The manufacture of ladies' dresses and blouses requires more flexibility and versatility than probably any other product - from training and manufacturing methods to equipment. Niki Tait looks at some of the latest technology to aid the production of these garments.

The manufacture of ladies' dresses and blouses requires more flexibility and versatility than probably any other product.

Hem lengths may be long, short, mid-length, wide or narrow. Shoulders and sleeve heads may be padded, dropped, puffed, gathered, set-in or raglan. Sleeves may be long, short, hemmed, cuffed, gathered, puffed, bound, gusseted. Collars and necklines are almost infinite. Fabrics may range from very fine cottons, silks, georgettes, microfibres and crepes, to wools, velvets, corduroy and denims.

Waists may be set high, low, seamed, draped or darted. Stitching may be decorative, functional or both at the same time, as may the threads that are used. Style runs tend to be short and numerous with considerable differences between each.

So the challenge for the manufacturer is to concentrate on developing maximum versatility and flexibility, not only through training and manufacturing methods but also in the technology used.

Lay planning
The first manufacturing stage is the lay plan; if this is incorrect, not only is fabric wasted but production problems can occur. Computer lay planning helps minimise errors and maximise fabric utilisation - a facility offered by all the CAD companies, with Gerber, Lectra, Tukatech, and Investronica all offering automated marker making.

A different approach is offered by Assyst which uses an Application Service Provider, , to provide the entire infrastructure of hardware, software and maintenance, together with all the necessary services and provision for data security, redundancy, peak demands, and system management.

Via the Internet, produces structured lay plans in line with the manufacturers' constraints. can accept patterns from anywhere in the world and send the resulting lay plans to be plotted or cut wherever manufacturing is located.

Assyst managing director Thomas Heinrich explains: "My personal estimate is that on average will provide a yield between 2 and 3 per cent better than a manmade marker. 2 to 3 per cent of material cost, which ranges from 30 to 60 per cent of sales revenue, must mean something to most apparel companies."

Cutting and spreading
To help lay up the short variable runs often found in dress and blouse production, and spread the relatively light rolls of fabric (up to 60 kg) quickly and accurately, Bullmer has developed the Compact range of spreaders. The Compact can spread face up, face to face, one way and zigzag lays with or without end clamps. It is low and compact for quick roll changing.

Gerber NC cutters can be used for cutting detailed decoration as well as the main pattern parts

For automatic cutting of short orders and quick response Bullmer recommends its Turbocut, which can cut single plies, samples or full lays of fabric in widths starting at 160cm wide.

The new Lectra Vector Fashion MP, on the other hand, has been developed for cutting mass produced fashion items. Incorporating the powerful MPH 6 cutting head, the machine can cut up to 6cm of compressed height at 6000 rpm. Intelligent software enables pieces to be placed next to each other without gaps, and the software will adjust the knife automatically to prevent distortion adjacent shaped parts.

The Synergy line of cradle feed spreading machines from Oteman has been developed to allow ultra-fast roll change and tensionless spreading. The new modular Sharp fabric cutter allows for a wide variety of uses but promises high productivity and excellent quality.

Eastman Machine Company claims its fully automated M9000 cutting systems can help increase throughput whilst saving material costs through computerised nesting and cutting efficiency. The EC3 continuous cutting system provides high-speed cutting with repeatable accuracy and flexibility and comes with a range of tools for different materials.

Eastman also offers a number of spreading and material handling systems ranging from the Blue Jay and PaceMaker, to the CR300/CR500 Cradle Feed Spreading Systems and A-Frame Roll Rack.

Other major cutting technology suppliers such as Kuris Wastema, Tukatech, FK Group, Investronica and Gerber also offer a range of spreading and numerically controlled cutting systems suitable for ladies' wear manufacturers.

The Veith Pin Table and new PinIT supporting software is of particular interest for matching checks and stripes in ladies' dresses and blouses. The latest version includes functions for the management of various cloth rolls and markers, and supports the special Veith System Logic for planning both the markers and the Pin Table set-up.

