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February 3, 2009
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Tools of the Trade: The Sweater

By Debra Hindlemann Webster

Rohan - EdwardsThere is evidence that folks were knitting clothing with various types of yarns as far back as the ancient Egyptians.  However, the actual sweater didn't appear until the 19th century, in Great Britain.  While people had figured out long ago that knit socks and leggings could help to keep a person warm, it seems that it took another 4,000 years or so to realize that arms and the upper torso could also be kept cozy in much the same way; hence, the sweater.

The first sweaters (pullovers) were made for the working classes—especially fishermen—and strictly for warmth and dryness: Wool kept a person dry and warm, even when wet.  The various sweater weaves were created, legend has it, in order to identify a man by the unique stitch of his sweater; more likely, women just knitted the garments differently from one another. 

The military quickly picked up on the idea: The close-fitting jacket-like sweater was made famous by James Brudenell, the 7th Earl of Cardigan, who led the charge of the Light Brigade.  The large drop sleeve was a matter of practicality when Crimean War officer Fitzroy James Henry Somerset, Lord Raglan, lost his arm and needed a coat that he could easily put on and take off.

When the knit garment entered the 20th century, it became attractive to all classes; even Coco Chanel made it a fashion "must" for women.  It was used not only for warmth and to accessorize, but for uniformity, too.  Sweaters also became a snuggly means of identity with the postal service, law enforcement officers, and other groups with set garment protocol.

Gradually, as society relaxed its formal dress codes, the sweater took on a more casual appearance, added styles and colors, and adapted to the needs of various clientele.  Such giants as Burger King and McDonald's purchased sweaters for their personnel.  Promotional ad companies had their clients decked out in the jazziest of patterns. Banks, businesses, hotels, airlines, and corporate conglomerates used the sweater as a part of the identity package.  Adding embroidery was icing on the cake. 

In the United States, yarn suppliers—particularly with the addition of cotton and acrylics along with wool—were burgeoning.  There was an abundance of mills, dye houses, and finishing plants where knit goods were cut and sewn.  The manufacturing of sweaters had become its own successful industry, despite the fact that sweaters were a fashion "add-on," and seasonal items, only.  Everyone had to have a sweater, even Mr. Rogers.

Today, for all but a very few companies, sweater manufacturing has gone outside of the country. Cost of materials and labor are two substantial reasons; it's also about a vanishing work ethic—finding trained employees. Jon Edberg, originally from Canada, is sales director for New York based sweater manufacturer, Cobmex. The majority of production is done outside of the United States. Jon's group is both a stock house for basic items (black and navy seem to be everyone's favorites), and at the same time, it custom manufactures for huge distributors. His is strictly a wholesale operation.

"We feel we are not recession proof," comments Jon, "but we are recession resistant."  He cites customer service in terms of "great response time" as being the top reason for excellent results in the market, plus very competitive pricing, and keen regard for the Cobmex acrylic blend no-pil yarns.  In business for ten years, and in the U.S. for three, Edberg feels very confident about the company's direction. 

On the American side, Bill Levine, head of Andrew Rohan—the latest arm of expanding Edwards Garment Co.—bespeaks the year-old merger of a once independent sweater company that now complements the larger corporate/casual uniform manufacturer.  "It was perfect for all of us," smiles Bill.  "Edwards needed something to set it apart in terms of enhancing its product, and Rohan wanted a partner."  Eighty percent of the Rohan sweaters are made in the U.S., with only the most customized being made off-shore in order to offset heftier prices. 

For Levine, there is great pride in being an American made company, and he attributes his 15 years in the business with Andrew Rohan to a fine product that has adapted and expanded with both ASI ad specialties, as well as the more conservative uniform lines.  The acrylics by far and away outmatch the cotton sweaters, with the pullover v-neck being at the top of the totem pole.  "Acrylics are the sizzle on the steak," says Bill.

He also feels that it's much easier to manufacture stateside in terms of fast service, and easier-to-maneuver small custom quantities.  "We can give you amounts of ten dozen and a turn-around of 7-10 working days; maybe three to four weeks total by the time we ship from the warehouse.  You pick the color, the style, and the sizes.  In unisex sweaters, Edwards/Rohan sizes range from xs-5xl."

Erwin Schiowitz, vice president of sales at Philips-Van Heusen, plays a somewhat different role in the industry as PVH is now mostly out of the sweater market.  However, it still makes one style—a "¼ zip pullover" out of Italian Merino wool, for Calvin Klein.  Schiowitz has been in the business for 39 years. Respectively, the longer each of these three men has been involved, the more change each has seen in the sweater industry and the more different his perspective. 

Schiowitz sees a reduction in the sweater business because of so many new, different lightweight fabrications and outer garments.  "You have microfiber, fleece, sweatshirts, wind shirts, lightweight windbreakers with wicking.  Sweaters aren't the only option any more," Erwin opines.  "The smaller quantities we manufacture are all done overseas." 

Listening to these very successful gentlemen, it was fascinating to realize that each has a unique approach to handling the sweater within the framework of his corporation.  Whether inside or outside of the United States, or a bit of both, sweaters provide a smart accent to any uniform concept, while giving its wearer fine appearance at an affordable price, and with practical warmth, too.

Debra Hindlemann Webster is the owner of Custom Uniform Company, a manufacturer of high-quality, American-made custom uniforms. The company has been serving individuals, groups, theme parks, corporations, offices, military, hospitality, entertainment centers, and many other businesses with unique custom apparel for more than 70 years.

Visit www.CustomUniformCompany.com or email them at CustomUniformCo@earthlink.net to learn more.

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