Pan Ruibin works at a workshop of Panwallzer Handmade Sweaters in Fuyang, Guangdong province. [Photo/China Daily]
Knitwear entrepreneur employs dozens of local villagers as his bold sweaters become an online hit
"My dream is to build a high-end brand like Chanel, that's the goal of Panwallzer," said Pan Ruibin, the 34-year-old owner of an online knitwear shop known for its bold designs and handmade products.
So far, Panwallzer Handmade Sweaters has done well knitting its way to success. On Douyin, a popular short video app, it has captivated 1.9 million followers and gained 13.7 million likes.
When he established Panwallzer in 2010, however, Pan went against the generational trend of leaving his hometown to work in a big city for a large company.
Pan quit his job as a Japanese translator for a foreign company in Shantou, Guangdong province, and returned to his home village in Fuyang, northern Shantou and decided to turn his hobby of knitting into a business.
"My parents firmly opposed my decision," Pan said. "My mom said it was horrible to think only of cooking for me when I returned, while my dad insisted that owning an online shop was the equivalent of unemployment."
Despite doubts about whether people would still wear handmade sweaters when machine-made ones are easier to produce and cheaper, Pan persisted with his business idea.
"The customers I accumulated during the part-time operation of the online shop encouraged me, but my major motivation was my passion to save the handmade knitwear industry."
It takes a village
Pan showed his talent for knitting from the age of 6. He was taught by his mother, and improved his skills by entering knitting competitions. By the time he was 10, he could knit a sweater as well as the middle-aged women in his village.
His knitting teachers later became his employees when Pan hired some retirees in his village to help him make the sweaters.
"Mothers in the region master knitting skills, but some of them had been unemployed for a long time, while others worked in toy factories or on farms," Pan said.
The workshop run from the family home provided them with jobs and enriched their lives. The number of employees grew from seven in 2010 to 60 this year.
Pan comes up with the designs and makes samples that are featured on Douyin, while orders are filled by the employees. The knitters make one sweater at a time, which can take seven to 20 days to finish. Customers usually order a month in advance so Pan's workshop can fill the order on time.
His family members also have jobs with Panwallzer. His father finds and prepares the materials for Pan's samples, his mother makes final adjustments to the orders and his sister helps arrange online deliveries.
Pan has no intention of gearing up the workshop for mass production, even though new orders are flooding in to Panwallzer due mainly to its popularity on social media.
He believes producing a superior product is the right way to maintain sustainable grow. With a peak monthly sales volume of 100 to 200 sweaters, Pan wants to provide a customized service through his novel sweater designs.
"People don't buy your sweater just because it is handmade, they buy it because it is both stylish and handmade," he said.
Inspired by design brochures and fashion shows, Pan creates and upgrades his designs in summer when he is less occupied filling orders.
Yu Han, 40, a math teacher from Xuzhou, Jiangsu province, is one of Panwallzer's regular customers and has bought at least one sweater every year for the past eight years.
Yu said she initially started buying them as she liked the traditional handwork and Pan's bold designs. "Later the style improved from sweaters that just kept you warm to fashion," Yu said.
Pan said even though the bespoke sweaters were made from a design template, each was different.
"We will alter the knitting details based on a client's measurements and special needs. For instance, we sometimes change a round neck sweater into a turtleneck as it better fits one certain client," Pan explained.
Customized production isn't cheap, and the sweater prices range from 1,000 yuan to 5,000 yuan ($141 to $706) on Panwallzer's Taobao shop.
The employees are paid 200 yuan to 1,200 yuan a piece, depending on the complexity of the design and the knitting involved.
Willing to pay
A comment during one of Pan's livestreams on Douyin read: "It's so expensive and I can't afford a sweater like this." Several similar comments followed, complaining about the high price of a single woolen sweater.
However, Pan won't compromise on price to earn more sales.
"People value personalized products. They don't like their outfit clashing with others on the street, and handmade sweaters help them stand out from mass-production items," he said.
Another regular Panwallzer customer said people often asked her where they could buy a similar sweater. "I feel proud when friends and even strangers notice my handmade sweaters and ask me how I got it," said Tong Jing, a 36-year-old nurse from Shangqiu, Henan province.
"At first I also considered the price too high for ordinary buyers like me, so I tried knitting it myself. But it's too hard to finish a scarf, let alone a sweater. Then I realized the great effort in every customized work. It is really worth the price," Tong said.
In June, Pan Ruibin and his team traveled to the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region in the country's northwest to shoot publicity photos for his Taobao shop. The trip, costing 200,000 yuan in total, resulted in beautiful photos and videos presenting his handmade sweaters in a bucolic setting.
In one of the photos, Pan models a sweater while cows graze in a pasture in the background. A short video of him sitting and knitting in the tranquil meadow earned 26,000 likes on Douyin.
"I hope users unpick the stereotype of knitting with needles by watching my videos. They don't have to buy one, but at least they can know Panwallzer is making exquisite handmade sweaters," Pan said.
Customer Yu Han said: "It's rare to see a man devote himself to traditional handwork today like knitting, and that's why I never hesitate to support him."