A visit to Estonia with Marimekko buyer

In Marimekko’s responsible sourcing, buyers play a key role. We joined Lotta Becker, Marimekko buyer for woven garments, on a visit to one of our main contract manufacturers, the cut-make-trim facility Sangar in Tartu, Estonia. Our collaboration with Sangar has lasted for twenty years, and thousands and thousands of metres of Marimekko fabric printed in Helsinki have passed through the skilled hands of Sangar’s employees and turned into shirts and dresses.

Sangar is a family-owned company founded in 1956, specialising in button shirts. For the Kraft family who runs the factory, quality, responsibility for employees and pride in their business have always been important values, instrumental in taking the company forward. Sangar employs around 200 people, of whom more than one hundred work in production. Marimekko is one of the factory’s many customers, and Sangar also sells men’s shirts under its own brand. Sales Manager Reenika Pintmann is cautiously confident about the future of the factory and the sector. “Online shopping has made consumers very price-conscious, but Sangar has a well-established position and trusted customers for example in the UK, Sweden and Finland, which allows longer-term planning of activities.”

When we arrive at the factory around noon on a Tuesday in October, the employees are busy with their work. The production lines are working on Marimekko’s spring 2016 collection, the same shirts and dresses that had been presented at Paris Fashion Week the weekend before. The fashion show glamour of Paris is far from the everyday life of the seamstresses in Tartu but the women are interested in Marimekko’s doings and they tell us that Marimekko garments are their favourites of the items sewn in the factory. Every now and then they wonder if the Piccolo pattern by Vuokko Eskolin-Nurmesniemi is still as popular as it was nearly 60 years ago when it was created. We tour the production facilities from the fabric cutting room to sewing, ironing, inspection and packaging. It takes about 40 minutes to make one button shirt from cutting to shipment, involving up to 40 employees on the production line.

The majority of employees at Sangar are women; some men can be seen in the cutting room and as mechanics in the sewing room. The factory faces the same challenge as other Estonian and Lithuanian garment manufacturers: new sewing staff are needed but nowadays it is difficult to recruit people for factory work. Sangar is used to training its seamstresses itself and hopes that they will enjoy working at the factory for a long time. The longest-standing employees have been with the company for more than 40 years.

Sangar is one of the largest garment factories in Estonia. To improve the production process, the factory has invested in an Eton material handling system. The system minimises the manual transport of garment parts between workstations, improves ergonomics and speeds up the production process through a conveyor belt passing above the workstations. Smaller production batches are made on a more conventional production line.

For Marimekko buyers, regular factory visits are an important part of the management of the relationship with the contract manufacturers. Communication is mainly by email and phone, but on-site visits are invaluable in solving production challenges and, above all, provide an opportunity to discuss any matters face-to-face. Lotta Becker considers Sangar to be a great factory: “Sangar is one Marimekko’s longest-standing partners. Over the years of working together, we have come to trust in the quality and know-how of the factory, which makes the current collaboration easy for both parties.”

Much has happened in the world of fashion during the last twenty years when Marimekko garments have been sewn in Estonia, and it will be interesting to see what the coming decades bring. One thing, however, seems certain: the button shirt remains fashionable from year to year despite changing colours and patterns.