Wednesday, April 2, 2014

A Kickstarter for Historic Threads

Kickstarter is a hot topic today in investment circles.  The old model was if someone wanted to make a new widget or company and they didn't have the large amount of capital to do it, they went and looked for a venture capitalist to invest a chunk for a percentage of the company.  Then Kickstarter came along in 2009 with a model that allowed all of us to 'buy' one of the first run of manufacturing of some new product idea.  When the minimum order amount was reached, Kickstarter would charge all the early adopters who had signed up and release the capital to the company with the great idea.  Of course being a new manufacturer, none come in on time because there are always unanticipated bumps, but you do get something made and in your hands that might not have been made if we waited for traditional capital investments to deem it worthy of their investments.

Just one of the Frosting Materials that has arrived
This has been a boon for niche products and markets.  For start-ups and small companies it comes with a built in market for their idea.  They use the Kickstarter format to make the argument on why you would want to 'invest' for one of the first pieces to come off the line.  Some make their goal, some aren't convincing enough. In those cases the model has saved them from likely bankruptcy because they don't go out and spend the money to make only to find that they hadn't anticipated the market right.

Well, I have been using my embroidery classes as a mini-Kickstarter for many years.  The Plimoth Jacket project was a means to get Gilt Sylke Twist and a few gold threads made.  Each project was designed to get another thread made in a few colors.  Then I figured out that time was running out and I needed to double down and launch the Cabinet of Curiosities course before the
Silk trims for special stitches - these are tiny!
knowledge was gone to make the threads I needed.

This has been amazing and yet as with many Kickstarter projects, with bumps on manufacturing schedule at times, but they are getting made and enjoyed!  By having a critical number of people in the courses, I could get beyond the minimums to invest in a new thread, being guaranteed to be able to sell them through the kit in the course so I could then take that money and reinvest in the next thread.

Well, the threads are all set for the COC Part 1 course and the Part II Stumpwork course and I have many thread left in my wish list for 17th century embroidery.  I have only so many hours in the day to write courses and so I have come up with another idea to get the threads that we want before they can't be made anymore...

Tiny Silk Braids for the Frosting Club on top of
Silk Wrapped Purl for scale
Call it the Frostings Club.  That is the working title at the moment.  A club where you sign up for a year at a time and a box arrives every three months with a curated selection of threads, fabrics and trims that are useful in 17th century embroidery.  Some are sourced from obscure manufacturers, some custom made.  Many would be one-run only - once in a lifetime to get.  The anticipated quarterly cost is under $100 and would come in a special collector box.

I have already decided to do this back last July and have started making the orders as it will take over a year to bank the materials.  The first order of reds for two new lines (pictured) have already arrived.  What I do need is an indication of how many people are interested.  Not committed - but interested.  Since many materials will be one time manufacturing and we are approaching a much larger set of historic companies in Europe and the US, I need to have a good feel of what we can plan on without disappointing a ton of embroiderers.

You can help me by doing one of two things:

(1) Fill out my survey so I know you are interested and can better plan manufacturing numbers (click here)

(2) Join the mailing list as those people have first dibs on the Frostings Club (end of survey)

For interest - lets review the things that my classes/efforts have brought back into production:

Wode Blues (The complete family is five shades) shown in
(left to right) Soie Perlee, Soie Gobelin, Gilt Sylke Twist,
Silk Gimp, Soie Paris, Soie Ovale, and Silk Wrapped
Purl.  All custom dyed.
Gilt Sylke Twist
Silk Wrapped Purl
Silk Gimp in two sizes
Soie Ovale, Paris, Gobelin, and Perlee in seven perfectly shaded color families
Glass eyes for stumpwork
Gold and Silver #4 Passing on Silk
Gilt and Silver on six-end silk
Special Gilt Tambour
Gilt Crinkle plate
Silk Braids
Silver woven tape
Casket hardware and locks
Mirror Frames
Slate Frames

I will say that my list for the Frostings Club is just as long... interested?


P.S. Embroiderers out there often email me and say they want to take my course but they will wait until the 2015 or 2016 one.  They are thinking like everything is on the shelf at some warehouse and I can just order from that stock.  That isn't the way it goes.  I only announce an Encore of my classes AFTER I have decided the class size I can take based on the material supply and have ordered whatever needs to be made and that is well underway, usually six to nine months in advance.  Everytime I offer a class, it might be the last time.  I actually don't know because I don't know what material might become unavailable and be too critical to substitute or who might retire.

