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Acme-McCrary Goes Seamless

Major machinery investment spurs 20-percent growth.

Jim Phillips

  Hosiery business augmented by seamless knitting capability. Too many American manufacturers, in textiles as well as other industries, have become victims of lethargy. They become entrenched in doing one thing the same way for so long that change is both inconceivable and impossible. Such facilities are almost always identifiable by For Sale signs or the lingering rubble that accompanies the demolition of vacant buildings.Change may not be comfortable; it may even be painful. But for those companies that desire to remain viable in the 21st century, change evolution is essential. The feeling of change is one that executives of Acme-McCrary Corp. in Asheboro, N.C., know all too well. The company, long known for its line of hosiery products, recently decided to make a substantial investment in order to enter the seamless market. Acme-McCrary purchased 41 Santoni SM 8-8 Top and SM 8-8 knitting machines this past April and installed them in the companys Pritchard Street plant in Asheboro. 

The seamless investment is part of a joint venture with Wells Hosiery of Asheboro. The decision to make this a joint venture with Wells put us considerably ahead of where we would otherwise be, said Bill Redding, president and CEO of Acme-McCrary. Wells has been in the seamless business since 1992, working both as a direct manufacturer and also as a contract sewer for many large national brands. The company currently does business with Bloomingdales, Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus and a number of specialty boutiques.The seamless venture currently has a weekly capacity in excess of 7,000 dozen units. When the company retooled its Pritchard Street plant to accommodate seamless knitting, space was made for an additional 60 machines, which will eventually bring capacity up to more than 18,000 dozen units per week. For the dyeing of seamless products, Acme-McCrary has also invested in Rome paddle-dye machines. Also recognizing the importance of the finished layout of the goods it produces, Acme-McCrary purchased both SRA and Cortese Boarding equipment and is in the process of working with machine manufacturers to further improve the boarding process to increase garment hanger appeal.For Acme-McCrary, the decision to begin seamless production was made last year in response to gradual erosion in its traditional hosiery markets.We are certainly not abandoning hosiery, Redding said. In fact, we remain as committed to that market segment as ever, perhaps even more so. Weve just made a recent acquisition, Vision Legwear, that will further enhance our position in hosiery. But we decided we needed to aggressively enter new markets, markets in which our commitment to excellence, innovation and service will enable us to compete profitably in bringing superior products to the market in a timely fahsion. Thats why we think there is an opportunity for us in seamless. There are still a lot of retailers sourcing offshore for seamless. Part of the reason is that there is not enough production capacity in this country to fill their needs. A Natural TransitionEntering the seamless market was a natural transition for the company, according to Donnie White, vice president, manufacturing. In deciding to enter a new market, commitment is everything, he said. The first thing you have to do is make a commitment to being the best. That means having the best quality, being able to perform, as far as ship dates are concerned, and having the ability to be flexible. I think weve made a commitment, both financially and in terms of personnel, to be the best. Weve learned a lot from the people who were already in the business and weve learned a lot from identifying our weaknesses as we began installing the processes. Weve tried to attract people who are going to turn those weaknesses into strengths.Among the people recruited by Acme-McCrary is Russell Herndon, the new Pritchard Street plant manager. This was an exciting opportunity for me, Herndon said, to be able to come in at start-up and be a part of growing a dynamic new business. There have been a lot of challenges associated with getting this thing up and running, and I am sure there will be more down the road, but the potential is just incredible. 
Seamless knitting was pioneered in the United States in the past decade by such companies as Jockey and Alba Waldensian, Redding said. Those companies have been working with seamless for several years and worked with the very earliest machines. They have had the luxury of watching the business develop and being a part of that development. The companies that have come on board lately, three or four of us, have to play catch-up and get up to speed with what they have achieved over a much longer period of time. Our strategy is to catch up quickly and get a return on our investment. Speed is important to us. Thats part of the reason for the joint venture with Wells. Theyve been in business and have developed a tremendous amount of expertise. We didnt have to develop the entire sewing operation. With Wells, it was already in place. Ultimately, in our decision to aggressively enter this market, it was the concept of the partnership, the joint venture, that pushed us over the top. It was important to us to be able to compete successfully as quickly as possible.In addition to the joint venture and the hiring of Herndon, Acme-McCrary also brought Diane Donahue on board as sales and marketing director. She had been on the retail side and had her own importing business in intimate apparel, Redding said. She understands the business completely and has been our point guard for the whole merchanise development, sales and marketing effort. Donahue was out of the country, attending the Paris Intimate Apparel Show, at the time of ATIs visit to Acme-McCrary. Challenges And PossibilitiesAcme-McCrary was, perhaps, as well prepared for such a transition as any company can be, but thats a far cry from saying the new venture has been painless.If you think you can just jump in and do it, you would be very wrong, White said. Research and development preparation is critical. For example, a major difference for us is size. In hosiery, we make a product that fits a broad grid of sizes. In seamless, size has to be very specific. These garments, as well, are much more expensive than hosiery. They have to be just about perfect, or the consumer wont buy them. In hosiery, the customer understands that a very compact garment will fit; in apparel, she wants to see a more believable layout in order to be convinced. 
