Leicester - Carol Bielak, head of design at luxury UK sock manufacturer Pantherella, tells the UKFT how an understanding of knitting machinery, yarns and the full production process, as well as a good understanding of the worldwide customer base, is crucial in today's increasingly competitive sock sector.
As head of design at Pantherella, Carol Bielak combines her extensive knowledge of yarns and knitting machinery and a flair for colour to develop a premium ‘made in England’ sock collection that is sold all around the world.
Carol started her career working for hosiery manufacturers including Byford Hosiery Corah and Crowther Hosiery, before joining premium sock brand Pantherella in 1988.
Pantherella has been making socks in Leicester since 1937 and the family-owned firm uses a combination of modern machinery and traditional techniques. Each pair of socks is hand-finished to ensure they meet the highest quality standards, with features such as fine-linked toe seams for extra comfort and reinforced heels and toes for added durability.
Carol’s role requires knowledge of the machinery, yarns and the full production process, as well as a good understanding of the worldwide customer base.
“Before you can design a pattern you need to know what type of stitch and fabric can be produced for example, ribs, textures, flat knits or jacquards,” she says. “You need to know how many yarn feeds are available to use, which determines how many colours can be used to create your design.
“You also need knowledge of yarn types and counts that can be used on each machine gauge, as well as the properties and composition of yarn to determine its suitability for the finishing process and wash care instructions for the end consumer.
“Finally, you need to know who your customer base is and who you are designing for, taking into consideration age, lifestyle and current trends to be able to design a well-balanced collection to suit all tastes for the worldwide markets that the brand is sold into.”
One of the main things Carol thinks you need in her role is a good sense of colour – knowing what colour combinations work well together and what type and count of yarn is required for the product range you are designing.
“You need to be able to envisage a design and pattern that will be suitable for a sock, bearing in mind the size and scale required,” she says.
“It’s always great to receive praise for you work but you also have to be able to take criticism, as long as it’s constructive and helpful.”
The starting process for any collection will see Carol researching trends and producing mood boards, then she will begin sourcing yarns and meeting with yarn agents/suppliers either in house or attending international yarn fairs.
She will review and update core yarn colour palettes, then spend time designing on a CAD system or producing technical graphs for patterns. She will liaise with the design technicians on their daily work schedule and producing colourways for patterns, once the design has been knitted down and approved.
She’ll also liaise with the production team, marketing, sales and sample department and produce documents that outline exactly how each sock is made, with details of the machine, colour and yarn, pattern and style numbers, finishing routes, compositions and get-up information.
She will also attend meetings and give presentations to both internal departments or agents for sales meetings and line launches. “One of my favourite parts of the role is that I have had the opportunity to travel in the UK, Europe and the USA for retail investigation, visiting customers, attending trade exhibitions and yarn fairs.
“One of my favourite trips over the years has been attending Pitti Filati in Florence, meeting with yarn agents and spinners, as well as seeing all the beautiful yarn collections.
“I also enjoy seeing the first sock knitted down of a new design and then preparing the various colour options, especially if we are using a new yarn and colour palette. I also get huge satisfaction when I see my designs and colours in store, which gives me a real ‘buzz’,” she says.
In her years with the company, she has seen technology change dramatically, with new machinery and computer aided design (CAD) software.
“The process of creating a pattern and design prototype is probably the biggest change that I have experienced,” she says. “This new technology has enabled me to design and offer diversity in our collections but still retain the quality we are known for by using premium yarns.”
One of the biggest challenges Carol has faced over the years is finding beautiful and interesting yarns in a suitable count that can be used on sock machinery.
It is also challenging to design a collection for worldwide markets to suit everyone’s taste.
However, she is motivated by trying to improve the collection each season, offering different types of patterns and stitches while working within the limitations of the machinery.
For someone looking to follow in her footsteps, Carol says: “Always listen and try to take on board what people want or require, whether it be sales, agents or the customer but always have the conviction and belief in your own ideas and creativity to offer a balanced collection for everyone.
“You also have to remember that what you design or may want to design in a sample prototype can be replicated in production on plant machinery.”
Justin Hall, the managing director of Pantherella and fifth generation sock maker in his family, says these skills take years to acquire.
“There’s a lot of know-how with regards to using natural materials and natural fibres. We use the best quality materials in the world, which we have done for generations and we continue to do so. It takes many years to build up the experience to be able to work our premium like cashmere and Chinese silk yarns and know how to get the best out of them.”
Carol also pays particular attention to international fashion trends and seasonal colours to help produce new collections every season.
“Each pair of socks has been passed through dozens of pairs of hands to ensure that every pair of Pantherella socks leaves with the Pantherella stamp of approval,” she says. “This has been essential in growing the Pantherella name as the number one sock maker.”