Hong Kong-based TAL Apparel is one of the world's largest contract clothing producers, making one in eight of all the dress shirts sold in the USA. Niki Tait recently met with Dr Harry Lee, TAL's managing director, and visited the group's Chinese factory.

With a turnover of over US$600 per annum (2003), and an output of over 54 million pieces a year, the Hong Kong based TAL Group is one of the world's largest contract clothing producers, and probably the world's largest dress shirt manufacturer.

Indeed, it makes one in eight of all the shirts sold in the USA - as well as sports shirts, casual shirts, ladies' blouses, trousers, tailored suits and cut and sew knits.

Garment production is based in Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia, Mexico and Indonesia, with Hong Kong and China producing under OPA (Outward Processing Arrangement) using Hong Kong quota. All production units are 100 per cent owned.

TAL Group has around 23,000 employees. Thailand is its largest production base, employing over 9,000 people; and Taiwan is its longest established overseas manufacturer, set up over 40 years ago.

Although Taiwan is the by far the most expensive production area, TAL still makes 500,000 shirts there each year. The factory is not only highly efficient and versatile, but also has shipping times of 11-12 days which results in shorter lead times to New York than the company's other manufacturing bases.

Annual Production Capacity (2003) (doz)
Hong Kong OPA
China (Excl HK OPA)
100, 000

Workforce & size of operations - 2003
Sewing Machines
Factory Size
(sq ft)
Hong Kong

As well as contract garment production, in 1988 TAL also began to produce greige woven cotton fabrics in both shirting and bottom weights in the US. But although of this fabric is used within its Mexican shirt operation, most is sold at wholesale.

High ply Gerber Technology cutters

TAL does not see itself as a vertically integrated company. Fabric manufacturing is regarded as a separate profit centre and no expansion of this area is anticipated. Nor are there any plans to enter the wholesale or retail business.

However, TAL is experimenting with its own brand label - Enro - in the US, although this is regarded as a fairly insignificant area of the business.

80 per cent of all production goes to the US, a small proportion to Europe and 10-12 per cent goes to Asia, namely Taiwan, Japan, Korea and China. Though TAL says it will not retail in China directly, it is looking to produce quality contract work for brands selling to China.

Major customers include Brooks Brothers, LL Bean, Nordstrom, Polo, Tommy Hilfiger, Nautica, Lands' End, Dillard's and JCPenney.

Success factors
Managing director Dr Harry Lee says there are two main factors which account for the company's success.

The first is its value added services, not only in terms of design and pre-production where it works closely with the customer, but also in supply chain management. Here TAL's IT systems integrate into customers' control systems to provide inventory stock replenishment services for retailers such as JC Penny and LL Bean.

This sort of sophistication takes several years to develop with the customer but it is seen as one of the key growth areas. The LL Bean polo knit program, for example, covers over 2000 SKU's (Stock Keeping Units) across different sizes in men's, women's and children's wear styles, each offering up to 20 colours.

The company's second key strength is in product development. Its pure cotton, non-iron wrinkle free shirts are its biggest seller, their success lying not only in the garment finishing, but also in the fabric selection and seam construction - to the extent that the company has taken out patents on its seam tapes and taping methods.

Other special finishes include 100 per cent wrinkle free non-iron linens; performance knits where non-shrinkage, colour fastness and anti-pilling are guaranteed for over 20 washes; SofTAL wool washable pure wool pants; expandable waistbands; permanent embossed logos and designs on 100 per cent cotton; 100 per cent cotton mechanical stretch fabrics with a performance similar to cotton-Lycra; and 'dot.TAL' deodorising technology, effective against bacteria and fungi.

The in-house R&D teams are spread globally over the manufacturing sites, each working on their own individual projects, but all are centrally co-ordinated in Hong Kong.

Life after quotas
As for life after quotas, Lee feels that quota removal will not affect his business directly apart from making everything more competitive.

He says the company has no plans to dramatically change its manufacturing base, believing it is now correctly positioned to ride the potential upheaval to the world's clothing manufacturing industry.

Fabric spreading at TAL
Quangdong, China

For the future, Lee believes the small amount of made-to-measure clothing TAL currently produces will increase. At present made-to-measure shirts are supplied to both Brooks Brothers and Lands' End from Thailand, with some production also starting in Malaysia.

Lands' End sells made-to-measure via the Internet, with customers measuring themselves and answering a series of questions on their weight, height, age, etc. A software package called Archetype interprets these answers and uses the results to produce the made-to-measure pattern which is sent directly via the Internet to the factory for NC single ply cutting.

Brooks Brothers only sells in-store, using a body scanner and conventional tailors. Lee considers the latter to be more effective as the tailor can understand the preferences of the customer, thus gaining more information on what personalisation is required during the measurement process.

Although TAL only makes made-to-measure shirts commercially at present, made-to-measure suits will follow soon. The company already makes high quality suits in Thailand and sees made-to-measure as the next step. For the retailer there is zero inventory and the shop gets its money before the goods are made; the manufacturer is responsible for keeping the right fabric stocks and financing these at its own risk.

TAL Group of Companies
Hong Kong
Cheong Shun
Garments Co Ltd
Thai Garment Export Co Ltd Mandarin Clothing Co Ltd
Pen Apparel Sdn Bhd; Penang Textile Sdn Bhd; Imperial Garments Sdn Bhd
ITT Textile
Mfg Co Ltd
Textile Alliance Apparel (Dongguan) Ltd
PT. Katexindo Citramandiri
Alianza Textil Manufacturera SA

Textile Alliance Apparel (Dongguan) Ltd
The TAL factory in China, Textile Alliance Apparel (Dongguan) Ltd, began production in 1995. It's a world class facility, professionally managed with modern machinery and equipment, a high degree of workplace engineering, and a motivated workforce.

