rachel Comey and Public School for men’s and women’s, but as we grow over the next few years, we’re going to start to scale up so that we can handle a customer like J.Crew, Lands’ End, or DKNY. There’s a just a huge list of hard-hitting names that are getting started with us on producing mostly new collections of made-in-USA branded product.
What are the challenges and benefits of being a business owner in New York City?
The most challenging aspect of locating our business in New York has been the cost. The Brooklyn Army Terminal is relatively competitive with regard to commercial leasing prices. Definitely, the cost of everything here is higher than if we were over in New Jersey or down south. However the benefits outweigh those challenges in that we’re really close to our market. Every brand that’s worth talking about has a location in New York: either a store or, most likely, their headquarters. They’re able to send their designer to us on the train and they’re here in forty minutes.
What’s next for you guys?
The next thing for the company is growth. We’ve just begun to tap our market and we’ve really had a great response, so we plan to grow. That means bringing in more machinery. By the end of next year, we hope to have maxed out the production capacity within this space, which is pretty ambitious, but I think we have the market to do that. So beyond the end of next year, we’ll be launching another production facility, probably within the same building.