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The European market potential for knitwear

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Knitwear imports are growing evenly, due to its popularity during the colder seasons of the year in Europe and its relevance to the current fashion trends. Knitwear can be used in very new, innovative, and creative ways, by combining it with other fabrics, using interesting (knitting) patterns and fields of applications. Knitwear has always been an important product group for consumers in Europe, but since new knitting techniques and designs have been implemented to make knitwear more fashionable, it has enjoyed increasing popularity within the younger European population.

1. Product description

The knitwear product segment comprises clothing that is worn in Europe mostly during the colder seasons due to its warming nature. It comprises tops made of wool, cashmere, fine animal hair, cotton, man-made fibres and textile materials, as well as garments coated or covered with plastics. In the last years, knitwear has become increasingly popular due to its comfort, ease of cleaning, versatility and suitability to the current fashion trends.

In this analysis, the knitwear subsegment includes jerseys, pullovers, cardigans and waistcoats, including those knitted or crocheted, as well as rubberized or impregnated (HS codes: 611011, 611012, 611019, 611020, 611030, 611090, 611300).

Figure 1: Knitwear examples

Knitwear examples
Knitwear examples
Knitwear examples

Photo Source: Unsplash

2. What makes Europe an interesting market for Knitwear?

Europe is one of the most significant importers of knitwear in the world. In 2019, the value of knitwear imports to Europe accounted for €21.8 billion, up from €17 billion in 2014. This corresponded to roughly 2.8 billion units of knitwear clothing in 2019 (up from 2.5 billion in 2014). During the last five years, the value the EU’s knitwear imports has been growing by an average 5.1% annually.

It is expected that, in the years to come, the demand for knitwear will continue to grow at a comparable rate due to the increasing implementation of knitwear products into the current fashion trends, the use of knitwear for new product groups (like trousers, dresses and shoes), and the popularity of knitwear during the colder seasons in Europe.

The European Union is also a large re-exporter of knitwear. In 2019, it exported €15.2 billion worth of knitwear (up from €10.3 billion in 2014). EU knitwear exports have been growing at an average yearly rate of 8.2% between 2014 and 2019. The biggest European exporters in 2019 were Italy (€3.4 billion), Germany (€2.4 billion), Spain (€1.6 billion), the Netherlands (€1.5 billion), France (€1.3 billion) and Belgium (€1 billion). Together, these six countries represent 73% of the European Union’s knitwear exports.

All countries in this group experienced an average annual growth between 7.6% (Germany) and 10.4% (the Netherlands). Other European countries experienced a much greater growth: Greece (18th-largest exporter) grew by an average annual growth rate of 47.1%, Slovenia (22nd-largest exporter) grew by 23.5%, and Luxemburg (26th-largest exporter) grew by an average annual rate of 18.8%.

In 2019, the value of EU knitwear imports is strongly dominated by knitwear originating from inside the European Union (46.6%). Suppliers from developing countries contributed 21.9% to all knitwear imports into the EU (up from 18.1% in 2014) and suppliers from the rest of the world accounted for 31.5% (down from 40.2% in 2014).

The value of European knitwear imports originating from developing countries corresponded to €4.8 billion in 2019 and has grown at an average yearly rate of 9.1% since 2014. Likewise, imports from developing countries are growing faster than knitwear imports from within the European Union (average annual growth rate of 7.4%) and from the rest of the world (average annual growth of 3.2%). This demonstrates that there is a strong demand for knitwear from developing countries.

Europe’s extra-European Union knitwear imports are dominated by Asian countries, with China, Bangladesh and Turkey being the top three exporters. Together, these three countries account for 40.7% of all knitwear imports into the European Union. China is the single largest knitwear exporter to the European Union with 18.5% of European imports value in 2019. It is followed by Bangladesh with 12.8% and Turkey with 6.6%. Other top 10 extra-EU knitwear exporters had market shares between 6.5% and 0.6% in 2019.

Bangladesh, Cambodia, Pakistan, Myanmar, Vietnam and Switzerland increased their shares of knitwear imports in the last five years, while China’s shares decreased by 8.8%. Bangladesh and Myanmar were the strongest growers, increasing their imports market shares by 1.6% and 1.4%. Myanmar has seen the most spectacular growth during that period, with its knitwear exports growing by an average annual rate of 86% each year, taking its exports from €14 million in 2014 to €319 million in 2019.

