Roundtable Report: Making Color Count


Participants in Apparel's Color Management Roundtable, sponsored by Clariant, shared their thoughts on such topics as digital color, dealing with merchants' demands, the standard vs. the approved lab dip, achieving the best whites and goals for the future. The discussion took place Nov. 2 in Atlanta at the International Conference & Exhibition (IC&E) of the American Association of Textile Chemists & Colorists (AATCC). A full list of participants, including their companies and titles, is at the end of this article.

Editor's Note: Click here for Part I of "Making Color Count," which also appears in the January 2007 print issue of Apparel..

On the effects of time on clothing:

Keith Hoover (Lands' End): Lands' End has this wacky guarantee that it's guaranteed, period. That means, if you buy our product and 20 years later you spill paint on it, you can return it and get your money back or a replacement. No matter what, no questions asked. So our problem is, as we go around the world now --we have to be able to move from mill to mill, from Central America to South America to Asia . We can specify fabric down to the stitch, and down to the fiber used to spin the yarn, which is great --but it's not the first appearance where you're going to see a problem. It's, "I've had this shirt for three years and it looks great. Can I buy another one because I like it so much?" and after three home launderings it's faded.

Engineered standards have to take into account durability as well as matchability. As we change washing machines and add performance finishes, etc., that may impact the fastness --As we're moving away from the mills that we've had traditional relationships with, we want it to be invisible to the customer so they continue to be happy with the product.

On going with the numbers, multiple substrates and turquoise:

Doug Shriver (Brooks Brothers):
We are using spectrophotometers on tight control allowances on a lot of our top-dyed separate programs for which separate garments are being matched up to make a suit. Because we have been using some of the same suppliers for quite a while on these programs, we tend to look at the color computer readings without looking at a swatch about 50 percent of the time. We look at swatches and readings on new fabrics we have not done before or ones we have done before but are difficult. We are just beginning to look at pc dye lab dips with the hope of being able to get that under control in the same way eventually.

Hoover : We're looking at fabric and asking: "Can we measure it and get a legitimate result? Is it flat? Is it non-fluorescent?" If it's flat and non-fluorescent, then I can measure it. --We're looking for consistency, and you can be consistent and a little bit off. Or you can be inconsistent and have visual comments, and probably have a bigger problem. So we decided to go with the numbers; it works. We define the fabrics. If it's flat, if it's this [particular] group, it automatically gets evaluated this way. For others, such as corduroys, we'll measure them, but we'll also do visual evaluations. The measurement tells us if there's metamerism, and helps characterize it that way.

As far as multiple substrates: An engineered color standard -- forget the fact that it's a piece of cotton or whatever -- is a reflectance curve. Hopefully, it's an optimized reflectance curve. When the dye combination is selected initially to make that color, it's taking into consideration if that curve can be matched with disperse dyes, etc. --and if not, then we should know about it up front.

For instance, if we have a turquoise color, based on cotton, you're not going to be able to match that in two lights or on polyester. --It's the nature of the beast; it's the nature of the colorants we use. But to have that information is good, because you don't want to reject something that you can't approve. It's not that you don't want to run turquoise. It's just that you're going to have to live with limitations. Otherwise you're going to get a best-can-do, which is the same thing. So you can match multiple substrates.

In fact, we took the textile spectral data, sent it to a company that makes plastic, told them how to measure their swatches a little bit differently than is conventional, and they've matched thousands of colors blindly with spectral data, on shiny gloss plastic. So if you can do it on plastic, you can certainly do it on textiles, provided you have the technology to do it.

On dealing with merchants' demands, and turquoise, again:

Randolph Finley (David's Bridal): I have merchants who say: "This has to match." I tell them: "This mill does not have the manufacturing capability to match to acceptable levels that you would like. You have a couple of choices. You either take what the mill can do, call it a different color, or cancel the program." Everybody wants to please the merchants, but there has to be a point where you say: "This is the best that we can do."

