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Chasing A Market

A small business owner takes advantage of Clemson Apparel Research's facilities to develop a marketable product.

Kathy Vass, Marketing Editor

G ayle Fesperman has been a seamstress since the first grade and an entrepreneur since the fourth. By the ripe old age of 10, she was making blouses, culottes and wedding dresses for Barbie dolls and selling them to school chums for 15 to 90 cents apiece.

Fesperman spent her grade school years winning 4-H Club competitions across her home state of Wisconsin, and, in 1975, graduated from the University of Minnesota with a home economics degree in clothing and textile science. But it wasn't until some 25 years later when caring for her terminally ill sister that Fesperman found her true passion and potential for clothing design.

"My sister was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 43, and was in and out of treatment before she died seven years later," Fesperman said. "Barb was always cold whether she was resting or taking chemo treatments, and especially during the nervous moments waiting for oncology reports. She carried a heavy patchwork quilt with her wherever she went."

But quilts and hospital blankets were cumbersome and difficult to maneuver around IV tubes and medical equipment. Likewise, a sweater or coat wouldn't do because arms had to be free for tubes and injections. Looking for a solution that provided warmth without weight, Fesperman called on domestic and design skills she had shelved years earlier for a career in advertising. The result was ChillChaser Shawls™.

Working from a straight shawl pattern, Fesperman modified the template, shaping it to the shoulders and neck more like a stole. The desire for warmth, softness and a lighter weight made fleece the fabric of choice, which was doubled to make the shawl even warmer and more marketable as a reversible garment. In addition to outside pockets, satin-lined pockets were added to the inside, enabling the arms to be completely covered. And for style, Fesperman fringed the ends of the shawl, giving it a more fashionable flair.

"I tell people that a ChillChaser is functional, fashionable and fun," said Fesperman, whose company is based in Greenville. "And if you really want to get warm, place your hands into the inside pockets and give yourself a big hug. The whole purpose of the product is to provide comfort."

Since cutting, sewing and assembling her first ChillChaser in December 2003, Fesperman has fashioned 65 shawls for family, friends, and friends of family and friends. Using fleece purchased from local retail stores, Fesperman spent an average of three-and-one-half to four hours hand-crafting each shawl. She then employed a local seamstress to embroider the ChillChaser logo on the garment's right-hand pocket for product branding.

As demand for the custom-styled shawl continued to grow, Fesperman quickly realized time constraints and a less-than-industrial-strength sewing machine would prevent her from keeping pace. She took her dilemma to Pendleton, S.C.-based Clemson Apparel Research Center (CAR), a unit of Clemson University. After a January 2005 meeting with Center Director Christine Cole, Ph.D., and Research Associate Elroy Pierce, she turned over production of ChillChaser Shawls to the center's model manufacturing facility.

Gayle Fesperman, founder of ChillChaser Shawls™

Revitalizing The
Domestic Sewn Products Industry

CAR is an atypical facility for universities, according to Cole, who has directed the center's operations since it opened in 1987 with the goal of "revitalizing the domestic sewn products industry through the proper application of advanced technology and management practices."

CAR supports its research and development and manufacturing operations by selling consulting, computer-aided design (CAD), supply chain and manufacturing services to private business and government entities such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Department of Defense.

The center also works with several entrepreneurs who have developed what Cole calls "non-commodity" products. These items are sufficiently different from those already in the marketplace, and their creators have a well-developed concept for marketing and brand development. CAR assists with production efficiencies such as improved pattern design, faster-turnaround manufacturing and supply chain solutions.

"We're approached by a number of entrepreneurs, some with ideas that have matured and some that haven't," Cole said. "In some cases, we've produced a prototype or assisted with pattern design, and in others, like ChillChaser, we are the manufacturer."

CAR operates a 6,000-square-foot model apparel plant that houses more than $2 million in state-of-the-art technology - including design, cutting, stitching and finishing equipment - giving apparel makers the opportunity to evaluate equipment from an investment standpoint. The facility employs 12 sewing operators who demonstrate new equipment, presenting innovative manufacturing concepts.

Additionally, CAR has designed and developed software that fully automates the order placement process, with orders imported from customers, custom-sized and forwarded to production, all electronically. This automated process allows for quicker turnaround and lower overhead.