In the same time, Bangladesh reached a value of €2.78 billion (up from €1.9 billion in 2014), growing by an average annual rate of 8%. The growth of other developing countries has been enabled by the negative annual growth rate of China (-2.8%), which reduced the value of China’s exports from €4.6 billion in 2014 to €4.0 in 2019.

The intra-European Union knitwear imports are dominated by Germany with a market value of €2.10 billion (equivalent to 9.4% of market share), followed by Italy with 6.5%, the Netherlands with 5.5% and Spain with 4.8% market share. Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Spain, France, and Poland have each increased their market shares, while Belgium and the United Kingdom experienced no change. Furthermore, Denmark and Portugal lost market shares of -0.3% and -0.2%, while their overall exports grew annually by an average of 2% between 2014 and 2019.

Table 1: Top 10 extra-EU and intra-EU knitwear exporters to European Union, 2019 EUR value; average yearly growth

Country

Value

5-yr growth

Top Extra-EU Knitwear Exporters

China

€4.02 billion

-2.8%

Bangladesh

€2.78 billion

+8.0%

Turkey

€1.44 billion

+5.2%

Cambodia

€839 million

+8.1%

Pakistan

€396 million

+16.7%

Myanmar

€319 million

+86.0%

India

€269 million

+3.0%

Vietnam

€258 million

+15.2%

Switzerland

€182 million

+28.6%

Morocco

€131 million

+0.6%

Top Intra-EU Knitwear Exporters

Germany

€2.10 billion

+9.2%

Italy

€1.40 billion

+5.6%

The Netherlands

€1.20 billion

+9.7%

Spain

€1.10 billion

+11.4%

France

€774 million

+7.5%

Belgium

€664 million

+4.9%

Poland

€649 million

+17.7%

United Kingdom

€542 million

+5.4%

Denmark

€419 million

+2.0%

Portugal

€247 million

+2.0%

Source: Eurostat

3. Which European countries offer the most opportunities for knitwear?

The Western-European markets for knitwear are much larger than most Central and Eastern-European markets. The top knitwear import markets in the European Union are Germany, France, United Kingdom, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain. These top six countries together account for 73.7% of knitwear imports in the European Union and have been growing at an average rate of 4.9% per year in the last five years.

Other important markets include Belgium with €1.0 billion and 4.1% average yearly growth and Poland with €856 million imports value and a 13.7% average yearly growth. While (South) Eastern imports are still experiencing smaller total import values than Western countries, Czechia, Greece, Romania, Croatia, Hungary, and Slovenia show average annual growth rates between 10.5% and 17.5%.

Most of the brands selling knitwear apparel products in Europe are general fashion brands with no specific focus on quality. The sell knitwear products that are mass produced in developing countries, Eastern Europe and other parts of the world. Nevertheless, there are also small boutiques, e-commerce shops and innovative start-ups that focus specifically on knitwear products, especially on high-end quality products with enhanced environment-friendliness and fair production conditions.

Many of these smaller companies produce their knitwear within the European Union. Germany and Italy have a tradition of local knitwear production and therefore have higher internal capacity for such production than other European countries.

Table 2: Top 10 European importers of knitwear, 2019 EUR value; average yearly growth

Country

Value

5-yr growth

Germany

€4.24 billion

+3.3%

France

€2.94 billion

+3.4%

United Kingdom

€2.60 billion

+3.4%

Italy

€2.14 billion

+5.8%

Netherlands

€2.04 billion

+6.0%

Spain

€2.07 billion

+7.4%

Belgium

€1.04 billion

+4.1%

Poland

€856 million

+13.7%

Austria

€637 million

+5.0%

Denmark

€563 million

+2.8%

Source: Eurostat

Table 3: Top 10 European importers of knitwear from developing countries, 2019 EUR value; average yearly growth

