As a company, Interknit has a rich local history. Beginning in Clunes, a small town in rural Victoria, Interknit purchased the Clunes knitting mill and became the Interknit Hosiery Company. Producing socks for sports, leisure and soldiers, the site of the Clunes Interknit factory was an old decommissioned state school building at 70 Bailey Street, Clunes. This historical site is now home to the Clunes Bottle Museum, the largest collection of bottles in the Southern Hemisphere.
Employing many locals, the Interknit Hosiery Company flourished and by 1981 had begun manufacturing jumpers. Moving to Ballarat in late 1986/early 1987, Interknit established its factory at Ring Road. Circa 1990, the Keller family with Peter Keller at the helm, sold Interknit to Greg Parker. Meanwhile, Andrew Blaszak was completing a bachelor of business with a major in accounting through Victoria University of Technology, graduating in 2003. Andrew would go on to be employed by another company of Greg Parker’s in Melbourne as a company accountant and through this connection would buy Interknit with the support of his parents at only twenty four years old.
Andrew Blaszak bought the business and began working in it on 4 April 2005, the date we now regard as Interknit’s ‘birthday’. Almost two years to the date after purchasing the company, Andrew’s then girlfriend, Kassie moved to Ballarat and began working beside him. She was only nineteen but had a solid grounding in the day to day running of a small business thanks to her step-father and her involvement in his hospitality business. It was around this time, in February 2007, the factory moved from their Ring Road premises to their Alfredton factory at 4 Michaels Drive. Functioning as a wholesaler only, the factory would open to the public only once per year and offer a wide range of garments to locals at wholesale prices.
Hit hard by the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, Andrew and Kassie knuckled down, determined to keep their little factory viable. They sought out all sorts of commission knitting works and began knitting school uniform jumpers for an assortment of private schools across Australia. Like a lot of other small businesses at the time, they downsized their staff and worked overtime to fill all the roles themselves.
In 2010, with the worst of it over they married on 10th October and began to hope for a better future. With the arrival of their son in December 2012, Kassie and Andrew were a young couple with their hands well and truly full. Not helping matters along was their strong ‘go for it’ nature – heavily pregnant with her first baby, Kassie bought a baby knitwear business from one of her commission knitting customers. Kassie was now a self-taught graphic designer, self-taught clothing designer, ran Interknit’s dispatch section and in her spare time, worked on her designer baby blankets. Andrew had overcome the challenges the GFC had brought and continued to be the company’s Managing Director; Sales Person; Bookkeeper and Production Manager. By night they were parents, travelling between their Ballarat factory and their home in Melton and trying not to incur late day care fees.
By 2015, Andrew was ready for a change and a smaller factory, better suited to his budget and the current needs of Interknit, became available. Located in Mount Pleasant at the end of Barkley Street, this 600m2 factory had a retail shop front and room for an embroidery machine, something he’d needed for a long time to better secure wholesale contracts. Having only just settled from the mammoth effort of moving 20+ knitting machines; 20+ sewing machines; two steam beds and a boiler across town, Kassie and Andrew discovered they were expecting their daughter, Ayla, born February 2016.
Business was picking up, but so were the challenges. Wool pricing was at an all-time high and local wool yarn suppliers were either closing down completely or like their close neighbour, Creswick Woollen Mills, steering away from commercial production and importing their product. With not a single commercial spinning mill left in Australia that could produce the quantities of yarns Interknit needed each year, Andrew was forced to navigate the world of foreign imports. Cash flow became king again; huge deposits were needed to bring yarn in from overseas and language barriers made transactions difficult. The days of phoning a local spinner and ordering yarn as required were over.
Then there was the colour matching. Importing hundreds of kilos of navy yarn at a time could be a disaster if the navy didn’t match the last swatch – school uniforms needed to be, by definition, uniform! When it came to passing Australian and New Zealand standards for high visibility garments Andrew innovated by importing huge quantities of raw white yarn and sending them ‘up the road’ to Geelong to be dyed.
Contracts were fickle and wholesale orders would either trickle in (creating a work shortage for a full-time permanent workforce) or pour in all at once, forcing huge overtime payments and sucking away any profits made. If there had been just one standard Andrew and Kassie valued in business, it was the importance of keeping skilled Australians in the workforce. Having to lay staff off in quiet times had been a soul crushing experience and time and time again, Andrew would accept orders at break-even prices just to ‘keep work coming in for the girls’. He wanted to ensure that if anyone left the business in future, it would be by choice and not by economic circumstance.
With their son Kingston about to start school, the driving to Melton and Ballarat everyday became impossible. Over the Christmas period of 2017, Andrew and Kassie moved their little family to Buninyong, a small town on the outskirts of Ballarat, and enrolled their son in a local school.
A few things fell into place by 2018. Andrew finally hired an extra hand full-time to help in the shop and administration which combined with his move to Ballarat gave him extra time to finally focus on his business. Projects he’d dreamt of for years were finally within reach. He booked training sessions and learned to use the more involved features of his knitting machines, enabling him to innovate on stitch types and designs.
Bringing his accounting training out of hibernation, he began to cost up each garment and calculate the exact losses of production – and a plan to plug the leaks. With Andrew becoming further multi-skilled, he pushed for each member of his small production team to learn more than one facet of production. A multi-skilled team would give him more flexibility.
Kassie moved away from full-time dispatch and began to clear years of projects from her desk. Having both the time and resources together, she launched a new website for her designer label, Branberry and created several catalogues for Interknit – being the model; photographer; graphic designer and the one to organise quote for publishing, this was quite a task. By mid-year the Blaszak’s were settled as a family. The kids had swimming once a week, their son had after-school play-dates and team sports and Kassie had one day a week to work from home and bond with her toddler daughter. Never ones to relax, they launched into new projects.
Spreading the wool word
Kassie began taking her designer label to wool shows, trade shows and markets. Andrew opened the shop every Saturday morning, sharing duties with other staff so he’d have every second weekend free for his family. After an unscheduled hiatus they resumed their annual trips to visit customers in person – nurturing this personal relationship was important not just for the customers to see and touch the new range in person, but for Andrew and Kassie’s own personal well being. They needed to hear feedback from their customers directly and after so many years in business, these customers were now friends and enjoyed seeing the children grow each year.
Interknit now supported nine full-time permanent staff; two part-time permanent staff and three casual staff members. Always a seasonal business, as you might expect with a product range largely suited towards cold weather, Andrew wasn’t clear sailing yet. Interknit continues to grow cautiously, implementing small changes here and tweaking processes there. It’s been a tough decade of personal and professional growth for the owners but they’re determined to make it work in their favour. 2019 will mark eighty years of local knitwear manufacturing and an amazing look back at how much the world has changed.