Good product developers are garment engineers with a fine eye for detail. Whether that detail is in the shade of indigo or watching out for dangerous working conditions at factories - a product developer should do it all, but not all do.
Salli Deighton, #Rivet50 honouree, has been one of the most influential leaders in creating the best denim we can and I have been a secret admirer until recently. So, when I got the chance, I asked her how she approaches product development starting from how to choose your factory.
WHEN CHOOSING WHICH FACTORY TO USE FOR YOUR CLIENTS, WHAT ARE THE TOPMOST IMPORTANT THINGS YOU ARE LOOKING FOR?
Firstly, I always look for genuine pride in the people at the factory when I visit. You quickly see how passionate the teams are about their work and can feel the vibe in the factory. The most important thing is safety and their well being. I’m not usually responsible for the audit but support the teams and we wouldn’t consider any factory without a full audit. I love a good snoop around and the usual factory tour would involve me roaming around the chemical store or exploring the ETP (effluent treatment plant) to see what products and methods are used. We look at everything from the sewing lines to health provision in the factory but I always make sure I check out the ETP.
I had to study the basics to understand what it should look like but this is such an important part of any laundry. It’s a combination of tanks which clean the dirty water after washing the jeans. The best laundries have biological tanks with some very smart micro-organisms such as cillates, which love to eat the waste and it’s a natural way to break down and treat the waste. It is a little more complex than this, but you know a laundry cares about its footprint when I see we see such an ETP.
Thank you to Salli for sharing this beautiful video of "a super zoomed ‘cillate’ micro-organism which is eating the indigo wastewater. We filmed him in a petri dish after taking him out of the biological tank in the ETP. This guy was about 50 micrometers big!"
"This is an image of the biological tank that the microorganisms live in. The water is blue from the indigo but after the process and several filtrations, it is clean. This is where the cillate is swimming!" - Salli
As a product developer, I believe we need to understand all the tools which are available to us in all our factories to enable us to develop responsible products which suit the factories production and the brand. Smart design is efficient, cost-effective, and transparent, and works for all parties. Spending time in the factory learning the machines on the lines, the system used for cutting, and most importantly the laundry equipment shows me the capabilities of the unit and what we can do. There is no point sending a laser template if dry processing is fully manual or asking for a styled pocket stitch if the factory is geared up for cost-effective 5 pockets with auto pocket machines!
Design keeping in mind the resources available to you. We have pushed many denim suppliers to invest in new green technologies and it’s our duty to learn how they work and to use them responsibly.
"This is an image of the biological tank that the micro organisms live in. The water is blue from the indigo but after process and several filtrations it is clean. This is where the cillate is swimming!" - Salli
IF A SUPPLIER DOESN’T MEET YOUR STANDARDS, HOW DO YOU WORK WITH THEM TO ENSURE THEY DO VERSUS CHANGING SUPPLIERS ALL TOGETHER?
Each facility receives feedback from an audit and an action plan to follow. The brands and retailers will provide contacts and support to help the factory deliver the required improvements and often will help financially too. If the unit wants to work with the brand they will collaborate and deliver but this isn’t always the case. Unlike the factories which require a detailed audit, laundries have been classed as 3rd tier which means they don’t necessarily need an audit. I find this ridiculous as the laundry is the place where hazardous processes can happen.
Most credible brands will do a full audit but as it’s not legislated it’s not a necessity. I have seen several laundries that would not pass an audit over the years and some truly heart-breaking sights such as a resin (glue) being sprayed on jeans and then pressed with an iron to make 3D creases (basically the workers were exposed to glue sniffing) and blue, indigo effluence pumped directly into a lake where kids were swimming.
These experiences make you understand the harm your job can cause, and this is why I stress we must learn all the processes and know the factory capabilities to enable us to prevent and eliminate these bad practices. As a freelancer, I have refused to work with factories I feel are not safe, even if my client disagrees.
On a more positive note, there are many Asian and Turkish factories I have worked with who have invested in new greener technology and who take care of their workers and their families. These factories I am always proud to work with and will support them and recommend them to others. Denim production should be a healthy partnership between the supplier and brand.
Salli and the team visiting a new green Bangladesh factory called Vintage Apparels.
WHAT KNOWLEDGE DO YOU THINK MOST PRODUCT DEVELOPERS AND DESIGNERS ARE LACKING?
To achieve aesthetically beautiful jeans in a perfect fit is a technical challenge. You need to engineer a fabric with the right character and performance, this fabric then shrinks in laundry and the design and pattern must allow this. We must choose the right shade of indigo and then wash it down with various chemicals or eco-friendly processes to the desired shade. To design denim, you must understand the entire development cycle.
I’m very fortunate to have traveled frequently to the factories for many years and have learned ‘Hands On’, with factories, mills, or chemical producers teaching me. If developments were difficult we would explore and test options and alternatives and often the solutions create a much better product – Teamwork!
New and assistant designers may not have the luxury to travel due to budget constraints. In the UK we don’t have facilities for the designers to visit which mirror the overseas suppliers so it’s hard for them to learn. I have also worked in several companies where the designers are focused on trends and direction and have no interest in manufacture.
Denim is pretty geeky and scientific but if you truly love denim, I really don’t understand why you wouldn’t want to know everything so you can find innovative new ways to make it even better.
HOW CAN THEY LEARN MORE ABOUT THIS?
We’re a pretty collaborative industry. If you can’t travel, reach out to the mills, the chemical producers and equipment producers will help you. If you want to know about fibers, contact the producers; Tricia and Michael at Lenzing have educated most of us on the sustainable values of their fibers for many years.
A few years ago, I saw new laser machines in Dhaka being operated by the IT department! I contacted Jeanologia (the maker) to understand how we could create better graphic templates and they trained me so I could go back and direct the laser operators.
Most of the Bangladesh laundries have big blue Tonello machines. The Tonello team was amazing and helped our team learn what is possible with their technology. This resulted in us reducing our water consumption by up to 50% in many laundries and this journey still continues each season as new tech emerges. Our industry will support your learning if you ask.
I also suggest you read Making Green Jeans by Paulina Szmydke-Cacciapalle and this gives you a good insight into all the considerations we make when developing denim and of course cradle 2 cradles.
WHAT IS ONE PIECE OF ADVICE YOU WOULD GIVE TO OUR UPCOMING ‘DENIMPLOYED’ PROFESSIONALS?
Research everything and challenge the current process. We need future thinking to make our industry greener and more responsible. If you can get a placement in a factory, mill, or chemical supplier that would be great, if not definitely visit and ask the people doing the job to help you learn. Don’t just sit in the showroom on trips, explore the laundry, the factory, and roll your sleeves up. If you visit a fair or see something online don’t be afraid to contact the company and ask for information.
Above all, remember the responsibility you hold. The design you make will be made by many people in the factory. Your development choices impact their lives. We don’t want any more low paid workers sniffing glue just because a designer chose a 3D crease on a style without considering the resin and how it is applied.
.. and read Simply Suzette, there is plenty of advice here!
Thank you Salli for this invaluable lesson!!! As Salli said, to design denim you must know the entire development process and it is important we are continuing to educate ourselves so we can make the best jeans we can.