Country

Value of imports from developing countries

5-yr growth

Share of imports from developing countries

Germany

€1.00 billion

+8.5%

23.6%

United Kingdom

€702 million

+6.9%

27.0%

Spain

€667 million

+14.3%

32.2%

France

€531 million

+7.5%

18.1%

Netherlands

€519 million

+3.9%

25.4%

Italy

€492 million

+7.8%

23.0%

Belgium

€237 million

+14.7%

22.7%

Denmark

€210 million

+7.2%

37.3%

Poland

€151 million

+38.6%

17.5%

Sweden

€118 million

+13.8%

23.2%

Source: Eurostat

Germany

Germany is the largest import market for knitwear in Europe. In 2019, the value of its knitwear imports amounted to €4.2 billion (up from €3.6 billion in 2014). This corresponded to approximately 509 million units of clothing. In the last five years, the value of Germany’s knitwear imports has grown at an average rate of 3.3% per year, while the import volume has grown at an average rate of 1.8% per year. The most popular German knitwear brands include Gerry Weber, Adidas, Closed, Esprit, C&A, Peek and Cloppenburg, as well as The Knit Kid, Maiami, Allude and Maerz.

Table 4: 2019 Imports of knitwear to Germany in terms of value, with 5-year growth, average import unit price and 5-year price evolution

GERMANY

2019 Value (€)

5-year growth

Average unit price

5-year price change

TOTAL:

€4.236 million

3.3%

€8.32

+€0.59

France

France is the second-largest market for knitwear in Europe, with a value of €2.9 billion in 2019 (up from €2.5 billion in 2014). This corresponded to approximately 325 million units of clothing in 2019. In the last five years, the value of France’s knitwear imports has grown at an average rate of 3.4% per year, while the import volume has decreased by -0.4% per year. The most popular French knitwear brands include Devernois, Sezane, Montagut, Rodier, Saint James, Rosaé Paris, and La Bien Aimée.

Table 5: 2019 Imports of knitwear to France in terms of value, with 5-year growth, average import unit price and 5-year price evolution

FRANCE

2019 Value (€)

5-year growth

Average unit price

5-year price change

TOTAL:

€2.937 million

3.4%

€9.04

+€1.55

United Kingdom

The United Kingdom is the third-largest import market for knitwear in the European Union. In 2019, the value of its knitwear imports amounted to €2.6 billion (up from €2.2 billion in 2014). This corresponded to approximately 300 million units of clothing in 2019. In the last five years, the value of the UK’s knitwear imports has grown at an average rate of 3.4% per year, while the import volume has decreased by -3.2% per year. The most popular British knitwear brands include Marks and Spencer, The Nautical Company, Next, Selfridges, Monsoon, Boden and John Smedley.

Table 6: 2019 Imports of knitwear to the UK in terms of value, with 5-year growth, average import unit price and 5-year price evolution

UNITED KINGDOM

2019 Value (€)

5-year growth

Average unit price

5-year price change

TOTAL:

€2.601 million

3.4%

€8.66

+€2.44

The United Kingdom has left the European Union in 2020. New trade agreements between the European Union and United Kingdom as well as other partner countries are still pending and not finalised.  It is uncertain whether the United Kingdom will continue to provide preferential trade conditions for developing countries, and how the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union will impact the apparel sector and trade.

Italy

Italy is the fourth-largest import market for knitwear, with a 2019 value of €2.1 billion (up from €1.6 billion in 2014). This corresponded to approx. 238 million units of clothing in 2019. In the last five years, the value of Italy’s knitwear imports has grown at an average rate of 5.8% per year, while the import volume has grown at 2.9% per year. The most popular Italian brands include Loro Piana, Yoox Net-à-Porter, Prada, Malo, Fedeli, Jil Sander and Slowear.

Table 7: 2019 Imports of knitwear to Italy in terms of value, with 5-year growth, average import unit price and 5-year price evolution

ITALY

2018 Value (€)

5-year growth

Average unit price

5-year price change

TOTAL:

€2.144 million

5.8%

 €8.99

+€1.16

Spain

Spain is the fifth-largest imports market for knitwear in the EU, with a value of €2.1 billion in 2019 (up from 1.5 billion in 2014). This corresponded to approx. 335 million units of clothing in 2019. In the last five years, the value of Spain’s knitwear imports has grown at an average rate of 5.8% per year, while the import volume has grown at a 6.5% per year. The most popular Spanish brands include Zara, Babaa, TwoThirds, Monica Cordera, El Corte Inglés, Bershka and Diarte.

