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Tirupur moves from H&M, Tommy Hilfiger, Marks & Spencer to making masks and PPE kits

Manufacturers in Tirupur say this not just an opportunity to help out right now, but has also opened the industry’s eyes to making technical textiles in future.

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Bengaluru: The shortage of protective gear is one of the biggest problems facing India as it battles with the Covid-19 crisis, and Tamil Nadu’s Tirupur (also spelt as Tiruppur), one of the country’s major textile hubs, has stepped up to help.

Tirupur, which is located about 400 km from state capital Chennai and brings approximately Rs 25,000 crore worth of textile business to India, is now the country’s biggest manufacturing hub for face masks, gloves and personal protective equipment (PPE) kits. The town is known to supply cotton garments and knitwear to brands such as H&M, Marks & Spencer and Tommy Hilfiger.

There are around 2,400 stitching units in this small town, and the nationwide lockdown has forced most of them to shut shop. But about 125 units have taken special permission to produce these kits, and are working hard to meet the ever-growing demand.

Also read: Palaniswami-led Tamil Nadu govt springs surprise with stellar Covid-19 crisis management

10 lakh face masks, 20,000 PPE kits

Raja Shanmugam, president of the Tirupur Exporters’ Association (TEA), explained to ThePrint that since those in the sewing industry are already familiar with maintaining international standards while producing textile goods, their expertise and finesse is helping them produce protective gear on a large scale. Till date, Tirupur has produced 10 lakh face masks and around 20,000 PPE kits, of which one lakh masks were recently delivered to the Kerala government.

“The PPE-approved material is being sourced from different parts of the country including states like Maharashtra and Gujarat, and is being stitched in the units here. The demand for such kits and masks have come to us in the last ten days, and the industry is working based on the orders that we are receiving,” he said.

Shanmugam added that not only is this an opportunity for Tirupur to rise to the occasion in terms of helping out people in a time of crisis, but has also opened the industry’s eyes to opportunities beyond catering to the world’s fashion closets.

“This situation is going to be an eye-opener for the Tirupur cluster to get into the technical textile area in the future. Manufacturers can contribute to such technical medical programmes as well,” he said.

Also read: Tamil Nadu is worst-hit by Tablighi Jamaat event, but also seeing men admit participation

Challenge of procuring material for some

K.G. Ganeshan, partner in a Tirupur-based manufacturing unit called Swell Knit, said while the units are ready to produce PPE kits and masks according to the demand, procuring the material to stitch them is a major challenge for some of them.

The internationally approved material for PPE kits is called SSMMS (a five-layered non-woven fabric), but that is in short supply. So, these units are manufacturing kits out of other non-woven materials, which can be used by those not in the first line of duty, Ganeshan said.

“For those in the frontline, like doctors, Tirupur can produce medical-grade PPE kits with the highest quality standards if the right material is made available,” he said.

A Swell Knit worker makes a mask in Tirupur, Tamil Nadu | By special arrangement
A Swell Knit worker makes a mask in Tirupur, Tamil Nadu | By special arrangement

Ganeshan’s Swell Knit has got the necessary approvals from testing labs on its two-layer mask design, and has received an order for 20 lakh reusable masks from RSS affiliate Seva Bharati, and another for around three lakh masks from the Northeastern part of the country.

However, other units like Melange Polymers, which make masks for export to other countries on a regular basis, have turned their focus to India. Melange’s factory has been operating 24×7, with its 200 employees making 75,000 masks a day, triple its regular production.

“We have been catering to the medical industry in China, UK and Italy. But since the lockdown, we have concentrated our entire production towards the domestic market. We have joined hands with collectorates in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha to manufacture masks,” said P. Anand, chief operating officer of Melange.

Anand’s company has also manufactured 10,000 PPE kits using the SSMMS material recommended by the World Health Organization.

Revival after January slump

The Tirupur textile industry, which employs nearly 12 lakh people, saw a major slump in January this year as four of its major clients in the US and Europe filed for bankruptcy. Then, with the Covid-19 pandemic affecting businesses and people around the world, many clients began cancelling orders or putting them on hold.

But now, with the increasing demand for masks and PPE kits, some of the units have been revived, while production in others has tripled. Shanmugam, though, said it would take a while for the industry to recover completely.

“We cater to seasonal fashion, and the economy was hit when many clients began deferring payments or even demanding discount during this epidemic. It may take us close to a year to recover after this world health crisis,” he said.

Also read: Karnataka bracing for spurt in Covid-19 cases by April end, a long fight ahead: Yediyurappa


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