Shima Seiki Sets Sights on Sustainable FashionEconomy Work Lifestyle
Light, flexible, form-fitting and comfortable, knitwear produced on Wholegarment machines is referred to as a “second skin.” Simply feed yarn into a Wholegarment machine, and in around 30 minutes you will have a pullover.
The company’s founder, 86-year-old Shima Masahiro, was born in 1937 in the city of Wakayama, southwest of Osaka. Wakayama is well known for being the birthplace of many of the shōguns in the Tokugawa shogunate that ruled Japan in the Edo period (1603–1868). These days, however, Wakayama is a sleepy regional city plagued by a shrinking population.
In July 1945, in the last days of World War II, the city of Wakayama was burned to the ground by a US bombing campaign that killed around 1,100. Barely escaping with his life, Masahiro found himself with his grandparents, mother, and sister in the charred ruins of his family home. Masahiro’s father, who had been sent to the southern front, died in the war.
“I was actually motivated: I felt I had to get out of that situation myself. Even when you have nothing, you can still make something of a situation if you are smart about it,” says Masahiro.
Masahiro lived next door to a workshop that repaired glove-knitting machines. He began working there, and in the course of doing so his talents blossomed. At the age of 16, Masahiro invented a sewing machine that enabled gloves to be manufactured less labor-intensively. He went onto found Shima Seiki in 1962, which grew thanks to the success of its automatic glove knitting machine.
The culmination of Shima Seiki’s knitting machine technology, its Wholegarment flat knitting machine, made its international debut at the 1995 International Textile Machinery Association exhibition in Milan. Attendees praised the machine, which could knit a sweater in 30 minutes once the relevant data had been inserted, calling it “magic from Asia.” The Wholegarment machine has subsequently undergone needle improvements and other upgrades, and 13,000 machines were manufactured from 1998 through 2022. Nearly 80% of those were exported, with the top five importers being Italy, Hong Kong, Vietnam, South Korea, and Spain.
Knitting Clothes for Astronauts
When I visited Shima Seiki’s headquarters, I was shown the latest Wholegarment machine, the SWG-XR. Shaped like a piano, the SWG-XR is 3 meters across and weighs 1.4 tons. Inside the Wholegarment are four needle heads, each of which houses 3,600 sliding needles. Simply add yarn and the machine will knit complete garments using a process that is able to handle complex patterns and designs. Because the garments produced are seamless, they are not stiff and fit their wearers exceptionally well. By using yarn that is highly absorbent and elastic, it is also possible to use the Wholegarment to knit sportswear. In fact, sportwear knitted on the Wholegarment has been worn by astronauts on the International Space Station. According to Shima Seiki’s website, the Wholegarment line is currently used by 25 fashion brands, including Uniqlo.
“The website only lists those clients that have allowed us to use their name,” says Shima Mitsuhiro, Masahiro’s son and the firm’s current CEO.
In fact, many other fashion brands, including some internationally renowned ones, knit their garments on Wholegarment machines.
Shima Seiki’s creativity does not stop with knitting machines. The company produces a graphical fashion design system considered by many users to be vastly superior to those of its competitors. The system, which enables sample garments to be visualized in three dimensions, was the brainchild of the current CEO.
3D Imaging Revolutionizes Industry
In the fashion industry, the production of samples before the design of the garment has been finalized is an important process. Based on sketches by the designer, fabrics, colors, and patterns need to be selected and samples created. Whenever the designer asks for a hem to be taken up 1 centimeter or a color to be changed, the factory has to produce a new sample. It is said that the cost of producing these samples accounts for 20% of the total cost of garment manufacture. Factories must put up with rejection after rejection.
When Shima Masahiro was in his forties, he becoming aware of this issue, and began exploring ways to better visualize garment samples. In 1977, NASA launched the Voyager spaceship. The engineers on the project, which aimed to explore the solar system, used special graphics boards to create computer graphics of Saturn. In 1979, Masahiro learned that NASA was auctioning off three such graphic boards. Dismissing the concerns of those around him, he purchased one of the boards for ¥15 million, and used it to form the basis for a new image-processing system.
This opened the way for the development of a system that could convert garment designs into 3-dimensional images. Dubbed the SDS One Apex, the precision design system was released in 2007. The latest model, the Apex 4, features a yarn bank that allows the user to search for any type of yarn from around the world. The system allows the user to select types and colors of yarn and garment patterns in seconds, and displays realistic 3-D images on screen. Rather than evaluating a physical sample, industry workers are now able to virtually visualize what the finished garment will look like.