Heather Mangine (Under Armour): I have two nemeses. One is multi-sourced fabric, and the other is bright turquoise on polyester. Every season, the merchants pick one [turquoise], and they swear to me it's different from last season's, and that [consumers] will know [the difference]. One way I've tried to combat [the difficulties of turquoise] is by showing one of my very capable mills, very early on, some of the colors that I think are going to be a problem, seeing what they can do to match them, and then taking [the results] to the designers and merchants and telling them: "This is what you can get. Either you drop it or accept it."

The standard vs. the approved lab dip:

Mangine (Under Armour): For apparel we deal with a lot of cationic polyester. The lab dip you're scaling up is not an exact science. There are two schools of thought on the lab dip. Once the lab dip is approved, is it the new standard? Or is the standard still the standard? I've heard very different thoughts on this depending on the mill. Some people say: "No, the mill is never going to look at the standard again, and that's just the way it is." Why does it have to be that way if I'm the one commissioning them?

Sarah Kang (David's Bridal): I used to think that the standard is always the standard. This year, I've learned about the exceptions where novelty fabrics require a modified set of standard operating procedures. In such a case, the first bulk approval typically becomes the standard. Otherwise, the standard is the standard.

Hoover (Lands' End): There are absolutely some exceptions. But you can't make a process based on that. If the majority of your product can be characterized, it can be controlled, and that's what your process should be.

Elicia Brown (REI) : I'm in a tough position as a colorist, working with the designer and the merchant trying to explain: "I'm sorry this particular fabric (i.e. bamboo blend, 100 percent polyester, etc.) cannot obtain the same saturation of color as this 100 percent cotton engineered standard." We have a Scotdic cotton standard that's set in our palette and is used across the board (men's, women's, and kids' sportswear, outerwear, active wear, cycling and gear). It all has to tell one story on the retail floor, catalog or web site.

So how do I work through the complications of the mill saying the lab dip is now the standard? I have an engineered standard that everything else refers to, was approved against, and I have to maintain the story from that one standard. I feel stuck. I understand and sympathize with the mill and the dye house, but at the same time, I have to be able to maintain our season's story. As the customer of the mill, I am asking that the mill please help me complete and finish through to bulk.

On sustainability:

Shriver (Brooks Brothers): We are about ready to revise our physical and colorfastness standards as a business, which we do about every two years. A major new consideration for this will be the addition of a section on restricted substances that will have to be tested for. As we are now a global business with stores in Europe especially, regulations are getting tougher by the minute. As a result, the addition of these new requirements could add $200 or so to the $300-$500 per fabric test cost we already have. A lot of global companies have no choice, such as a [Liz] Claiborne, which has already done it. In addition to certain metallic substances that have to be checked for in certain products, one of the main concerns is azo dyes, of which there are 22 that have to be tested for. We have to do them all; we can't pick and choose. Our mills should be agreeable [to this new testing] as we don't scatter our business that much. We try to be more important to fewer mills and fabric suppliers. However the consumer will end up paying for this.

We have a small wholesale business in Europe mostly into countries where we don't have stores. Germany is especially strict in the test requirements on restricted substances, and is beginning to require actual test results on the products/shipments being sent to them, not just test results from bulk lots which could be shipped all over the globe. This is a whole other issue. China now is also requiring tests, though not as extensive, on merchandise coming into China from outside countries but not locally sourced. This is interesting and may be a smokescreen to discriminate against foreign goods to some extent. It is quite difficult in some instances: Merchandise that has to be tested may not go to independent labs but must go to Chinese-government-approved labs of which there are only three, and they are busy.

Malcolm Mize (American & Efird): You have to have good relationships with your mills. If you don't really know who you're dealing with, it can be very difficult to know if they are following good environmental practices. At our company, we have very high environmental standards, not only in our U.S. manufacturing facilities, but globally. No matter where our product is made, we have the same standards we have in the U.S. , and we use that as a marketing tool.

