Not far off the beaten path, in the small coastal community of Grover Beach, California, you’ll find Voler, the last of the major U.S. clothing manufacturers still producing all their wares domestically. Voler started out making sails, but then made their way into the cycling market when they began making helmet covers for Giro back in the late ’80s. In ’91 they started producing custom apparel in a 4,000 square foot shop in San Luis Obispo, before moving to their current location two years later. With a workforce of 98 employees, 55 of whom have been with the company 10 or more years (and seven having been there 20 or more years), Voler turns out approximately 30,000 garments a month, serving 1,300 clubs and teams. Co-owner and Vice President Jim Helser gave RBA an exclusive inside look of the Voler factory.
Long before any artwork is printed and sublimated, the design process gets the ball rolling. For custom orders, the customer creates their jersey design via Voler’s website using jersey and shorts templates. The art designers help guide the customer through the process, but Helser says, “The process has become so simple over the past few years that often times the customer can create their own design with little input from us.’
Voler’s transition to digital printing allowed them to re-claim 7,000 square feet of space, while also creating the capacity to offer unlimited colors and the ability to print nearly any type of image. Initially, the cost of paper and ink was prohibitive, but has since become the most economically viable. According to Helser, the digital printing and other technology is what allows the company to be competitive with Asian production. ‘To stay competitive we need to be smarter, and more efficient. Our machinery helps recoup the cost and allows us to have a better quality product,’ says Helser.
After using a nesting program that arranges the pieces so that they are cut out in the most efficient layout to minimize wasted fabric, the pieces are cut out by hand and then sorted and bundled by size. Sixty-percent of the fabrics Voler uses are made in the U.S., with the majority of the rest coming from Italy.
Described as the ‘Ferrari of sublimation machines,’ this particular version is made in Italy and uses an oil-filled drum to maintain a constant heat of 400 degrees. The sublimation process begins when the pre-cut fabric pieces are hand-laid on the digital printout of the appropriate piece. Then they’re run through the machine for 35 seconds which transfers the dye to the fabric. Surprisingly, the most expensive part of the process isn’t the fabric, it’s actually the ink, according to Helser.
Once the sublimation process is complete, the various pieces are organized and sent to the sewing room. In addition to full custom orders, Voler offers semi-custom jerseys that have a much faster turnaround time than the seven weeks it takes for a full custom order. The semi-custom jerseys are a popular choice for organizers of events like century rides, where a simple design and quick turn-around are important. Voler sells about 10,000 semi-custom jerseys annually.
The army of sewers uses an assembly line process, with each sewing machine designed for one specific stitch. ‘The experience that comes with our longstanding workforce helps the process run consistently,’ said Helser. Voler also provides zipper repairs on their jerseys, which typically requires a 24-hour turnaround.
Voler uses their partnership with teams like the UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling team to continue refining their clothing. ‘The pro riders spend endless hours in their cycling clothes and can give us feedback that we would never have had without them. We use them for ?product enhancement’, which directly benefits the consumers,’ said Helser.
Jim Helser stands with an example of the finished product. What sets Voler apart from other clothing manufacturers, we asked? ‘First off, our online ordering system makes things so much easier for a club, and the individual on that club. Next, our customer service is very important to make sure all questions are answered, and then the fact that’s it’s made in America with quality fabrics. That makes us special.”
For more info: www.voler.com
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