he process of ensuring that the color a designer picks is an exact match to the finished
garment is one of the more complex aspects of apparel manufacturing. Leading manufacturers and
suppliers throughout the apparel supply chain are implementing new and better technologies to
streamline the color cycle. Consider the supplier portion represented by Winston-Salem, N.C.-based
Sara Lee Branded Apparel, and one of its suppliers, National Textiles LLC, also in Winston-Salem.
National Textiles’ fabric goes into such well-known Sara Lee brands as Champion, Hanes, Hanes
Beefy-Ts, Hanes Her Way and Just My Size.
1999, Wal-Mart, one of Sara Lee’s major retail customers, began exploring the possibilities of
electronic color communication. Wal-Mart chose a color communication system developed by leading
color technology provider Lawrenceville, N.J.-based Datacolor.
Through Datacolor’s Color Information Management System (CIMS), every aspect of the supply
chain has the capability to share electronically precise reproduction, analysis, manipulation, and
communication of color data and images. The system utilizes familiar tools such as color measuring
instruments and color management software, as well as innovative elements such as calibrated
computer monitors and accurate visualization of digital color information.
Both Sara Lee Branded Apparel and National Textiles agreed to participate in a pilot project.
“Our company has a strong history of building relationships with our customers, suppliers and other
business partners to provide the high quality, high value products consumers demand,” stated Scott
Crump, Sara Lee’s director of quality resources.
National Textiles’ President Jerry Rowland and Vice President of Textile Manufacturing Gene
McBride shared this philosophy as well, and were open to integrating new technology into their
E-Dips: The First Phase
According to Luke Roland, color development lab manager at National Textiles, while the heavy
volume in the color lab made it a perfect place to start testing the efficacy of the new system,
there was initial skepticism.
“Learning any technology represents a tremendous learning curve and many highly experienced
color technicians, those highly knowledgeable in the ‘art’ of color development, have their doubts.
But, when all is said and done, there just aren’t enough of those color masters around to keep up
with demand. New electronic color channels offer a method of capturing that knowledge and making it
available in a totally non-subjective manner,” Roland stated.
Approximately one year ago, National Textiles began electronically submitting its lab dips.
The process virtually eliminated physical samples and the challenges inherent with any physical
sampling process. Physical standards, for example, are often on a different fabric from that to be
dyed in production. The standard may be physically small, making it difficult to handle or measure.
The characteristics of physical standards printed on paper may cause flaring in certain lighting.
And physical swatches’ susceptibility to light, heat and humidity can change a fabric’s color
substantially. Plus, there can be distribution delays in moving physical samples from one location
to another in order to create a physical standard for each plant.
Suppliers regularly need several dye plants to produce the same color. Using the same
electronic standard loaded by central color development allows each one to dye to an identical
target. The end result is a uniform color and better test results.
Independent testing lab Consumer Testing Laboratories (CTL) is able to evaluate “e-Dips” both
numerically and visually. The numerical assessment of color difference and pass/fail are based upon
standardized color practices. Visual assessment of e-Dips is possible through precise monitor
calibration and imaging — an integral part of the CIMS color management solution. The use of e-Dips
in the color development process shared between Sara Lee and National Textiles has led to
significant reductions in the development cycle. “Now we can submit a lab dip to CTL electronically
and receive a response in less than 24 hours,” said Bill Poore, manager, color development, dyes
and chemicals, National Textiles. Instant e-mail also eliminates shipping costs.
This kind of reduced development cycle, in turn, significantly improved resource utilization
at all key points at both companies, considering the number of new colors each season and the
number of lab submits that must be evaluated. At the manufacturing level, National Textiles’ color
lab matches more than a thousand new colors per year, often encompassing three to five seasons.
And the in-house skeptics? “There’s just no arguing with results,” Roland said. “Now, when
the customer sends us an electronic standard, we can be absolutely sure that we have the exact
standard, no question. That fact alone has saved us enormous time and effort in response and
Electronic Shade Bands
Earlier this year, National Textiles, in full cooperation with Sara Lee, began extending the
viability of electronic standards by testing electronic shade banding. After lab dips have been
approved, examples of the production runs, or “shade bands,” need to be sent out for customer
approval. With multiple textile manufacturing facilities operating 24 hours a day, seven days a
week, National Textiles was constantly up against tight shade-development cycles.
Although much of Sara Lee’s branded consumer apparel products are basic apparel products like
T-shirts, underwear, and socks that endure over time, a significant portion of its lines changes
seasonally. In every instance, however, product development begins months before products will
actually be available in the stores, requiring retailers to predict what colors and styles will be
popular. “We need to be able to satisfy our customers’ needs for shortened lead times while
delivering a quality product,” Crump added.
While final tests have not yet been completed, the company is experiencing a pass rate of
well over 90 percent.
“We’ve already experienced remarkable efficiencies with having the bulk of our volume shades
incorporated into an electronic system. Over the coming months, we will have supplied CTL with
enough production data to develop color-specific tolerances. The goal is to begin e-mailing shade
band information directly to CTL and receive a response within the hour,” Poore said.
Electronic submission of shade bands has been particularly useful for companies having
multi-locations like National Textiles and Sara Lee. National Textiles has four manufacturing
locations and a cotton distribution center located throughout the Southeast. Sara Lee has three
production facilities in the Carolinas. “We are able to see the variations that are occurring from
plant to plant, and totally eliminate them before they become costly. The reduction in re-dyes and
reworks alone has been worth it. We’ve been able to totally eliminate the overhead costs of sending
clerical help to and from our various facilities and to CTL with physical swatches. This money can
now be funneled into other key areas such as new product development and technology,” Poore said.
Sara Lee Branded Apparel and National Textiles agree that the new electronic color
communication system has improved quality overall. From the efficiencies experienced through
e-mailing digital color information to shorter development cycle times and lower development costs,
the companies have ensured unprecedented accountability at every key point in their color
development and production approval processes.
“We’ve had outstanding success so far with this new method, moving from trial to a fantastic
turnaround time,” Johnson revealed.
“The impact on our decision-making process has been outstanding,” Crump said. “We’ve always
worked well with our suppliers such as National Textiles, as well as with our major customers. Now,
we have the tools to respond to seasonal needs and really any customer request, almost real time.”
Perhaps Poore sums it up best. “It comes down to communication. We are building a complete
color communication system that seamlessly links and controls color, from the moment it is
conceived to the time the consumer buys it.”