Gary Pleam, Owner of the Mohnton Knitting Mills
Gary Pleam, Owner of the Mohnton Knitting Mills

rob lim: I noticed this with all of your knits - you have that drop needle that kind of goes in. How long have you guys been utilizing this kind of design in your knitting? Where does it come from?

gary pleam: That’s an old design that dates back to the 30s. It’s called panel; it’s needle out, all the way around, about every 3-4 inches. It’s a design that many factories including Robert Miller factories used in all their products. It’s called panel knitting- it’s very retro.

rl: So it’s been around since the 30’s?

gp: Yes, absolutely! Maybe even earlier than that, I can’t tell you for sure. We have machines here from World War I, which would be 1918, and some of them were set up on that knitting. We just decided to adopt that because it was something different from what everyone else was doing.

rl: Just to get a little background and more history of how it all came together, because after doing some research, it sounded like there was a lot of merging that happened – introductions to Edith Miller, etc.

gp: Edith came along in 2010 and they adopted a label that went along with the Robert Miller label. They went with us all the way.

rl: So no relationship to Robert?

gp: No. Matter of fact, there is a Robert Miller - he’s a real estate man. I pay a 3% royalty to him because when their company went out of business we started using his label because the salesman that was selling his merchandise said, “Oh I put a lot of marketing time into that label so why don’t you use that label?”

gp: So we did. I pay him a 3% royalty fee, we have a trademark in Japan and the United States, but he owns the mark. I own the trademark, he owns the mark. In case of a sub licensing agreement, or any other kind of agreement, he would have a certain amount coming to him like 10%. Had I had the foresight in 1992, I would have said “Here’s $5000, see ya!” and he probably would have gone along with it.

rl: But as far as RP Miller is concerned, how did that come about? What was that kind of involvement with your mill here?

gp: Ok, so he was not involved with our mill, he was at another mill, up about 25 miles from here. They weren’t as old as us - we have been around since 1873 and I believe officially starting as a knitting mill in 1906. They are from the early 30’s I believe, but they had that Robert Miller- a salesman who did marketing, doing a basic light underwear type thing. We were making other things, all these many years, just not that particular item in the panel.

rl: So the panel knitting is something that he kind of brought?

gp: Well no… it was just something he was doing. We could have done it; there was no intellectual property in clothing. Many places were doing it; we just weren’t doing it at the time. He has no direct relationship to us other than the one I told you about where we are paying him a royalty to use his label. We have been in the business longer, have more of a history than he does. They have been out of the business since 1994.

Harry with the Orizio Rib Knitting Machine
Harry with the Orizio Rib Knitting Machine

rl: Right, I did read that. What’s interesting is we got introduced to your mill through that label. Somehow that label was something that caught our attention because of panel knitting. As far as the machines are concerned then, are there any machines that were adopted here?

gp: We took some of their machines- although there’s nothing to it. A rib knit becomes a panel knit just by taking some needles away. And we can make every one of our panel knits to a rib knit just by putting needles back in. It’s a couple hour process. I don’t like to do it often.

rl: But you have a machine that’s dedicated to panel?

gp: All the machines are dedicated to panel. One machine does the rib knit, which has the needles in it. If I have a large enough substantial order, I could put the needles back in to do that in all rib knit. But it would have to be a 1000 unit order, something like that. And some of their machines we did take. We brought them down, not that we would have had to but we got them cheap. It already had the needles out and ready to go.

rl: Now as far as how many people are working for you, I also read that most have been working for you for 20 + years. Is that correct?

gp: I think I have one person who’s been here for about 20 years; everyone else has been here much longer!

rl: Oh wow, that’s amazing!

gp: Harry is only 45; he might be working here 20 years now. You might meet one lady that has been here for about 50 years! I’ve been here 46 years and almost everyone else is about 35-40 years. But I don’t have many employees- I have 20 employees. We used to have 75 for a short period of time, even a 100. It hasn’t been that easy. We have a lot of notoriety, publicity in Vogue, CNN has been here…and I said, “How ‘bout some orders instead of interviews!”