Brown (REI): At REI, we are about respecting the environment while being active in it. Working along with a number of other major brands in the AFIRM (Apparel & Footwear International Restricted Substance List Management) working group, we have developed a unified message on restricted substances. This information is provided to all of our suppliers and updated regularly.  They understand we reserve the right to audit at any time.  There's a primary restricted substance list that is based on global legislation and good verified science. Dyeing methods such as [using] azo dyes and sensitizing disperse dyes are on the restricted list. A supplementary list includes materials that are based on worldwide legislation as well, but not usually found in our type of finished product, such as asbestos. Then we have our "other chemicals of concern" list for items that are not restricted yet but are on our radar for careful watching or completely phasing out as viable alternatives are found. For example we avoid product with PVC in it. 

We are also trying to improve the eco-sensitivity of our products. We carry a number of international brands, along with our own brands, REI and Novara , which have embraced the goal of making our products less impactful on the planet. From removing non-desirable chemicals to pursuing the concept of cradle-to-cradle product design, there is a lot of activity in this area. We really appreciate partnering with brands, suppliers, mills, buyers, who can help us work through the challenges of collaborating and communicating across the complex supply chain. It often requires a cooperative effort from the retail community and brands to encourage suppliers to change their procedures and offer recycled or sustainable materials. It still is a challenge to find the mills and dyers willing to work through the cost and margin differences with this type of product. 

Kevin Knaus (Material World): It is a major problem [to find mills to work with]. We probably get about six to 10 e-mails per week from manufacturers and designers that want to work with mills [that are focused on environmental sustainability] and want some sort of coded system to identify and locate those mills.

On bamboo labeling laws:

Shriver (Brooks Brothers): We've started to make a few fabrics out of bamboo/linen and have discovered a [problematic] labeling issue. If you go into Target, you will find towels that are made with 100 percent bamboo and labeled that way. However, the FTC's interpretation is that because it is a man-made fiber from regenerated cellulose and has been processed, it can't be labeled "bamboo" only. "Rayon from bamboo" has to be on the label. We had some major internal discussions about this with our merchants, who very were unhappy about having to put "bamboo from rayon" on the label.

On whites:

Vivianne Aguilera (Nike): If we know that whites are going to be in the same style, we ask the different vendors to send all of those whites to headquarters, and we review each white. We try to match them within the garment, but whites are very difficult, so we tell the colorist to go to the yellow side. That is how we manage to have matching whites.

We don't measure the whites in the spectrophotometer because it's very difficult to get [accurate] shade. Maybe our whites are more yellow because it is easier to get a standard for all of our whites, but the issue is going to be when you wash it, because we don't know what [the consumer] is going to do. If they use optical brighteners, the color is going to change, and be brighter, which people like.

Mangine (Under Armour): Even if you work somewhere that doesn't use all engineered standards, you definitely need one for whites. For us, our white isn't the ideal white for our CEO, who wants it much cleaner and brighter, but our standard is engineered specifically so that it can encompass something that any of our textiles -- whether the yarns are dull or bright, or whether we use antimicrobial or other finishes -- can match.

Hoover (Lands' End): As with anything else, it's important to use the proper metric to evaluate. A lot of folks use delta E, and in that case I don't think it's appropriate. --We use CI whiteness, instead of a standard whiteness value. That's achievable, and you control within a tolerance of that. Some folks want to control tint, but as you produce fabrics around the world, the tint of the white is dependent upon the chemical, the optical brightener, and the only way to change the tint is to add an actual color to the dye bath, with whatever process you're using, which would probably introduce more problems than you solve. To tell you the truth, what people like about whites is that they're bright. And if it's a little bit on the pink side, you're really not looking to that. Also, after you wash it one time with Tide or any detergent, you're adding more optical brighteners, so it just isn't that big a deal. We look at it in D-65 [light] with a CI whiteness value based on the standard.