For example, made-to-measure orders are entered by customers themselves via a website or set up to be imported by CAR (See " Marketing Tools," TW, July/August 2005). Once the order is received, it is run through a sizing routine that generates the best-fitting size and corresponding alterations, depending on previous custom setup for each garment. A CAD order then is  generated and run through a third-party CAD system. The system creates a marker and cut file, which is returned electronically to the customer, or cut and produced on CAR's manufacturing floor. Once a garment is produced, the system then automates the shipping and invoicing process, with each order tracked by the customer from entry to shipping via the Web.
Joyce Williams, a sewing operator at Clemson Apparel Research Center, attaches two ChillChaser Shawl™ halves.

Making It Work
In the case of ChillChaser, it was a simple matter of fine-tuning the pattern design and determining the highest efficiencies for assembly. Cutting and sewing of one ChillChaser shawl that took Fesperman almost four hours to complete at home can be accomplished at CAR in just over 20 minutes. The research center staff also has helped Fesperman locate sources for fleece with the desired quality at the best price.

"Having a product that is cut, sewn and embroidered in the United States has been a real selling point for ChillChaser, so I was relieved to find a local manufacturing solution," Fesperman said. "It's no secret what has happened to the textile and apparel industry in this country, and especially in South Carolina, so when I can say I have an apparel product that is "Made in the USA," it's a real marketing benefit."

Marketing Potential
A benefit and a key to remaining a Made-in-the-USA option, according to Cole, are production and sales of a non-commodity item.

Niche marketing has been a main focus of many US companies in recent years, as textile and apparel imports from the Far East have flooded the US marketplace. Cole said she prefers the term non-commodity marketing to describe these items that are not promoted to the masses.

"There is so little in the textile and apparel industry that qualifies for patent protection that it is extremely difficult for a commodity manufacturer to compete with low-wage countries," Cole said. "US manufacturers who are going to do well in today's global economy are those producing specialized products not made for mass markets because they are less vulnerable to knockoffs and competition from global manufacturers."

Fesperman believes her fledgling  company stands the greatest chance at success by concentrating on a specialized set of consumers, offering a unique garment that meets their needs. While smaller volumes generally mean higher operating costs, lessened competition in a non-commodity market should more than compensate, researchers say. Additionally, non-commodity marketers get to know their customers so well that they are better positioned to meet consumers' needs and make quick changes when trends or customer preferences dictate.

Targeting The Marketplace
A primary target market for ChillChaser is the one for which it was originally conceived, with marketing efforts presently focusing on cancer patients, cancer survivors and hospice organizations. Like many small businesses with limited advertising budgets, ChillChaser Shawls is seeking partnerships that will assist in getting the ChillChaser story before the desired audiences. For example, the company is forming cause-marketing alliances whereby a donation is made to a cancer organization with the sale of each $49 ChillChaser Shawl. Participation in a recent senior expo in Greenville garnered a few sales and more than 450 leads from individuals, nursing home representatives and seniors organizations. Fesperman also is investing in an e-commerce website that allows consumers to purchase ChillChasers on-line.

Another important marketing component was determining the number of color options to offer the commercial marketplace. For now, there are four variations of the distinctive shawl, each with a printed fleece side and a reversible solid side. One shawl features a print with red hats to capitalize on the ever-growing popularity of the Red Hat Society® - a national organization that promotes fun after 50 for women of all walks of life. Then, there are a pastel and a paisley print, and a navy selection more suited for men.

"I've been a little surprised at the number of men interested in the product," Fesperman said, who markets ChillChaser as a unisex styled, one-size-fits-most garment.

As a small downstream company in proximity to the end-user, Fesperman said she is monitoring trends and buyer response, and can be more flexible in making color changes that meet consumer needs and desires.

"For the most part, we're going to let our target markets dictate our new offerings," Fesperman said, adding that buyers are inquiring about ChillChaser Shawls as stadium wear in the colors of high school and college teams. While licensing fees for fabrics carrying college logos are cost-prohibitive at this point, school colors and state and city names are not off-limits. From Barbie dolls to the big league, the seamstress from small-town America may have found her niche.

October 2005