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Knitting Mills Turn Technical Expertise Into Tools for PPE Innovation

When non-essential businesses were forced to close in March due to COVID-19, Tricots Liesse had to furlough the majority of its workforce.

The Canada-based 250,000-square-foot circular-knitting mill, which has been in the knit business for more than 40 years, typically supplies the proprietary luxury loungewear and activewear labels Twenty Montreal and The Range NYC. Answering to new demands, the company quickly shifted the focus of the family-run business to making functional, medical-grade masks and hospital gowns to help protect front line workers against the spread of coronavirus.

“We were first focused on how we could assist the front line workers and provide supplies in a time of shortage,” David Helwani, founder of Twenty Montreal and The Range NYC, told Sourcing Journal. “Secondly, this was an important opportunity for us to repay our loyal employees and create jobs.”

Tricots Liesse, a key supplier for brands like Ralph Lauren and Eileen Fisher, was able to recall more than 100 long-term employees to their jobs after receiving an order to make nearly 100,000 surgical gowns from the Quebec Health Ministry in Canada.

“It’s been an interesting last month since we started this,” Helwani said. “We’re circular knitters. We have supplied the government and various fire department with fire retardant fabrics, so there’s always been a technological aspect to what we’ve done at the mill. But we’ve usually implemented it in the sportswear field.”

Knitting Mills Pivot to PPE Manufacturing For Medical and Consumer Use
Circular knitting at Tricots Liesse. Twenty Montreal

Gown manufacturing, according to Helwani, has been more challenging than masks because of the technical fabrics and government specifications.

“We had developed a couple of new activewear fabrics in 2019 that took us close to 16 months to really perfect,” Helwani said. “Yes, we had the luxury of time, we didn’t want to rush the product, there were all these tweaks from a functionality standpoint that you want to make. This took days, which is, to me, a miraculous R&D time.”

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And demand for PPE isn’t expected to slow anytime soon.

“There is this incredible thirst for feeding what is actually needed, along with stockpiling so you won’t have this situation of shortages again,” Helwani said. “While we still have a core sportswear business and people will still have to make their deliveries for summer along with fall, there has been this whole general shift at the mill to trying to supply what is actually needed.”

In Los Angeles, Texollini, a vertically integrated manufacturer, is introducing the T19 high quality Eco performance unisex mask designed, knitted, dyed, printed, sewn and packaged in California.

The contemporary mask is made with a proprietary micro denier polyester and spandex 3-dimensional spacer fabric, also now as neoprene, providing ample filtration, protection and shape. The mask, Texollini’s director of merchandising Sherry Wood said, is designed to fulfill the need for a fashionable and comfortable breathable barrier mask. The antimicrobial Bac-Shield finish helps to prevent odor caused by bacteria and germs, adding further value. Texollini designed this with the ease of care for daily use in mind, being both washable and durable, Wood noted.

“At Texollini, creating an innovative product for the future is about being environmentally and ethically conscious, as well as providing a mask that has performance value, so consumers will feel safe and protected,” Wood said. “We are proud to support the American Red Cross by donating a portion of our profits to the organization.”