On upcoming goals:

Shriver (Brooks Brothers): We want to get better control of some of the piece-dye fabrics that we buy season after season from the same suppliers, especially in Europe. We are paying top dollar for very high quality component fabrics from Italy, but cannot get the kind of continuity we think we should. After looking at the whole fabric manufacturing process with the mills, including dyestuffs, finishing controls etc., we uncovered one major issue that could substantially reduce the problem. We realized that we were dyeing the same color four times each season in the name of flexibility. This is a recipe for inconsistency, and for us was unnecessary: The shades were not fashion colors and we did not need the ability to dye more frequently to chase high-selling colors. There is no liability in reducing the number of dyeings per color to twice a season, and by doing this in the future, we will significantly improve our continuity.

Mize (American & Efird): Our No. 1 goal is to get the submits back to our customers as quickly as possible. One way that we've been able to do that is that we're not depending on all of our customers to be equipped for digital color communication, and for those that aren't, we're doing it for them. If one of our customers' locations does not have the equipment for color communication, we get the sample to our warehouse in Mexico , where we've put spectrophotometers, read their sample in and transmit the data to our labs. We begin matching without having to wait for the sample to come by UPS or FedEx. Any time that we can cut out of the process helps.

The next thing that's really big for us is working on continuous process improvement based on the information from our electronic color systems. To accomplish that, we've written some software that takes all the information we have read in and gets information back to us about which colors we need to work on. It gives us a package that allows us to monitor how shades are performing.

Andrew Filarowski (SDC): For the last two years we have been running a trial. We've had sets of samples of varying color difference being passed around to experts and people who work in the field of assessing color difference so they can verbally describe the color difference between a standard and a sample. The idea is to develop a program that includes the reading from a spectrophotometer, a Delta E reading and the associated coordinate differences, along with the color difference provided verbally (i.e the words describing the color difference are printed out, e.g. fuller/thinner, brighter/flatter, redder/yellower/greener/bluer.) This has been called "dyers terms" and could lead to people's describing color difference consistently. Development will probably take another six months to a year.

Kang (David's Bridal): I love working with the color software at David's Bridal as it has been an invaluable tool for controlling shade. Upcoming goals are dependent on the software. With production lead times shortening, the need for even quicker shade approvals requires David's Bridal to revisit existing standard operating procedures for color. Databases will be created and set on a server to connect locations globally to ensure access to real-time information. Copies of color software will be web-based, allowing the flexibility and ability to analyze data from different locations without slowing down the use of each spectrophotometer. 

Another exciting goal is to establish a method for measuring and assessing whites spectrophotometrically. This method will incorporate AATCC UV CAL.

Every color center shares the challenge of tracking and reporting color performance efficiently and accurately.  The data can be used to support garment production and determine the efficiency of a mill, from lab dip to bulk. My wish is for a tracking and reporting method that is based on or generated as lab dips and bulk are measured spectrophotometrically.

Jordan K. Speer is senior editor of Apparel. She can be reached at [email protected].

About the Roundtable

The goal of Apparel's Color Management Roundtable was to provide a forum for informative exchange between apparel/soft goods executives and professionals involved in color management and product development processes. The discussion took place Nov. 2 in Atlanta at the International Conference & Exhibition (IC&E) of the American Association of Textile Chemists & Colorists (AATCC). For information about future Apparel roundtables, contact Jordan Speer at tel.: 803-771-7500, ext. 3017, or [email protected]. For sponsorship details, contact Jackie Ellen at [email protected].

Participant List

Apparel Magazine
Jordan Speer, Senior Editor

Sponsor Participant

Doug Bynum, Director Archroma Global Services

Apparel Business Participants

American & Efird
Malcolm Mize, Dyehouse Quality & Color Technology Manager

Brooks Brothers
Doug Shriver, Fabric Specialist

David's Bridal
Randolph Finley, Vice President, Fabric Development
Sarah Kang, Color Manager

Karen Perkins, Assistant Manager, Color

Lands' End
Keith Hoover, Design Resources

Material World
Kevin Knaus, Creative Director

Vivianne Aguilera, Regional Color Advisor

Elicia Brown, REI Gear and Apparel Color/Materials Coordinator

Society of Dyers and Colourists
Andrew Filarowski, Technical Officer

Under Armour
Heather Mangine, Colorist

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