The bulky metal dyeing machines run all day at American Apparel Dyeing and Finishing Inc., turning 35,000 pounds of pale yellowish fabric into soft bright blue, midnight black or stark white.
"We need more capacity," said Geon Park, manager of the Hawthorne dye house. Park is adding more machines and will soon be able to color over 50,000 pounds of fabric a day.
The bustling dye house, formerly ENJ Textiles, is the exception within a local industry that has seen much of its business moving overseas. Actually, ENJ was struggling before L.A.-based manufacturer American Apparel LLC acquired the company in June, changing the name and giving it a second life in the vertically integrated operation.
Because American Apparel focuses on higher-end, style-conscious customers, the company isn't under as much pressure to move operations abroad. With the company manufacturing domestically, it made sense to buy a dye house instead of outsourcing the process. "We can take that and reinvest it," said Park.
In one corner of the American Apparel dye house, rolls of fabric are piled up, waiting to be colored. Each roll, which contains 40 pounds of fabric (a unit called a dye lot), is unfurled by a machine and then transferred to the large, metal dyeing machines. It takes six to eight hours to dye fabric into vibrant colors and two to three hours to turn it white. After the dyeing is complete, the fabric is straightened to remove any tangles and dried before it is again rolled or stacked for shipping.
For most apparel companies, buying a dye house isn't an option. And local dye houses are hard pressed to find steady income streams from apparel makers doing large volumes. Instead, they rely on smaller apparel makers who survive by getting fashion-forward merchandise into stores quickly.
Sharon Lebon, president and chief executive of Garden Grove-based Three Dots LLC, which makes shirts that can cost over $80, uses L.A.-based ABC Dye House Inc. She is confident that her shirts won't have dye spots or be unevenly colored. If slip-ups occur, reorders are easier to process.
"When you try to change (dye houses), you face a lot of different problems with them knowing how to handle your project," she said.
Overseas, it might take six to eight weeks for an apparel company to get a dye order that would take two to three weeks here. But local dye houses still have to compete with foreign prices.
Jack Achvan, owner of F & J Dyeing Inc. in Commerce, has lowered prices from a dollar per pound to 70 cents to 80 cents per pound of dyed fabric. "We do everything we can. Everybody is struggling," he said.
It's not just overseas competition. Local companies are subject to stringent environmental laws that overseas dye houses don't have to deal with. When American Apparel purchased ENJ, the dye house was delinquent on payments to the South Coast Air Quality Management District to cover credits for nitrous oxide emissions. The company still expects to pay $7,000 to $8,000 this year to buy credits from the AQMD.
On top of that, energy costs can be crippling. During the energy crisis of 2001, electricity prices soared to triple the current rate of $60,000 per month for a dye house of American Apparel's size.
For Cal-Pacific Dyeing & Finishing Corp., the numbers have become too prohibitive. Owner Cole Shoemaker, whose father started the business 38 years ago, will be shutting down next month.
The machines had inked clothes that ended up on the shelves of Target Corp. and Kmart Corp. Today, the large orders have dried up, and the dye house is operating at 30 percent capacity. "It is just that much more difficult to do business here, so we finally decided to throw in the hat," said Shoemaker. "The economics don't work."
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