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Ragtrader founder Fraser McEwing tackles the topic of onshore production.

Can Australian sewing regrow from a long winter under the avalanche of imports? Although it won’t happen quickly, I believe there is every chance it can, spurred on by consumer sentiment, which is growing tired of repetitive stock mountains, price wars and poor quality.

Although the advent of free trade bringing ever-cheapening imports almost wiped out what used to be a comprehensive Australian fibre-to-garment industry, a persistent, if limited, demand for local manufacture has refused to die.

It has been drip fed by designers who are too small to meet import minimums, or those where design complexity or quick turnaround can overcome the additional cost of local production as against imports.

So there is a base to build on.

For the last twenty years, at least, the champion of Australian clothing factory viability has been Sydney based Cue Clothing Co. It has been able to keep several NSW clothing factories busy by absorbing the loss of margin compared to imports.

But the payoff, Cue maintains, comes from the intangibles like quick repeats and short runs. In other words, flexibility that importing cannot match.

Melbourne design house, Anthea Crawford, is another of the long-standing companies firmly wedded to Australian sewing.

There is a reason why Zara is the world’s biggest and most successful clothing company. It bases its marketing on the fear of missing out. ‘If you don’t buy it now, you’ll never see it again,’ is Zara’s unspoken but pervasive mantra.

This is achieved by never having too much of one style on show and ruthlessly retiring and replacing all styles quickly, irrespective of popularity. Because Zara is a global giant, what may appear to be the brief appearance of a style in one city is more likely to be a fragment of a big production run at the source.

But that doesn’t change the consumer perception of limited time for limited stock.

If you try to establish the Zara model for Australian companies you immediately come up against the difficulty of short runs. While you can go down dark alleys in the dead of night to find short run sewing factories, you still need textile suppliers.

Australia has virtually no fashion textile mills still operating – not that they were in the short run business - which leaves the local supply lines for fashion fabrics in the hands of a diminishing number of wholesalers like Martin & Savage, Elsegood and D&M Fabrics, none of which can base their prices on big volume.

Not so long ago, minimum orders on imported screen prints were around 3000 metres per design. Now that has dropped to 500 metres per design, which seldom, if ever, is repeated. What the local industry must get used to is basing its costing and production on short runs.

Unfortunately, the mindset that big orders are the aim and expectation of textile suppliers is still around. This goes for garment labels too, but big retailers are essentially vertical importers, leaving small local suppliers dealing with small local retailers.

One print solution popped up recently with the establishment of a newly formed NSW textile printer, The Textile Hub. An offshoot of an industrial digital printer, Next Printing, it set itself up for fashion prints by buying a broad spectrum of digital printing machinery from Jets Swimwear when it moved its production offshore last year.

General manager of the St Peters based company is Julian Lowe, whose background is in industrial textile printing and is now on a learning curve coming into fashion textiles.

So far, The Textile Hub has picked up customers in swimwear and active wear, but Lowe and business development manager, Matt Evans, are looking to extend their services to general fashion outerwear. Using a variety of machines and printing methods, the company can print on knitted or woven fabrics made from virtually any fibre.

Digital and sublimation printing technology has come a long way from the limitations when they first saw the light of day in the 1980s.

Early machines had problems with printing depth on polyester or nylon knits, and shied away from woven cotton. They were also painfully slow.

All that has now been virtually overcome, but the advantages of short runs, quick turnaround and low cost sampling have remained.

As the capabilities of digital printing are increasingly utilised, Australian manufacturers could replicate the Zara type of rapid change marketing. It just needs the dots to be joined.

According to Julian Lowe, prints can be turned from artwork to finished fabric in a matter of days. In general, the minimum print quantity is just five metres and this costs somewhere between $180 and $250.

Compare that to traditional, overseas screen-printing, with strike-offs and high minimum runs, and digital printing is a winner.

If Australian garment manufacture is to significantly re-emerge, it won’t be in the budget end of the market – any more than you could call Zara a budget supplier.

It will be in a mid to upper price level with the main appeal of quick, responsive turnaround, creating the Zaraesque impression that styles are here today and gone tomorrow. No print or style would reach saturation point.

While Cue and its contract factories have high visibility compliance in working conditions, small design houses rely more on factories that fly under the union radar. Many of these makers don’t like divulging a telephone number or even an address.

As far as sewing goes, Cue is the model to follow. It is living proof that middle to upper level fashion labels can be price-viable using Australian factories.

But it also indicates that vertical structure retailing probably works better than independent labels selling to independent retailers where profit margins could be under the pump.

The other lesson to learn from Cue is that it is better to be in bed with the Textile Clothing and Footwear Union (TCFUA) - now amalgamated with the Maritime services union – rather than trying to operate under the radar. Compliance, which is sometimes onerous, at least offers a good night’s sleep.

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