Table 9: 2019 Imports of knitwear to Spain in terms of value, with 5-year growth, average import unit price and 5-year price evolution

SPAIN

2018 Value (€)

5-year growth

Average unit price

5-year price change

TOTAL:

€2.070 million

5.8%

€8.99

+€1.16

The Netherlands

The Netherlands is the sixth-largest import market for knitwear in the EU, with a value €2.0 billion in 2019 (up from €1.5 billion in 2014). This corresponded to approx. 261 million units of clothing in 2019. In the last five years, the value of Dutch knitwear imports has grown at an average rate of 6.0% per year, while the import volume has decreased by -1.0% per year. The most popular Dutch knitwear brands include Knitwearlab, Anecdote, Essentiel Antwerp, Yaya and Bloomings.

Table 8: 2019 Imports of knitwear to The Netherlands in terms of value, with 5-year growth, average import unit price and 5-year price evolution

NETHERLANDS

2019 Value (€)

5-year growth

Average unit price

5-year price change

TOTAL:

€2.043m

6.0%

€7.84

+€2.28

Tips:

  • Focus your export efforts on the top six markets: Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, and the Netherlands because they are both the biggest apparel consumers in Europe and the biggest importers of apparel from developing countries. All of these countries have a high acceptance of extra-EU suppliers. The United Kingdom, France and the Netherlands may be particularly interesting due to the highest average import prices and a positive price evolution over the last five years.
  • Keep an eye on developments regarding the United Kingdom and its departure from the EU, especially if you want to export your knitwear there. Check how free trade agreements are impacted, and whether you will be subject to new tariffs or other procedural export difficulties. Visit the website ‘Brexit: New rules are here’ for more information on the impact of the Brexit to your business.
  • Consider exporting to (South) Eastern European countries like Poland, Czechia, Greece, Romania, Croatia, Hungary and Slovenia, as these are Europe’s fastest growing importers of knitwear products. They all show a growth rate between 10.5% (Czechia) and 17.5% (Hungary).
  • Research the possibilities to subcontract some of the largest knitwear selling brands, e.g. C&A, H&M, Adidas, Sezane, Bershka, Zara and Bloomings. Most of these players sell to customers in several different European countries at a time. Start by visiting their websites and reviewing them to understand what the assortment on the European market looks like and what the European knitwear aesthetic is.

The European knitwear market follows the general apparel trends related to sustainability, technological innovation and increased emphasis on corporate and social responsibility. For more information, see the CBI study on Trends in the Apparel market. Aside from these general trends, the knitwear market has its own, segment-specific trends:

Emergence of loungewear

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the increased number of employees working from home, consumers were driven to purchase clothes that are comfortable and elegant at the same time. Especially during spring, autumn and winter, oversized or athletic knitwear products with a certain amount of chic gained popularity. Since the beginning of the pandemic, layered separated “co-ords” have gained popularity which consist of two matching pieces (tops and pants or skirts), as the collection of Monki shows.

Patterns and designs

While classical plain colours and designs remain popular, female consumers have developed an interest in flowered knitwear which carries floral embroidery and prints. Additionally, animal patterns like tiger stripes and leopard designs are currently in demand. Brands like Maxhosa are introducing ethnic (in this case African-Xhosa) patterns to the European markets. In many cases knitwear gets combined with other materials like silk and cotton, which are added as patches or collars to knitwear pullovers and sweaters.

New designs

Ripped tops and cropped jackets or sweaters follow an inspiration gained directly from the 90’s fashion style, including cuffs and small buttons. These designs are expected to act as “second-skin knit-garment”, meaning they have a tight fit but they are comfortable at the same time. Peak season for this kind of knitwear is spring and autumn, though it can be also worn in summer due to its light weight and breathable nature. Therefore, the yarn must be knitted loosely but ultra-fine.

Sweaters and pullovers show a broad variety of different collars, of which turtlenecks and square necks enjoy growing popularity. Current fashion brands have discovered knitwear pants and dresses as new knitwear products, as they have proven to be more comfortable than expected.

Material and Colour Trends

Popular materials for knitwear are cashmere, Tencel and all kinds of natural cotton, synthetic cotton and blended materials. In many cases, customers tend to buy brushed and cosy yarns which can be easily washed in a washing machine. In terms of colours, the best-selling knitwear designs come in shades of warm brown, khaki, black and cream.

