Sunham stays the course with quilts

New York — Quilts are hot. Embroidery is hot. Sourcing from China is hot. That creates an ironic predicament for 45-year-old Sunham Industries, which has been sourcing out of China since the 1950s and exporting embroidered quilts from China since 1990.

What do you do when everybody from major mills to niche operators to high-end designers charges into your product category, not to mention your resource pool?

Sunham has traveled this road before.

"This happened 10 years ago for quilts, but at that time it was a very traditional look built around Amish themes," said sales vp Jane Bognacki. "Then it cycled into a promotional item, and it became all about price points. Then it was all over."

Sunham, based here, which had by that point shifted its focus from the table linen business that established the company to become a design and import house for Chinese-made quilts, positioned itself out of the price point game, said president Howard Yung.

"We put a lot of time and energy into our own fabrics and [into] creating our own prints," he said. "And we have been in China since there were only seven companies allowed to do business there. WTO may get rid of quota, but you still have to know where to go. There are 25 different styles of embroidery, and different makers who are the best producers. Also, quality control can be a problem. Their color concepts there and their taste level are different than in the United States."

Sunham has expanded into a new area, forging sourcing alliances with retailers and one major mill to contract for the production of quilts, rugs, blankets, greige goods and fabrics from the country. The company's Shanghai office now employs 17 people to bird-dog quality control and shepherd the documentation required when working from China. Yung expects that portion of Sunham's business to continue expanding as trade barriers fall away and as retailers scale up their house labels.

"Ninety-five percent of the goods we're bringing out of China are packed to be floor-ready," Bognacki said. "If the order is large enough, it can be shipped broken down by DC."

Sunham has developed three lifestyle groups for its core line of quilts: young and casual; traditional and sophisticated; and country casual. The company will show 10 to 12 new designs for each group at fall market, said design director Vanessa McBride, about half of them embroidered designs, half patchwork.

"We're taking a lot more direction from fashion now than ever before, especially ready to wear," McBride said.

Flourishes in the new line will include trapunto piecing, pleating, appliques, embroidered chambrays, piques, rickrack and ribbons.

Each quilt pattern also has a coordinating embroidered sheet, sham, dust ruffle, duvet and pillowcase, another expansion Sunham has undertaken over the past five years.

"It's all in the design and the quality — and servicing at the right price," Yung said. "If you show the quality, you don't have to sell a quilt for $99."

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