While seamless manufacturing might, indeed, be a logical evolution from hosiery, manufacturing techniques, standards, processes and such are markedly different and much more difficult. The seamless product has to be carefully researched and developed at every step of the process, from fiber through finishing. I think, if you took all of the difficulties we thought we would have and multiplied those by about 10, youd get pretty close to an accurate assessment of how it has been, White said. The seamless process reacts differently, he said. The yarns react differently. With seamless, you have eight feeds versus four feeds for hosiery. That doubles the potential for yarn problems.The first challenge, say both Redding and White, was just to get product out the door to be able to show customers the seamless capabilities of Acme-McCrary. Our first challenge was to be able to produce the types of fabrics our customers wanted, said Redding. Just lately, though, as weve gotten more comfortable with our processes, weve begun developing new samples and taking them to customers. Our first two calls resulted in sales. What takes so much time is that you have to be able to go to your customers with actual results. You cant show them concepts. If you tell them youre thinking about five innovative new products, you have to show them those five products. We are beginning to build a library of products that we can take out and show customers.Acme-McCrary, obviously, spent several months in trial production and sample production before actually bringing the new venture on-line and producing product for customers. The most important thing at first, of course, is just to get the machinery running, said White. Then, once you get it running the way you want, you can be creative. Weve had some products that our people have done on their own that are, quite frankly, better than anything else out there. We take existing product thats out in the marketplace and attempt to improve the concept. Our R and D people have found a way to improve a lot of what we see in the market, especially appearance-wise. The possibilities are virtually endless, and we havent really started to tap the capabilities of the machinery yet. New Applications For Seamless TechnologyPotential seamless applications continue to enlarge throughout various areas of fashion. The market is currently driven mostly by intimate apparel, with the emphasis on unconstructed daywear and panties. Seamless technology is a natural for the comfortable control and shaping demanded by todays consumer. The introduction and expansion of underwire designs will also aid in the growth of this segment. In addition, while intimate apparel will remain a focus of seamless technology, the opportunities for expansion and diversity are seen in activewear and sportswear. The activewear segment, according to Acme-McCrary, will be an exciting area for development. Seamless technology builds on strengths of performance yarns, which can be used to provide moisture management, anti-microbial properties, enhanced comfort in fit and dynamic design.
Acme-McCrary executives pictured left to right: Donnie White, vice president of manufacturing; Bill Redding, president and CEO; and Russell Herndon, Pritchard Street plant manager. Our challenge, said White, is to educate the consumer about the advantages of seamless garments. There are significant comfort and durability advantages. It eliminates the bound-up feeling many women experience with traditional cut-and-sew products. Seamless eliminates a lined look. The garments are more comfortable and can incorporate a wide variety of appearance and thermal enhancements. So the potential is there, but we, as a company and as an industry, have to educate the consumer about all of these benefits. What the new seamless business has done is make us better at hosiery, as well, White said. You have to be better at what you do in seamless. Were taking some of the things weve been doing in seamless and translating those over to hosiery. It has made us more productive. Plus, it has helped us tap into the ability of our employees. Weve got some smart people out there, and this helps us tap into their potential.Adds Herndon: It adds an air of excitement for our employees for them to see we are in a segment of business that a lot of our competitors havent ventured into. Our employees can see that we are forward-thinking in where we want to take the company. Hosiery Continues As Core BusinessRedding said a lot of the companys hosiery customers have applauded Acme-McCrarys seamless efforts as well. They are happy to see that we are not just sitting around reacting to market conditions, but are out aggressively pursuing new avenues of growth.Still, hosiery remains a core business of Acme-McCrary. Redding said seamless production is projected to account for about 20 percent of the companys business when running at full capacity. Hosiery will account for the rest. As part of the commitment to the hosiery market segment, the company acquired Vision Legwear LLC, Spruce Pine, N.C., in December 2000.This acquisition will further enhance Acmes position as a leader in the private-label legwear industry, Redding said. We have made a concerted effort to place new business with upscale retailers, and this acquisition will enhance our account base significantly.In addition, Acme-McCrary continues to update its machinery for hosiery manufacturing, including the recent addition of an automated Solis pick/place machine and new Matec knitting and Cortese boarding equipment.Acme-McCrary was founded in 1909 and is privately held. Acme manufactures private label and licensed brand names, including Essence® Hosiery and Charles Jourdan, for many of the nations leading retailers. The company employs more than 600 people and produces approximately one million pairs of hosiery per week.

March 2001