Planning markers exactly on the repeat of the fabric, and using the repeat to spread and match the fabric according to the marker, means that markers can be planned using net patterns rather than blocked patterns, thus reducing the fabric consumption by 2-5 per cent and increasing productivity by 30-40 per cent.

With shading a common problem in ladies' wear, CTI has extended its Real Time Shade Detection System to offer full colour inspection. This provides the apparel manufacturer with the accurate shading data required not only to shade batch fabric rolls, but to take back factual information to the material supplier in case of disputes.

Interlining plays a major role in the shaping and suppleness of light clothing.

Freudenberg's new Evolon is a continuous microfibre, spunlaced fabric manufactured in one single line from polymer granulate to finished fabric-roll. Because most end-use properties can be engineered during the production process the range is highly versatile.

Bullmer's Turbocut

Lainiere de Picardie, part of the Chargeurs Group, has introduced a new single dot coating for fusible interlinings called Global Molecular Point. It is said to substantially increase bond strength after fusion, improving the performance of the interlining as well as the performance of the garment during dry-cleaning and washing. It also claims to prevent strike-back during fusing or at the steam press.

Small innovations play a critical role in making women's wear manufacturers more responsive.

The Amann Group's UK subsidiary Donisthorpe, for example, launched its Flexi-cone some six years ago. Featuring a split design that turns a standard 5,000 metre cone into two 2,500 metre mini-cones it enables manufacturers to double their machine coverage, maximise their response to sudden demand contracts or changes in production schedules, and minimise machine downtime, thread stocks and waste.

Its Isalon embroidery thread is also suited to women's wear, from lightweight cotton or silk dresses and blouses to densely woven denims. The 100 per cent high strength trilobal polyester thread combines the lustre, feel, stitch definition and dyeing affinity of rayon with the durability and performance characteristics of high strength polyester. Critically for ladies' fashion it is available in 420 standard shades.

In terms of depth of range, Madeira's embroidery and decorative threads include sparkling and metallic threads, shiny viscose and polyester and even wool type threads for heavier designs. As well as different textures, they come in different thicknesses.

All sewing machine companies provide a range of versatile and flexible units for the production of dresses and blouses. Pegasus, for example, offers the EX3216N-01U/232-3x4/KH/RP for joining shoulders then closing sleeves and sides. Its special feed dog motion and gauge parts help eliminate wrinkles when plain seaming lightweight fabrics. The EX3216N-01S/272-3x4/KH/PL sleeve setting safety stitch machine has similar features.

Brother claims to be the first to have developed a built-in direct drive motor to optimise plain lock stitching processes. The S-7200A single needle direct drive straight lock stitcher with thread trimmer doesn't use a V-belt: instead, the drive power is transmitted directly to the mechanisms, so that any losses in energy are reduced to a minimum.

The S-7200A has an optimised needle bar, thread take-up and feed mechanism, and the feed dog adjustment range has been increased to allow a greater range of different materials to be sewn without pucker, slippage, or stretch.

Available as either single or three-phase, the Sunstar KM-2070 5000 rpm lockstitch is highly flexible. Sixteen basic sewing patterns are predefined; the user can then define a further 99 patterns with up to 256 stitches per pattern.

Pressing and finishing
Ladies' blouses and dresses are especially challenging when it comes to finishing due to additional ornamentation such as embroidery, beads and ruffles. Dresses come in such a wide variety of lengths, drapes and styles that the finishing unit must be extremely flexible.

Hoffman Royal Medalion

In most cases the most appropriate types of finishing for these garments are steam, vacuum and air tensioning units.

For ladies' blouses the Hoffman model RSS 4000 uses a steam and blown form along with side and rear tensioning devices and a front placket finisher. The sleeves of the blouse are finished by air operated clamps that adjust for both long and short sleeves. For dresses the Hoffman model Judy II also uses a steam and air form, with vertical and lateral tensioning devices that will deliver a quality finish while protecting the fabric and ornamentation.

The Veit 8380 Multiform Finisher is a specially designed 3-D ladies' buck with inflatable bust. As the bust is inflated, the chest point moves tangentially giving a smooth shape. Subsequent steaming from the inside helps to set the shape.

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.