How a Hongkonger’s invention helped his father and others battle joint pain
Manufactured in Kwai Chung, special breathable yarn addresses a population whose ranks are on target to boom in years to come
For as long as he can remember, Hong Kong manufacturer Stanley Kwok Chi-hung has wanted to find a way to help ease the knee and joint pain his father has suffered for years.
It took Kwok, a co-director of KnitWarm, nearly two years between floating the idea to his design team and finally nailing down the first draft of a physiotherapeutic product that soothed the aches.
“The excruciating pain in my father’s knees had been bothering him for years,” Kwok recalled. “Walking would cause him pain.
“He would put a heating pad on his knee to help with the condition, but it would cool off in a matter of minutes. He would then depend on us to help him heat it up again and again.”
At his knitting manufacturing company, the inventor brainstormed his idea for a new medical line of products targeting joint pain problems.
Then came a breakthrough: Kwok and his team developed a knee-heating wrap knitted with a special breathable yarn that can be produced without extensive knitting, fully formed. In that moment, they went from being designers to developers. The product, called Knee Sleeve, is manufactured locally.
Their production in the city bucked a trend of moving manufacturing to mainland China for cheaper costs and labour.
“We want to make sure all of our products are made in Hong Kong, as this will ensure quality control and reduce the possibility of copycats,” Kwok explained. “Once a design is sent to workers on the mainland, who knows what will happen?”
Production of the heating wrap now takes place in a 5,000 sq ft facility inside an industrial building in Kwai Chung, complete with 40 machines and 40 workers. Workers operate the machines, lining up the yarn and inspecting each product.
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Elsewhere on the premises, another group of workers completes the handiwork by sewing some of the parts by hand.
For Kwok, it all began when he became aware of a problem he faced at home every day.
But his family’s experience forms part of a growing public health problem in a city whose population is rapidly ageing.
A study in 2000 by Chinese University of Hong Kong found that among local residents aged 50 and older, 7 per cent of men and 13 per cent of women suffered from osteoarthritis – an age-related condition that causes excruciating pain in the knee and other joints.
Their numbers are expected to rise dramatically. By 2024, some 21 per cent of local residents are expected to be 65 or older, according to University of Hong Kong’s school of public health.
The figure compares with just 13 per cent of the population in 2009. Put another way, within six years, one in every five Hongkongers will be considered elderly.
KnitWarm co-director Stephen Ng Kam-kuen said the most difficult part of the project was finding the right material while steering clear of chemicals that can trigger skin allergies.
Seizing on advances in conductive yarn, Kwok and his team finally engineered a material that can warm up instantly and is easily powered by power banks commonly found in the market.
KnitWarm now offers a total of five products, including a wrist wrap as well as one targeting those with sore waists.
Not a bad legacy that started with a Hongkonger who simply sought to banish his father’s misery and give him and others like him a renewed sense of independence and happiness.