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Women in The Flat Knitting Industry

Is Technology the Great Equalizer?


  

Anyone working in the textile industry for 30 or more years has seen many changes as the Third Industrial Revolution took us from paste board cards to electronics and the Fourth Industrial Revolution – Digitalization is well under way. The speed of those changes, enabled by technology, multiplied by our own human behaviors and expectations has equaled a revolution. One of the most dramatic has been how computers have changed our corner of the textile industry.   


Gordon Moore’s law from the 1960’s describes that processor speeds, or overall processing power for computers doubles every two years for the same monetary value -- twice the computer power for the same money. As technology in computing ability has shifted, those of us, who have been around our industry a while, have had the floor beneath us moving and changing like the stairs in a Harry Potter movie. 


And it got me thinking – has anything changed since 1983? 

Above: Sarah

  

 Sara Irandoukht works in the UK.  

My name is Connie Huffa, and I’ve been a knitting engineer for over 30 years. By far, my favorite part of building textiles is getting up to my elbows in yarn and punch tape on a knitting machine. In 1983 when I started out, I was the odd female with a tool belt and a handful of floppy disks; a teenager working in a factory to pay for college. 


Over the past 40 years the textile industry, its machinery, its people, its markets have changed considerably.  

 

Beginning in the 1960’s, the shift from mechanical machinery to electronics, and today to digital has brought about many time saving and precision features to our equipment from precision needle selection to automatic feeder systems and everything in between. Machines are far more ergonomic than they were 30 or 40 years ago; far more efficient and agile, while also being less cumbersome, and reliant on humans making manual adjustments from tensions to take down pressure. 


Machines have taken over many of the monotonous and dangerous operations like automatically creating pattern selections, and eliminating the need for building steel parts to control the movement for each row of fabric.  We don’t even need to talk about the take-down systems with swinging weights that could take a knee out.  Technological advancements have driven fashion trends like the 3D textures of the 80’s, and knitting garments all in one piece, mass customization and the on-demand manufacturing of the 90’s.  


In part one of this article, we discussed how, the job of knit technician has changed in the past 30 years, from one of  employing screw drivers, oil, grease, and sometimes brute force to one of precision,  to finessing a fabric’s shape, designing on Colorful CAD systems, WYSIWYG software, and smart machinery.


Knitting has become cool. It’s fun. Building fabric is much more challenging than 3D printing, but definitely much more rewarding, getting a fabric off the machine in a couple of minutes, rather than days or weeks it took 30 years ago.

 



Saraa Green Works in the USA

Saraa Green Works in the USA

Kristen Barns works in Canada

Industry 4.0 and how it's democratizing our industry

  

As the Fourth Industrial Revolution moves into full swing, and our industry shifts to embedding technology into more facets of our every day lives, whilst robotics, Artificial Intelligence, IoT, 3D printing, Quantum computing, connect more and more of our tangible lives with our virtual lives, our industry is poised to change the way we design, make, and buy things in a very different way than we have in the past. 


The skill sets have changed in our industry.  Fewer and fewer ‘mechanics’ are needed as machines have become more and more reliable. Doors have opened for creative, inquisitive and lateral thinkers. 


Knitting has been democratized. The faces and the job of knitting technician and knitter are changing around the world. Anyone willing to take on the challenge of additive manufacturing with fabric loops, now has the tools at their disposal to create whatever they can dream up.


 In part one of our series, I introduced you to Monica, Nina, Nastia, and Florina, creating beautiful fabrics and technical projects in Italy, Germany, USSR, and the USA This month I introduce you to Sarah Irandoukht, Kristen Barns (Left), and Saraa Green, who create in the UK, Canada, and the USA.   My colleagues were gracious enough to share of their joys, challenges, and opportunities for women, working on machines in our industry, answering 15 questions from how they got started, and where they see the role of women in knitting the future. 

  

  

Why are we asking? 30 years ago, women were not traditionally in the flat knitting machine builder culture, no matter the brand. Only in the past couple of years have we seen a women executive; only one in ALL the machine builders combined, but it’s a start. 

So, what are today’s challenges and opportunities for women working on machines? Our goal is to discover why we have such a passion about knitting, where our inspiration comes from, and what we see for the future of our knitting industry. 


