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.
After 80 years of trading, Interknit would finally decommission the facsimile machine and this is almost all you need to know about 2019. Almost.
With a huge extension of resources (in Summer, never a great time for a jumper factory), Kassie took Branberry off to Sydney to exhibit beside brands much better known than her own. It was an eye-opener and quite fortunately, also licensed. Did you know bubbly comes in cans too? The direct feedback from customers gave her renewed energy and by the time the Australian Sheep & Wool Show in Bendigo rolled around, she was ready.
Meanwhile, Andrew launched into school wear with the acquisition of several machines from a Melbourne knitter who’d shut down his onsite production. New machines bring new challenges and it seemed like when the factory was full to bursting, another pallet of yarn would arrive and somehow fit. It would be another stretched year financially but in the long term school wear contracts could keep the factory busy in summer.
Then an email arrived – Interknit and Branberry had been nominated for a local business excellence award. In all the excitement, it took a while to realise just how much hard work needed to be put into an entry form. Suddenly processes had to be examined from a judge’s eye and explained in layman’s terms, with a page limit and strict formatting requirements. There was editing, rewriting, date checking, more editing, more rewriting, proof reading, spell checking and formatting until it all came together and was submitted just as early bird entries closed. Then it was forgotten about and life went on – it was almost winter and there’s no time to dawdle at a jumper factory in winter.
There’s a very good reason why the front desk staff at Interknit prefer you to phone the office instead of Andrew or Kassie’s mobiles, and it’s not just to protect their time and privacy. You see, Kassie is hard to reach on mobile because she’s often got her phone on silent or not on her person, mostly both. Andrew is easier to reach but there’s a catch because if he answers the phone mid-task, chances are he won’t have remembered every detail of the conversation. The good people at Ballarat Chamber of Commerce phoned Andrew to let him know Interknit was a finalist. They gave him other details too, but this was all he could remember until an email came with more information. This was also the day a new internal policy was made as to whose mobile contact number goes on which type of correspondence.
As it turns out, Interknit was a finalist in two categories, one for Innovation and one for Creativity. Judges would be coming to the factory and so would a camera person to film a short television advert. Panic mode, otherwise known as time to clean up.
Completely chuffed with becoming finalists, Andrew and Kassie invited their whole staff along to the awards night. For a factory full of introverted makers, this was not their idea of fun. Everything from, ‘I’d have nothing to wear,’ to ‘how about you just live stream it to us at the pub?’ came back. In the end they had one staff member agree to attend the shindig but they had to ban her from wearing her sheep suit and insisted on makeup over face paint. This left plenty of free seats for some very proud family and friends.
Awards night was the same week as the big once a year end of winter clearance sale so there was no time to be nervous and Andrew spent the days before the dinner being pop quizzed on who his award sponsors were and who he would thank if he won. This turned out to be a very good idea, because as it happened, he did win a prize. Reminded of the last time he had to stand in front of people and give a speech (his wedding), Andrew refused to go onstage unless Kassie came too. In his nervousness he didn’t see the stairs and he jumped onto the stage from the floor – this was not as easy for his wife who was wearing stiletto heels with her hand in his iron grip, so he pulled her up behind him. Apparently from the stage you can’t see the crowd due to the lights, so he made his thank you speech perfectly, remembering his sponsors and staff and exited with a public kiss and thank you to his wife.
That’s when the party started.
Back at work the team were thrilled to be winners. The glass trophy was prised out of its case but Andrew wouldn’t let it within a foot of a ledge in case it was to fall and break. If customers asked to look at it he’d point to it, but it was too precious to touch. Interknit’s first trophy.
The lull hit late in 2019. Partly because it was one of the longest winter’s Australia had seen in a while and partly because the new machines kept staff working full time longer than a usual season. Staff had changed too – Anne had retired at the end of 2018 and not been replaced. Her position was filled with an internal promotion and some skill sharing. Some staff had expressed an interest in moving to part-time from full-time and others were planning time away for everything from surgery to long service leave. It was time to hire again.
The recruitment process was as in depth and thorough as the awards application had been. From mapping out the type of skill set required; determining the type of culture Interknit has, to writing out a position description, it was another task that fell squarely onto the owners because the budget just didn’t exist for professional HR help, and if it did, Andrew would have requisitioned it for more yarn. Over 130 people applied for the position, less than thirty of these were genuine applications and only six people responded to all of the selection criteria and attached a resume. All six were offered an interview.
A stand out in the interview and with his resume, Daniel seemed to fit into Interknit from the beginning. As an added bonus, he’s a passionate knitter and is interested in studying textile design. He became the youngest employee, relieving Stacey of the title, and he also brought a bit of height to an organisation of predominately vertically challenged persons.
2019 ended as it usually does, at lunch time on Andrew’s birthday with a Christmas party. Our last delivery for the year was uniform shirts and badges to the Red Lion where we promptly settled in for a good feed and hard earned beverages.
We would like to remember Tony Smith, our travelling sales rep, who passed away in 2019 after battling a brain tumour. He always had a smile on his face, a joke on his lips and a cup of tea in his hands.