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Saturday, January 16, 2010

Troubleshooting Part II

Sometimes there are things that aren't precisely technical which still may cause problems. Here's the story of one unusual bug and its solution.

When I worked at a software company they wanted to get golf shirts for the R&D department. So, I guess because they thought I had nothing else to do, i.e., I wasn't a programmer, I got tasked with sourcing the shirts and getting the order.

I had a measly budget but through some clever research and negotiating was able to order 60 very nice shirts with a custom logo. Everyone was pleased with the shirts, and we planned a department photo day where everyone would wear their shirts (original, I know) and get a photo taken.

However, all the people who had ordered Size L shirts were complaining. The sleeves were scratchy. When they wore the shirts, there was something on the sleeve cuffs that was scratchy to the skin and caused red abrasions.

I tested my own shirt and found the same thing. (I'm not in the habit of wearing golf shirts.) I called the supplier and he had no clue about the cause. He did offer to take all the Large shirts back and replace them, but it would take some time and we wouldn't have the shirts by picture day.

I did a little more research, on the web, and could find nothing about scratchy shirt cuffs. Then I had an idea. From quilting and working with other fabrics I thought that maybe there was something the fabric had been treated with that was causing the problem.

Usually washing will remove such a thing, but to ensure the navy and white colors didn't run together, the shirt had to be washed in cold water, which is not the best for dissolving fabric treatments. But it was worth a try, so I tested my own shirt by washing it and putting it in the dryer.

The shirt came out nice and clean but still with the scratchy cuffs. I didn't want to risk washing it in hot water and wrecking the shirt, for 2 reasons -- I would not have been able to return it if damaged (though under the circumstances I probably could have made the case that it was a defective product anyway), and the risk of it shrinking and thus becoming unwearable was also an issue.

But I had an idea. I set up the ironing board and put the sleeve between two sheets of paper towel. I then ironed the sleeve cuff to melt whatever was left in the fabric. (I would like to have put it under a microscope to see if there was something there, but I didn't have one handy. But it was a thought!)

Whatever came off the sleeve cuffs would be transferred to the paper towels and the sleeves should be fine. It worked! We had a simple solution -- just iron the two cuffs between paper towels on a hot enough setting and they were fine.

Next day I called the supplier and gave him the solution. He told me that a whole bunch of shirts had been returned for this same issue from various customers, and they had all come from the same factory in India.

Having the solution to the scratchy cuffs was going to save him thousands of dollars in returned goods from this shipment of shirts. I think he was so gobsmacked by the simplicity of the solution he forgot to thank me.

Even though we had a solution, however, I still didn't know how the shirts had come to have these scratchy cuffs, and in bulk, too. I was somewhat content to have fixed "the shirt bug" but was not completely satisfied until I knew the cause. As you know, if the cause is known, prevention is the next step, and always much better than repair. Ounce, pound, all that.

I was retelling this story in my tech comm class some months later, and one of my students had the answer. He had previously worked in his family's garment business. He had never heard of scratchy cuffs before, but he did know that for knit shirts like golf shirts, the banding on the cuffs is often made on large looms where they knit 1- or 2-inch wide strips in parallel, and the edges are joined with glue. That's why ironing worked -- it melted the glue.

This budget factory had not done the additional step of removing the glue from the finished bindings when they were separated. I thought this was worthy of sharing with my original supplier so called him to explain it. And he didn't care one bit. They had gone with a different factory somewhere else, even though it was more expensive, and just passed the cost along to the customer.

Just goes to show you, that if there's a bug, I can find it and figure out how to get around it. :-)

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At 7:40 PM, July 15, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great story, Beth! Another possible cause could have been nylon thread, such as the monofilament thread used in appliquing. A cut end of that -- even just a little hanging out -- can scratch like crazy. It's a shame the supplier didn't appreciate your problem-solving.


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