US$30 million has been invested in the factory to date, with the company continuing to spend on new technology as production expands. The factory works two 10-hour shifts per day, five and a half days per week, with workers working a maximum of 11 hours per day or 60 hours per week. There are 5100 employees.

312 people work in the cutting area. 800 dozen pants and 2100 dozen shirts are cut each day, amounting to an average of 420-430 lays per day. Where possible the company will lay up to eight size shirt markers and six size trouser markers.

Laying up tables are about 28 metres in length. Fabric is laid up using three automatic Gerber Technology spreaders, three semi-automatic Japanese spreaders, and five manual spreaders to cater for the check and striped fabric.

Computer automated cutting is carried out on the plain fabrics using two high ply (7cm compressed height) Gerber cutters. Up to 1600 dozen checked and striped garments are cut manually each day using band and straight knives.

40 per cent of all fabric used is made in China; the remaining 60 per cent comes from Taiwan, Japan, and South East Asia.

10 per cent of all raw materials are inspected and a 1.5 per cent fabric allowance added to anticipated fabric usage to allow for potential re-cuts. All fabric is cut, then all large panels undergo 100 per cent inspection, and re-cuts are carried out as necessary.

Sub-assembly shirt production

Because of the many flaws which fall within the marker between cut pieces, and the low cost of labour, this is considered the most cost effective method to deal with fabric damage. Indeed, contamination on white fabrics can be removed, warp and weft threads replaced, and an extremely keen-eyed team mends or cleans all possible flaws lying within garment parts.

No fabric is pinned for check or stripe positioning. Instead a sophisticated array of overhead laser lights is used. If the fabric contains only little bow or skew, up to eight shirt sizes can be cut within a lay.

Much skill in marker making is required for this to happen. Small parts such as collars, pockets and back yokes may need to be relayed, and again laser lights are used as positioning aids. This way checks will match when making up, but the check position may not be the same on every garment - a situation normally acceptable to the customer.

There are 31 sewing teams within the factory, 21 making shirts and ten making pants. Order sizes vary from 100 pieces for a special trial to 10,000 per style, though average 2500 pieces for pants and 1000 pieces for shirts.

For both trousers and skirts, sub-assembly is carried out using the progressive bundle method while main assembly takes place using the Eton unit production system. Real time production control is used throughout to monitor work in progress, throughput, efficiency and labour cost control.

The company is currently experimenting with modular stand up, quick response, highly versatile, multi-skilled teams for shorter or urgent orders. These teams help fulfil the constant replenishment needs of a growing number of TAL's customers. For example, 20 per cent of all garments made for LL Bean are made under the constant replenishment system.

The standard sewing machinery is provided by Juki, though special automated operations use specialised equipment - such as trouser pocket making, automatic carousel cuff making, and automated button attach of front placket - which may also come from companies such as AMF Reece.

Investment criteria is based on quality rather than just cost effectiveness, so if a machine is available which will result in a better quality final product, the company will use it.

Kannegiesser heat setting for
shirt finishing

To assist customer service, US$10 million has been invested recently in the Movex
enterprise resource planning (ERP) system from Intentia.

Many garments are made under OPA (Outward Processing Arrangement) where if a small proportion (normally between 15-25 per cent) of the work is carried out within Hong Kong, the garment can be exported under Hong Kong country of origin and Hong Kong quota.

The actual operations carried out within Hong Kong depend on the laws of the country the garment is destined for, the Hong Kong customs regulations and the requirements of the customer, but for a trouser will probably amount to closing the outside side seam, the inside leg seam, and attaching the waistband.

The garments will then be returned to China for finishing, such as closing the waistband ends, button hole, button sew, hems, etc. Shirts may have their shoulders closed, sleeves inserted and sleeve/side seam closed in Hong Kong and return to China for the collar and cuffs to be attached and hem closed.

In terms of trousers, 450 dozen per day are made under the OPA agreement, 350 dozen are made 100 per cent within Textile Alliance Apparel (Dongguan) Ltd. Shirts are made for OPA in a similar proportion, and it is the OPA side of the business which is currently expanding.

Operators are highly motivated, with most production lines running at an average of over 100 per cent performance. This is largely due to the piecework method of payment through which operators can earn two to three times the basic wage.

Operators attend the company training school for 10-12 weeks before they are placed on the production line where further training and help are given. Apart from the modular lines where 70 per cent of the machines are multi-skilled, between 18-21 per cent of operators can perform four jobs at a minimum of 60 per cent performance level.

A TQM quality system takes place throughout production and the factory has been both ISO 9001 and 2000 certified. The fabric inspection laboratory has been accredited by several key customers including LL Bean, JCPenney, Gap, and Giordano.

In terms of garment delivery and logistics, 90 per cent of goods are dispatched flat packed in boxes, some polythene sealed. Some garments are delivered direct to individual stores, for example, as part of the JC Penney vendor managed inventory system; others go to customers' distribution centres.

Niki Tait, C.Text FTI, FCFI heads Apparel Solutions, which provides independent assistance to the apparel industry in the areas of manufacturing methods, industrial engineering, information technology and quick response.