There used to be guards at the Kapan Knitting Factory checking workers on their way out to see if they had pocketed any items - thread, fabric – on the sly.
I was told this by Armen Margaryan who now serves as company director. He confirmed that in its heyday, such pilferage was commonplace.
Today, there are no guards at the security shack…just a heavy layer of dust.
Armen told me about one incident when a worker came to the plant earing nothing underneath and was caught leaving wearing six undershirts. He had heard these stories from his father, Derenik Margaryan, and from the old-timers.
Derenik Margaryan served as plant director from 1981. In 1996 the plant was privatized and purchased by Sonatex OJSC, a company in which the plant employees own 20%. Derenik now serves as company president. Armen is his son.
While Armen Margaryan says he got interested in the business as a child. He started working at the plant after being discharged from the army in 2001. That’s when the plant’s business started to nosedive.
US Clients, Followed by Orders from Italy and France
The plant was fulfilling orders for customers in the United States. Business was disrupted with the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. Flights were cancelled and the finished goods couldn’t be sold.
Armen recounts that the plant then found French and Italian clients and shows me some old examples of what was being produced for them. He pulled out some women’s clothes in a brownish color with a brand label and some Italian names.
The plant director says that the Italians would supply the raw materials and the designs. Armen adds that one of those former Italian clients recently telephoned him to ask if the plant was still operating. They haven’t yet discussed any possible new orders.
Armen shows me a pink sweater from the old samples designed by Valentine Yudashkin, who has since become a famous designer.
“At the time, we didn’t know who he was. When my father invited him to the plant, he designed this sweater,” Armen says. He then recounted that his father had invited the famous psychotherapist Kashpirovsky to Kapan in the late 1990s and shows me one of their first products - a sweater embossed with a cross. It turns out that Kashpirovsky signed the sweater which was then presented as a gift to Vazgen Sargsyan. (Armenia’s first defense minister who later served as Prime Minister)
“Recently I visited this village and an old man approached me. He said hello. I had never met the man. When my friend and I were sitting at the table, the old man took off his jacket to show that he was wearing a sweater made by us. I felt really good. The sweater must have been 10-20 years old. I turned to my friend and remarked that the sweater must have been washed 20-30 times but that it still looked good as new. Surprised, my friend said that he could no longer wear a sweater out in public that he just purchased last year,” Armen recounted.
Windows Covered with Plastic – Business Could be Better
Today, the windows of the plant are covered with plastic sheeting which does little to keep out the wind. Armen said that the plastic is no longer any protection from the cold and that one of production units has to be renovated and the windows changed; a heavy financial burden for the small company.
As we walk through the various production units in the larger building, some colored threads used on the Swiss sewing machines are still to be seen. Management still believes that one day the plant will get a new lease on life and that the orders will be rolling in.
“We haven’t sold any fixtures or equipment, however strange that may sound. During the cold and dark days after independence, many plants sold everything. My father took the opposite approach; he would purchase things. When I asked him why, he would say one day we’ll need it, Armen says with a smile.
Today, only one production unit, located in the building’s warmest corner, is operating. A stove is lit during the winter.
Business picked up in May 2013 to sew work clothes for local mining companies. Now, the plant is fulfilling an order for Dundee Precious Metals, located in Kapan.
Average salaries at the plant range from 70-80,000 AMD per month.
“Around here we don’t use the word ‘impossible’. If someone brings in a sample for production, you’ll never hear me say, sorry, we can’t make it,” Armen says.
Mining Orders Will Keep Plant Operating until Year’s End – Then What?
The Dundee order will keep the plant working until the end of the year. After that, no one can say for sure.
“It’s tough when I have to tell the workers that have to go on vacation, which is really obligatory leave,” says Armen.
Despite all the problems, the plant receives the odd order. They’ve received a shirt order from some Armenians living in Miami. A few days ago Armen’s father mentioned the possibility of getting some order from Kazakhstan. Nothing has yet been confirmed.
Armen tells me about how he had met a Syrian-Armenian in Yerevan who had worked in a shirt print shop back home and was then driving a taxi in the Armenian capital.
“I wanted to help the guy since he was from Syria and because he had run out of money. I asked him if he would come to work in Kapan if I would provide him with everything. The guy agreed but wanted a large amount in compensation. Let me be frank, I probably wouldn’t have agreed if he wasn’t a Syrian-Armenian. Anyway, he came to Kapan and worked here for three months and taught us how to do silk-screening,” Armen says.
Factory Doesn’t Sell Products Locally – Can’t Afford a Retail Outlet
When I asked Armen if they sell their products in Kapan he let out a sigh and said they didn’t have the money to open a shop.
A local retailer buys some goods from the plant and resells it in his store in the downtown area. But the shopkeeper avoids marketing the items as made in Kapan.
“That’s his business. Maybe he’s afraid it won’t sell. Who can say?” Armen says.
When I ask if the plant goes to trade shows and expos to promote its wares, Armen grins. He says that they participated in a few shows but it cost 200,000 AMD. It costs 100,000 AMD just for the exhibition space.
“It’s better to give that money to my workers in wages,” he says, adding that such trade shows are only good to make contacts that may or may not prove productive in the future.
“Right now my major concern is how will I tell the workers that they will not be working come next year?” Armen says.
Amazingly, the plant even operated during the Artsakh War years. Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan were put to work hand knitting socks for the soldiers.