The words knitting technician conjure a specific profile of that role in the textile industry – even today.  In previous generations the title of machine mechanic or technician was held by men with few exceptions. Women were design majors, merchandisers; created croquis, pattern graphs,  line sheets, and no one really had any hands-on machinery.   There were few women that wanted to work on machines in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s. However, it’s also no secret that for the role of working on machinery, women were not encouraged. 


The Opportunities:

Today, people who work on newer electronic machines don’t really understand what it was like to not have a comb, clamping, electronic stitch cams, memory on the machines, and CAD systems.  Take down systems were literally swinging weights that could smash your knee cap if you weren’t careful. Stitch cams were adjusted with a screw driver, and for heaven sakes, don’t let go until you tightened the screw or it was a half hour to get the stitch cam calibrated again. Working on machines cuts fingers, breaks nails, grabs your hair (my ponytail), and leaves many with perpetual oil-blackened fingers and arms. 

Sara Irandoukht

Sara Irandoukht

  

Sara Irandoukht works in the UK. Saraa Green works in the USA. Kristen Barns, originally from Florida, works in Canada.

1. How long you’ve been working on knitting machines?

Sara I.:  Over 4 years now.

Kristen : It’s been 14 years since I first started learning machine knitting; 6 computerised; 8 hand and flat machine knitting.

Saraa G.: I have been working on knitting Machines since 2010, both hand and computerized machines.


2. On what types of knitting machines do you work? What’s your favorite?

Sara I.: We have Stoll knitting machines at work, CMS 530 HP mainly, there are also ADF which are my absolute favorite.

Kristen : Computerized and Hand Flat machines. I love each separately for different reasons. I love the quick knitting and complicated intricacies of industrial machinery. Yet, I love the slow and steady knitting a hand flat machine provides and the hands-on manipulation of the stitches.

Saraa G.:  I worked on various types of machinery. I would say my favorite would ne a Brother hand knit machine. This is because I felt I had more control of what structures and designs I create. I r was hands-on and more intimate in a sense.


3. What event motivated you to become a knitting professional?

Sara I.: As a knit fanatic I found this passion when I was a kid as my mom was hand knitting. 

Kristen:  Mini sweaters.

Saraa G.: There’s not much diversity in this industry especially for a woman of color. Knitting itself is innovative, creative and challenging all at the same time. Knitting technology is constantly evolving and I am privileged I get to have a career that sees and help discover new technologies that will be implemented in the future. 


4. Who or what inspires you now and why?

Sara I.: The first and the best technician that I have met, he inspires me for he is the most knowledgeable and humble technician. I first met him almost as soon as I started my career, when he was invited to our factory as a freelancer, so you can imagine I learned a great deal form him. 

Kristen: Collaborating with experts.

Saraa G.:  I am inspired by the people I work with and come into contact with. It’s amazing what you produce and create with you work with people from various backgrounds; either that be education or work experience.


5. What makes you smile the most about what you do?

Sara I.: Seeing knitted good being shipped out of factory.

Kristen: The knitting! The hands-on challenges that come along with developing. Learning about different material behaviors and fabrications. The excitement in the failure and success.

Saraa G.: I smile when I can help educate people on knitting, but also get them excited about it as well. 


6. What makes you most proud of yourself as a professional?

Sara I.: As I see my proto’s measurement is bang on, such a good feeling. 

Kristen:  Working hard.

Saraa G.: Completing my MBA, I am coming to my last couple of classes and it has been a hard journey. Being out of college for 4 years and transitioning into a grad program was of mere faith. I am proud of myself because I stuck it through, and I didn’t give up.


7. What has been the most significant barrier in your career?

Sara I.: I don’t see it as a barrier, but when you have to prove yourself to your all-male-colleagues, is a day to day challenge, especially when they are more experienced.

Kristen: When I first began learning on computerized machinery, I had to work other supplementary jobs to afford my apartment. It was a tough few years, but it has made me even stronger.

Saraa G.:  I would say, no matter what industry you are in, you have to show and prove. The perception that people have of you is true, no matter if you agree with it or not. You must act in the manner of who you want to be. You have to make sure the way you carry yourself matches where you want to be in life. Your journey to your end goal isn’t easy and isn’t always a straight path; therefore, you must be suited to conquer and deliver.


8. When you began your career years ago, did you ever imagine that you’d be a key knit professional in a male-dominated profession?

Sara I.:  I absolutely did and have gone extra miles to get to where I am now.

Kristen: I was really amazed at how many talented men and women make up the knitting industry. I wasn’t sure when I started where the path would lead, but I am happy to have grown as a knitter through the years and am thankful to all the professionals that have helped along the way.