As soon as the sample data is sent to the Wholegarment machine, it begins to knit the garment. The process does away with the time, effort, and fabric cost associated with sample creation, freeing up resources at the companies that use the equipment. The unique technologies behind the Wholegarment machine and the design system propelled Shima to the status of world’s largest manufacturer of flat knitting machines.
On April 3, 2023, a ceremony was held at Shima Seiki’s head office in Wakayama to welcome new employees to the firm. Mitsuhiro, who took over the reins from his father in 2017, described his outlook for the future of the company to the 29 new recruits:
“Fashion might be a 150 trillion yen industry, but it is also said to be the second most damaging on the environment. This is because it employs an old-fashioned business model producing too many clothes, then incinerating surplus stock. The fashion industry is second only to the petrochemical industry in terms of carbon dioxide emissions, and the overproduction and excessive waste generation prevalent in the industry are two sides of the same coin. We want to do something about this.”
Shima Seiki hopes that the Wholegarment line will help the industry revolutionize its systems. Mitsuhiro explains:
“Every year, 100 million tons of textile fiber is produced globally, 60 percent of which is used by the fashion industry. Stitched garments are made by cutting fabric shapes and sewing them together, resulting in around 25 percent waste, which is all thrown away. When a garment is created on the Wholegarment machine, however, there’s zero loss. However, these machines only produce 1 percent of the total garment supply. If more manufacturers install these machines, it will go some way to reducing the burden on the environment.”
Japan’s Ministry of the Environment says that 820,000 tons of clothing are produced in Japan every year. Studies shows that households throw away 510,000 tons of clothing annually. Mitsuhiro is also concerned with the issue of the disposal of clothing after manufacture and sale.
In autumn, Shima Seiki began developing a platform that will allow consumers to sell used garments back to the manufacturer. The brand will be known as Blueknit. In September, Shima Seiki opened the Blueknit Store, an online store that sells Japanese knitted goods. To be listed on the site, garments must: be biodegradable; have been knitted on a zero-waste Shima Seiki knitting machine; and be produced in small lots to avoid surplus stock.
Garments that meet the requirements are allowed to bear the Blueknit label, and will be repurchased once the consumer has finished with them. Repurchased garments will be reused, recycled, or unpicked and reworked into new garments.
Mitsuhiro says, “Most fashion businesses are small or mid-size. We are inviting these kinds of companies to join this initiative. So far only a few have signed up, but I believe we’ll get many more in future.”
The “Blue” in Blueknit refers to color of Earth. Mitsuhiro is confident that the Blueknit business model, which not only reduces waste at the time of manufacture, but also enables post-consumer recycling, will help the environment as well. He believes that the fashion industry has become polarized, producing on the one hand small quantities of high-end garments, and on the other hand cheap, mass-produced clothes.
“We want to achieve a compromise by using a multiproduct manufacturing model. The Wholegarment machine allows us to create garments that are just right for the customer on an on-demand basis, and ship them directly from the factory to the consumer. Garments that are at the end of their lives are bought back. We want to create a relationship that brings the creator face-to-face with the consumer, as you might find in a sushi restaurant,” says Mitsuhiro.
The Wholegarment is capable of creating knitted goods with unprecedented added value, without relying on the labor-intensive practices of cutting and sewing. It therefore represents a path for fashion manufacturers to remain profitable without relying on cheap, overseas labor. Through this approach, clothes will remain cost competitive, despite being produced domestically. Also, by allowing consumers to buy local, this approach promises to reduce the cost and carbon emissions associated with international shipping.
Imagine a world where garments have been manufactured without waste, and leftover stock is recycled, not incinerated. Seiki Mitsuhiro, CEO of a company that is known affectionately as the “engine of the Chūgoku region,” believes that the Wholegarment machine is key to a sustainable future.
Shima Seiki Manufacturing
Address: 85 Sakada, Wakayama, Wakayama Prefecture
CEO: Shima Mitsuhiro
Business: Manufacturing of Wholegarment flat knitting machines and other textile production equipment
Capital: ¥14.9 billion
Number of Employees: 1,867 (consolidated)
(Originally published in Japanese. Reporting and text by Nakamura Masanori and Power News. Banner photo © Mizuno Hiroshi.)