In case of shoes and swimwear made of knitwear, the material is expected to maintain high-quality throughout its use in the water or in contact with dirt and sand. Customers expect these products to stay in shape and show an enhanced level of resilience to water, sweat and sun.

Product innovation

New production methods, materials and textile treatments are innovating the knitwear market. Likewise, the Swiss company HeiQ has developed a protection film (“Viroblock”) which can be used to produce knitwear and make it resistant to 99.9% of the coronavirus. For now, this technology had been already integrated to the knitwear produced by Utenos Trikotažas in Lithuania.

Another example is the company Sheep Inc, which uses only Merino wool from New Zealand and processes it through 3D machines before it gets handled manually. Each sweater features a tag containing NFC and QR technology, allowing owners who scan it to access a detailed creation journey and carbon footprint information.

Apart from that, upcoming technologies like flat knitting, circular knitting for body-mapped garments, knitted shoes and warp knitting have been the focus of knitwear producers selling to the European market. Likewise, these were topics presented and discussed at recent conferences like the ITMA 2019.

Marketing and Sales

Online sales increased their share of the knitwear market in Western Europe. Customer experience is the most important thing. Customers are increasingly demanding, and it is increasingly important to understand customers better and to know what is relevant to them. The quality of marketing is one of the key growth drivers in the sector. This means sponsoring the right influencers and celebrities, having a strong social media presence and effective storytelling skills. Tips for the enhancement of the company’s digital presence are, for example, given in the CBI’s article “How to harness digital skills to grow your business”. Customers are looking for authenticity and a clear company message.

Sustainability and Circular Knitwear

Sustainability matters are not only expected to guarantee the environment-friendly production of knitwear products, but also the fair and clean resourcing of its raw material, the yarn. Many brands will have a sustainable product line, but there are also brands emerging that put sustainability at the centre of their brand and product. Companies are increasingly tracing back the origins of their wool and launching partnerships with specific farms or factories to guarantee quality and sustainability.

An example is the company Counting Cloud, which sources materials locally and produces in small local workshops in Spain. Also, The Knotty Ones aims to reduce its impact on the environment as much as possible and each purchase of a sweater includes a donation of €10 which goes directly towards funding the ambitions of the women the company employs.

Other companies like PHI (from Sweden) focus on the use of recycled materials (wool and cashmere) to produce new sweaters in order to make circular knitwear happen.

Tips:

  • Increase your focus on knitwear. Europe has a strong demand for this product category and increasingly imports knitwear from developing countries. Keep up-to-date with the design trends in fashion by observing the most popular brands in the market. Fashion websites like Vogue, Who What Wear and Glamour give you an overview on new trends presented on the catwalks of fashion brands and their implementation to the broad consumer market.
  • Consider offering your products to newly established knitwear markets such as shoes, dresses, co-ords, swimwear and sportswear, which should gain market shares in the future. Additionally, learn about new materials and knitting techniques (such as flat knitting and circular knitting) and develop interesting (for example ethnic) designs which are currently highly valued by consumers.
  • Keep up-to-date with what is going on in the (European) knitwear industry. As such, you should visit trade shows and conferences, and follow websites such as Knitting Industry, The Knitting Trade Journal and other knitwear specialised websites that will help you gain an overview of what is happening in the market. Textile associations and groups also inform about the industry, for example EuraTex.
  • Think about entering the sustainable knitwear market because it will strongly influence the future of the European imports. Understand what buyers’ sustainability requirements are and research where and how you can implement them, for example through using sustainable materials, implementing more eco-friendly production processes, establishing traceability and recycling.

This study has been carried out on behalf of CBI by M-Brain GmbH.

Please review our market information disclaimer.

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It’s essential for me to follow the path from raw material to the finished product; it’s one of the key elements of our success. We work on quality, craftsmanship and sustainability in our production, which is only possible if the entire production cycle can be traced.

Knitwear manufacturer in Europe

I look for suppliers with their own design department, to be able to talk about the designs, the Pantones, the quality. It is easier to communicate, it is faster. They also need to have sampling facilities; to get a product finished you need many samples. Supply chain experience is quite important also, we work very fast.

Department store buyer in Spain