Welcome to our new series, Factory Tour, in which we're taking you inside the manufacturing facilities of some of our favorite brands to find out how the clothes we buy are actually made.
While domestic apparel manufacturing has all but disappeared from the United States, knitwear factories are especially few and far between. Many designers, even if they produce other categories domestically, outsource knitwear to countries like Italy, Peru, China and Japan where there are more knitters and lower production costs. But for those who are dedicated to a made-in-the-USA ethos, or want to produce locally for quality control and convenience, there are options, like PDR Knitting in Downtown Los Angeles.
With a team of 14, plus an army of nine automated knitting machines, founder Evita Chu caters to the sweater-making needs of labels such as Baja East, Fear of God and John Elliott. We met Chu through Lindy Leiser, an FIT-trained knitwear designer in the early stages of developing her own knitwear brand, Lindy Fox.
Leiser found PDR through the CFDA's website and was struck by the quality of the factory's website and Instagram; keeping up any sort of online presence is rare in the world of apparel factories, which tend to be shrouded in mystery. It's perhaps one of many reasons Chu has stayed in business since "accidentally" launching it 12 years ago.
In a twist of fate, Chu, who was a designer, found herself stuck at home, unable to work after two consecutive car accidents. A friend asked her to knit some sweaters for him from home, and through word of mouth, she got a job knitting samples for the LA-based brand Mike and Chris. The order was large enough that she needed to ask an old colleague for help; he said he wouldn't work for her unless they had an office to work out of, and (with help from her mom), she found a super-cheap, 700-square-foot space downtown, and PDR Knitting was born. "I had no idea what I was going to do, how I was going to survive," she says. One day, a reporter for California Apparel News, who'd heard about a new luxury knitwear factory in town, knocked on her door. After the resulting article was published, new clients came rolling in.
With rising minimum wages in California, running a manufacturing business that can compete with cheaper overseas options hasn't been easy. But Chu sets PDR Knitting apart by offering consulting, and strong relationships with yarn vendors, that one might not find elsewhere. "I'm not like a typical factory where you have to submit a complete tech pack, and I'll process it for you without questioning anything. Big factories do that because they don't want to spend so much time consulting and advising," she explains. Often, clients will come in without any knowledge of the knitwear process where she'll advise them and even offer tips to help them save money. "At one point, I also had to save money for myself, so I know the struggle of small business," she says.
Leiser is an exception in that she's trained in knitwear and often comes equipped with her own yarn (she buys deadstock yarn that would otherwise go to a landfill to reduce waste), but with most clients, Chu will start out by sitting down and discussing their brand's aesthetic, vision and price point. With a small brand, Chu will typically take a down payment and order the yarn for them; PDR's conference room has bookshelves filled with swatches from various yarn mills. Or, clients can order the yarn themselves and Chu just acts as a liason. "From there, we do the development; from development, we do the first sample. We fit it to see what she likes, what she doesn't like," explains Chu. Once they lock down all the details, they'll begin production.
PDR is also attractive to emerging designers because Chu will take orders of all quantities, whether you want to make three sweaters or 300, whereas bigger factories and those overseas typically require larger minimum orders. "She'll actually take my order if I just need to produce 10 pieces, whereas overseas, they won't even answer my email if I say that," explains Leiser. "It might be a little more expensive but it's completely worth it."
Being in LA and subject to its rising rents and minimum wages, PDR's services don't come cheap; its clients pretty much have to sell at a luxury price point in order to get a decent profit margin. Although, with the recent shift she's noticed towards a direct-to-consumer business model, designers are able to price more competitively. "The traditional wholesale route — manufacturer-wholesaler-retailer, where there's so many middle men and so much margin cutoff — it's slowly dying," she says. "Something that is costing $100 [to produce] will end up $600 at the retail in the traditional route." By going direct-to-consumer, some of her clients can price the same item closer to $350 or $400, she says.
Another challenge facing Chu, and the domestic knitting industry as a whole, is the dwindling workforce. When LA fashion manufacturing was flourishing, there was a surge of immigrants from Mexico and Central America who could knit. Today, many of them are too old to work, and they haven't passed down their skills to the next generation. "They settled here, their children are educated, they don't want to work in a factory," explains Chu. In recent years, she's gone from having 24 employees to 14, and she's supplemented the rest with computerized Shima Seiki machines. "I don't have to worry about worker's compensation, I don't have to worry about minimum wage hikes. They don't complain," says Chu, somewhat jokingly. An added bonus: The machines are inherently zero-waste.
Chu inputs her clients' designs into a computer program that codes them and tells the machine what to do. The machine produces pieces of a sweater — a sleeve, a front, a back — which are then linked by hand on a special linking device. Finishings like zippers, buttons and tags are also done by hand, and PDR offers shipping services, as well.
While the knitwear manufacturing process may become increasingly automated as it becomes harder to find (and pay) people with the skills to do it by hand, Chu is confident that "made in the USA" is something people will continue to care about and be willing to pay a premium for. "It does have a good name, just like 'made in Italy' back in the day," she says. "[People are] willing to pay a little bit more for the perceived value."
Get a closer look at the factory's process and machinery in the gallery below.