Saraa G.: No, not at all. In my mind or where I was satisfied being, was an assistant designer for a high-end brand in New York city. I believe people are put in place in our lives to remove the barrios we have on ourselves, whether it be in our careers or life in general. Being an assistant designer wasn’t good enough and the people God put in my life made that known.


9. What was the organizational culture like then for you and women working hands-on in the industry? How is different today?

Sara I.: There has been a good environment but obviously there is more room for improvement, like any other area that women start to step in.

Saraa G.: When I worked textile trade shows, men would go to the both and greet my male colleagues before they did me. They automatically I was a “booth girl” and didn’t work for the company itself. What I appreciated back then that my male colleagues would suggest to people to speak to me and the look of shock on most people’s faces was satisfying and disappointing in a way.


10. Did women knit technicians have a hard time getting promoted then? Do you know if you/they were paid the same?

Saraa G.: It’s hard to say, because to this day when I travel for work and attend textile shows, the people who walk the floors, are still mostly men. Unfortunately, I think this industry will stay male dominated unless universities and corporations encouraged young women more to get into this industry.


11. Have you ever experienced resistance on the job or not been taken seriously in presenting to male technicians or male managers?

Sara I.: As a woman I have found it hard to enter, and harder to stay in this specific position.

Kristen:  Yes, I have experienced resistance, but it was not gender specific. I think it stems from competitiveness in a niche market.

Saraa G.: Be sure about the career path you want to be in. You have to have a REAL passion for knit to be in this Industry. There are so many components to the knitting industry, and you must be willing to learn and be challenged. And once you are sure, stick with it! Having the confidence and drive will get you far in the industry. I set one goal for myself, not knowing I was missing out on so many opportunities and when you decide to remove those barriers, you are on your way. 


12. Is there any event that stands out in your mind that defines that resistance?


13. Do you feel the industry today makes efforts towards improving the culture for inviting more women to enter technical knitting jobs?

Sara I.: Seeing like most other industries, knitwear manufacturing, has moved to cheap labor areas like Asia, people in the industry in Europe and America find it hard to hire skilled professionals, so they are trying to motivate and encourage both men and women into getting their hands on it, so there is a good perspective.  


14. Do you feel that the machine builders respect you as a knitting professional in the same way as your male counterparts in the industry? If no, how can they improve their efforts?

Sara I.: Machine builder don’t see us as rivals.  so ,they highly respect us ;-)


15. What advice would you give to the next generation of female leaders in the knitting industry?

Sara I.: Most technician I know in this field have irrelevant academic education. To stand out, equip yourself with proper education. Keep updating yourself with the latest innovation not only in flatbed knitting, the whole world of fashion manufacturing and business, technical textiles, fibres science and spinning technology,  etc.

Kristen: Don’t stop.


16. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Sara I.: Believe in yourself and just keep moving forward, all experienced have been newbies someday. 

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The Future:

  

Technology can be the great equalizer in creating opportunities to innovate. Utilizing half our industry is hamstringing it. Machines, yarns, and stitches inspire everyone – no matter where they are in the world. As a woman who’s been in this industry a long time, in spite of the gender challenges along the way, this feedback from women in our industry is encouraging in some areas, and in others it shows our industry still has a long way to go in respecting women as contributors and professionals in our industry. We as professionals hope that the machine builders, factories, and manufacturers will welcome, encourage, nurture, and appreciate that women and all people have the same desire to create, and a driving curiosity to learn on the machinery, beyond WYSIWYG cut and paste.  We all should feel welcome to dig in and do whatever inspires us on a machine, and be respected on a deeper level than “Oh, you must be our new secretary”.  Certainly it’s going to be up to us ladies to change the stereotypes of what a technician looks like in people’s minds. 


  

Connie Huffa – Fabdesigns, Inc.

Copyright © 2019 Fabdesigns, Inc., All rights reserved.

Note: The above excerpt on Industry 3.0 in the knitting industry is a portion of the seminar presented by Connie Huffa of Fabdesigns, Inc. at IFAI advanced Textiles Expo October 15, 2018 as part of Digitalized Manufacturing: Will the Fourth Industrial Revolution Transform Flat Knitting?”

Fabdesigns, Inc. address: 327 Latigo Canyon Road, Malibu, California 90265

Website: www.fabdesigns.com  

Email questions of comments: info@fabdesigns.com

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