Last time when my younger brother visited me, I happened to purchase few vests (Banians) for my personal use. After having looked at the price tags, he declared that they are available at half the price at his place i.e. Coimbatore. I was a little bit amused but I knew that what he is talking about were the factory outlets. I told him that I will get them when I am at his place. On my return journey from Kerala I happened to stay with him for a fortnight. One day even before I could remind, he casually asked me if I have any plans to purchase vests any more. I replied in the affirmative adding that I would also like to buy few Tees (T Shirts) as they too are said to be cheaper there. He nodded and suggested for a visit to a knitting factory at Tirupur with whom he had friendly connections. Very next day we were on our way.
The city of Tirupur with a population of over half a million, lies 55 kilometers North of Coimbatore and happens to be a major manufacturing centre of hosiery. The knitwear industry here accounts for around 80% of knitted garments in the country. Their exports stand at Rs.12,000 crores (120 million) annually and the domestic supply is said to be over Rs.5000 crores. There are around 10 to 12 factories where everything is done under one roof including dyeing. Every factory employs around 1000 to 3000 skilled workers. Most of the industrial units come under the category of ‘Small Scale’ barring the few bigger ones. There are around 500 units engaged in spinning and weaving and some 3000 in stitching. Practically every household contributes in one way or the other. There were several units engaged in dyeing but due to the pollution they emanate, many of them closed down because of judicial intervention. Now it is understood that they have equipped themselves with non polluting technologies and are into convincing the courts for their revival. All the smaller units here are engaged in some kind of job work for one another. The factories of Tirupur produce knitwear for all the major brands across the world. Indian brands like Lyril, Lux Roopa etc. get manufactured here but one may not say “exclusively” for this is a kind of job work which is outsourced.
Exported hosiery some times gets returned on certain technical grounds or due to the inability of the importers to pay for them. Such goods get sold at throw away prices, a kind of distress sale, in Khadarpet market near the local Railway Station.
After an hour’s drive, we were at a Hosiery Factory where one of it's directors was a friend of my brother. In addition to Tees, this factory manufactures Tops, Inners, Slips, winter wear etc. for women and children. We were welcomed and provided with play cards to be worn around the neck to indicate our VVIP status before we could venture into their manufacturing areas. I wanted to see the entire process from the very beginning i.e. from raw cotton onwards. The factory had their independent spinning unit which produced yarn out of raw cotton. It was interesting to see the large machines spinning cotton and rolling/wrapping the thread in many ways onto the spindles, small and large. Some of the spindles were larger than gasoline drums. There were hundreds of parallel thread streams getting collected on those drum like spindles. We were told that those spindles are sent to other weaving units who manufacture cloth (not knitwear). In the backyard of the large shed, the open courtyard was strewn with bales of waste cotton which get sold out as cattle feed. Part of it goes to paddy fields to improve soil fertility.
Back in the main factory building we were taken around the knitting section where we found the end use of those smaller spindles. The round machines of various dimensions were engaged in churning out knitted cloth cylindrically. The knitted cloth then finds its place over large tables in several layers. The specifications provided by the Importers/principal companies owning particular brands are stored in a computer. While cutting the cloth some amount of wastage becomes inevitable. The computer throws out various options and when the wastage level is around 18% (that is said to be the tolerable level) the automatic cutting machines receive commands from the computer operator, which in turn cuts the knitted cloth as per the design specified. Sleeves, Collars and the main body parts are stacked separately which go to the stitching sections. The whole process gets accomplished in minutes.
As said above for stitching the different pieces together, which includes buttons/fasteners, hundreds of people are engaged working in different teams. After the stitching the Tees emerge in one piece. They then travel to people who press them and fold them. Finally they are sent for packing but before doing so they are labelled (Branded!). Thereafter they get wrapped in pre-printed polythene packets with logos and all other things as desired by the Importer. Even price tags (In Euros are US Dollars) are affixed. In some cases the packaging of individual Tees are provided with hangers as well. The importer has nothing to add on and they are ready to be hanged in show cases. Now is the time when they get into card board cartons but before that the representative of the Importing Company ensures that all the standards specified have been adhered to. The cartons move to large containers and get placed appropriately (pre-determined space), ready to be shipped.
Around 2.00 PM we completed our learning mission and instead of a few Tees we could not resist filling our cart with not less than 2 dozens of them. They were at much much below the market rates. Of course, they did not bear any brand as such but were otherwise genuinely manufactured for an internationally acclaimed brand. The factory is not supposed to provide branded garments locally, however they are allowed to manufacture 10% over and above the contracted volume. This comes in handy for the factory to entertain their valued connections locally.
Incidentally, we forgot about Vests altogether.