We have machines here from World War I, which would be 1918, and some of them were set up on that knitting. We just decided to adopt that because it was something different from what everyone else was doing.

rl: Haha that’s true. You know, the label that we work with was highly interested in working with you because we coincide with our ideals of design…And hopefully we can really jumpstart this back and really continue this program. Were there any second thoughts when we were kind of thinking about doing this? We’re treating this more like collaboration than anything else.

gp: I’m trying to be really positive and open to it, I have a lot of concerns because it’s a variation of what we do. And we do everything on the tube. And by the nature of a cylinder tube, everything is on a 5-degree slant. The only time you get a perfect stripe is on a 60-inch width that everyone does worldwide; anything you get from China that’s a 60-inch width. Ours is on a 5 degree slant, we have to slide it, open it to 13 inch /14 inch rod, open it to 22, cut a ½ inch away on both sides, then sew it back together and you get your 21 inch shirt. But by opening that stripe, the 5% continues all the way out to 21 inches and makes it look like even more of a slant on our body and makes it impossible to match the stripes. So those are two super critical issues. You did see the shirt I sent you- I sent 5 of each thing, apparently thought it was alright. I will give you 3 production samples which I have not started to produce but we made 3 shirts that are close to perfect as we’ll ever get.

rl:But there’s a charm to that that we like.

gp: I hope so! Stripes cant match because- I’ll show you one you might expect to get and then I’ll show you one that came almost perfect. I said “Oh my God, they’re going to think every one is perfect but it won’t!” Shrinkage on the Kasu can be an issue unless its done in cold water wash- it’s very sensitive. Preferably hand dry. I’ve been selling it to a lot of people and always concerned. Well, I’ve become a little less concerned now because I’ve never gotten one return because of shrinkage. If you put that in a hot dryer though, it will shrink a lot.

rl: I think people find value in those kinds of charmful things.

gp: I admit, with detail, we’ve never done anything with this much detail. When we made these samples we not only changed the things you highlighted but we tried and went back to change everything on the list. Having said that, I’ll show you some shirts when you go back up with the needles out.

(demonstrating) This cloth tends to come together. All rib knit does- ‘cuz when you take needles away you want more to come together. Now that we opened that up the inside, it took away some of that reaction. So it’s not going to be as wide much. But if anyone takes it and shakes it out, and they add an inch- if they lay it down and go like that, the inch is going to come away again and its going to come back out and it’s a delicate situation because we don’t want to put stiffener on there. Everybody likes the hand that we have, its combed wind spun and soft- you can make it stay where it is.

rl: I think everyone highlights how well it drapes. Nowadays, because of how stiff certain garments are, it’s really hard to find that kind of material.

gp: And if you like the way it is, I’m so happy and will try to do my very best that I possibly can!

rl: We love it yea, we love it! One more thing I’m curious about was how I had seen the RP Miller labels at Beams in Japan, some at Opening Ceremony and J.Crew. For J.Crew, did you consider that a collaboration?

gp: No that was collaboration with Edith.

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rl: So would we be the first one?

gp: I’m making the product and its something I can make, and you’re using the Robert Miller label. If you wanted to put our label on shoes, then you’ll have to have a sublicense fee. But this way, you don’t. I also don’t really want what to what I make to go on things that are made in China. I feel as though it might lower the standards a little bit.

rl: Oh yea that changes the whole thing. We wanted to highlight something made in America.

gp: We’re trying to survive. I’m doing the dance to keep everybody happy.

rl: There are only a few things out there that I feel like really matches and has a very familiar spirit that we would like to capture at our label. It’s a great partnership. We’re trying to work with Cone Mills as well. When it comes to these core items, we want to try to do that.

gp: We have used other companies where they have put Robert Miller by so and so or so and so by Robert Miller. We have yet to really sub license our product out where they are putting it on products that we make or could make- we have yet to do that, there’s one in the works. But it would have to be under those circumstances-something we don’t make, something made in the United States. I have made many customs, so, the fact that you are custom- I don’t see anything really different yet, I don’t really call that as a total collaboration but then again I’m not sure, maybe it is.

rl: Well yeah, I think we wanted to kind of take your expertise and what you made and what you have been making and basically try to you know, be able to share the areas where our interests are alike in a very, very simplified way. I guess we can say we skinned our product with your fabric. But at the same time, we went through a process in which we worked with you to remove the de-yolk, we worked with you to do those design changes, whether it was the machine or the limitations of the machines.

gp: It’s the limitation of our expertise and our machines. However, although there are similarities with what you are doing with us and what other people are doing with us, you have taken it to the next level, straying further from what we normally do. And by still using our label and much of it with your label, it would be a collaboration to the next level.■


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