HOLLAND — Liz Hilton’s journey to launch a customized 3D knitting manufacturing business has taken her from a startup studio space in Grand Rapids to her garage and to KNITit LLC’s new headquarters at a 6,000-square-foot building in Holland.
Currently, KNITit’s shop floor at the new facility holds three CNC knitting machines made by Japanese manufacturer Shima Seiki that run 24/7 to keep up with demand.
Hilton has plans to acquire two more of the machines, which make products all in one piece in what she calls “soft good additive manufacturing” — essentially, a process of making the product where the entirety of the raw material is used, leaving no waste.
The CNC knitting machines specialize in tubular and layered designs.
“That is where KNITit shines,” Hilton told MiBiz. “My competitors don’t do that.”
Hilton started KNITit to provide a place for others to develop their ideas and products without the burden of committing to high volume. While the model wasn’t sustainable, Hilton said the experience proved to be invaluable.
“It opened up a lot of doors for me, and I got to knit a bunch of things,” Hilton said.
Hilton shifted to contracting out capacity at KNITit to various companies, producing office chair suspension backs, oven gaskets and shoe uppers, among other items.
Today, the company primarily produces a product Hilton invented in 2018 known as the Swaddelini, a 3D-knitted swaddle with trademarked light compression therapy that keeps babies snug without restricting their movement.
She invented the Swaddelini in her early days as a new mom.
“Our first night with my son in Swaddelini, he slept the whole night,” Hilton said. “My husband grabbed my hand that morning and said, ‘Liz! You’re going to sell a million of these.’ That was the moment KNITit started to transition.”
In 2018, she pitched the Swaddelini at Start Garden’s annual 100 Ideas pitch competition and won $20,000 to develop the product. Hilton was already a familiar face at Start Garden, having won a 5x5 Night business pitch for KNITit in 2015.
Start Garden Director Paul Moore says Hilton’s evolution is reflective of the tenacity that eventually pays off for entrepreneurs.
“We’ve gotten to see Liz’s journey from the beginning with her first 3D knitting machine, and she has never stopped innovating,” Moore told MiBiz. “She has that classic grit and determination you see in entrepreneurship. She just keeps trying and trying until something connects. She exemplifies the tenacity that it takes. Whether it takes six months or six years, someone who really wants to build a company will keep trying.”
Swaddelini had contracts with big box giant Buy Buy Baby, shopping channels QVC and HSN and e-commerce platform Zulily by September 2020. Rather than basking in the glow of the new business she was receiving, Hilton opted instead to pull the plug.
“I spent a lot of time getting those relationships, but those companies weren’t doing good business with me,” Hilton said. “I was losing money and agency.”
In January 2021, Hilton created a video promoting Swaddelini on TikTok, which quickly went viral. Today, the Swaddellini TikTok account has racked up 4.3 million likes, 152,000 followers and multiple videos with more than 1 million views each.
Hilton says amassing such a substantial online audience gave her new leverage to work with companies like department store Von Maur, which sells the Swaddelini online and in brick-and-mortar stores.
The Swaddelini features 100-percent post-consumer recycled nylon made in the United States, with an option to use bamboo grown in China. The product has sold more than 10,000 units, and, as of this writing, Hilton was racing to catch up with orders.
Hilton says KNITit’s focus will remain on Swaddelini production, but at some point, she wants the company to shift to offering clients tubular solutions.
“KNITit will take on projects that make sense and set us apart from our competitors,” Hilton said.
The company opened its new facility on Oct. 6. Zeeland-based Midwest Construction Group Inc. built the facility, which is owned by LEED LLC, also of Zeeland.
Hilton says the facility gives her much more than additional room to breathe. It allows the business to increase volume and dream bigger.
“As soon as I moved in, I was able to add 50 percent more capacity,” Hilton said. “In two years, I’ll be able to quadruple our capacity.”
Now that KNITit isn’t restricted by square footage, Hilton has been able to deepen relationships with her suppliers.
“We were never able to buy minimums before,” Hilton said. “Now we can buy and store raw material more easily, giving us a better relationship with suppliers.”
Hilton emphasizes that she doesn’t want KNITit’s headquarters to feel like a “run-of-the-mill manufacturer.”
“I want this to feel like a living, breathing art installation,” Hilton said.
To that end, West Michigan artists Chris Garcia and Jacob Zars will be painting giant murals inside the facility that can be viewed from the manufacturing floor.
As Hilton, now a mother of three, embarks on the next leg of her journey with KNITit and Swaddelini, she wants to encourage other women and mothers to hang on through the twists and turns of entrepreneurship. She referenced 2019 when she stepped away from KNITit full-time to take a job in business development and while continuing to work on the Swaddelini.
“A lot of people think I’m an overnight success,” Hilton said. “There is such a hustle culture with entrepreneurship — ‘keep going, don’t give up’ — but I did have to give up a few times, and that’s OK. It’s not a straight line.”