There are 34 spots available in the 2014 Cabinet of Curiosities Part I Encore.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Time is Now! How our Textile Knowledge is Fading Away - Fast

Our vision of how our threads are made - 66 heads spinning
under computer control with no humans in sight
When businesses are niche, they can't quite afford to invest in the latest and newest labor saving machinery.  Robotic, computer controlled production machinery is highly specialized and is usually a 'one-off'.  Meaning that you are the only one who needs something like that - so it is the only machine like that.  I used to work as a Materials Engineer in a company that had an industrial equipment design group.  We were the ones hired to design and build such custom machines.  I know how much they cost to get designed and built if the industry wasn't big enough to have companies dedicated to making machines for their industry.  They cost between $300,000-$1M easy and they usually make only one thing.

Well the silk thread and gold thread making industry is small.  Two European silk floss companies (meaning not spun) and one has chosen to focus on their medical business.  There are four companies in all of Europe making gold threads.
The reality of how our threads are made.
A Victorian Era multi-head spinner
that has every spinner started and monitored
by this gentleman, Herb.  Thread breaks, Herb
disengages the clutch, snips off the offending
end, rewraps the end and engages the clutch again.
He sets the tensions by eye and experience.

Herb retired last month.
  None in the rest of the English speaking world.  A few in India and China.  When I mean companies, I don't mean a building where there are 100 workers coming in everyday.  I mean that Golden Threads = William Kentish Barnes.  Benton and Johnson?  Well they were three people until a few weeks ago.  So you get it, these are small entities.  The flu can halt production entirely.  

When you take these two pieces of information together, maybe you see where I am going but I am going to say it out loud.  Our thread making infrastructure is Victorian Era and (if we are lucky) early twentieth century machines that are often the only one left in existence.  One special purling machine was the one for the original patent with never a match made.  The computer control?  A pair of expert hands with a brain that contains knowledge that goes back to the 1960's when those hands apprenticed on the same machines at the feet of the prior master.  Those brains are the database of all knowledge of how threads have been made and are being made.  

Herb drawing gold wire.  Note his fingers
on the wire.  How much pressure
he uses defines the gauge of the
drawn wire - and thus the size
of the purl.  Squeeze too tight or too
little and it isn't right. 
This came home to me when visiting one of the many historic thread manufacturers one year.  I was watching the rolling mill that squishes the wire into tinsel before it is wrapped around a silk thread to become gold thread. I asked how they set the gauge of the strip (tinsel) to get the right width to make that passing thread we were discussing.  Dee laughed and said to me, well Herb knows that about here (she pointed down to a big lever) is the right spot to put the big weight.  As someone who has already spent a career helping design production methods, I almost fainted.  That wasn't the only time and not the only company where I was shown a process and found out that there were pencil marks or notches or expert feels on the tension and that was just the 'right' amount to get that product made.  In EVERYONE of these wonderful companies, I could look around me and see that everyone working at the machines was nearing retirement.  And as my England tour group found out, I don't exaggerate about this.  
Can you figure out how to use this silk twisting machine?
There isn't a manual.  You have to apprentice to learn.
So our threads exist because of a small and very experienced group of artisans.  Period.  The problem is that the market is too small for automation.  And these wonderful individuals are all over 60 years old.  I have been talking about this for several years, waiting for the shoe to drop and racing to get new threads made so I could run the courses I wanted to run.  

The shoe dropped in January.  Herb retired.  I am proud to say that the volume of orders I had been making had contributed to the start of an apprentice.  But Herb retired before this over-50 year old man was fully trained.  What thread will not be made because Herb took that knowledge of that hash mark on that machine with him??

So we need more apprentices.  Our culture is also not turning out young people who want to learn a trade or who have any hand skills to speak of.  Talk to any company that needs tool and die - they will tell you that they can't find anyone and they are now (in my area) offering six-figures for people with those hand skills.  Computers are the thing.  And labor laws in Europe make it near impossible for someone who doesn't work out to be fired.  So these small companies are deathly afraid to go out on a limb.  Just in our cabinet making, finding the right detail oriented person is very, very hard.  They don't push the buttons on the computer control - they are the computer control.

To have apprentices, the business numbers must be there and be consistent.  That means a market.  The Cabinet of Curiosities class has enabled a great deal of threads to be made and created a market for these speciality thread.  The problem is that there are many more threads on my list to go.  And I am out of classes.  So how do we get more threads before the knowledge on how to make them retires?? 


Monday, March 31, 2014

The Dreaded Backorder -- How Threads/Fabrics are Made Today

If you have tried to decorate a house or go buy fabric or find a color of thread in the last few years, you might have noticed that it seems to be getting harder to do so.  Certainly I am sure you have found it hard to find silk fabrics or even a really good needlework store or craft store.

You aren't imagining things.  It is harder.  I still don't have drapes in the room I am sitting in as the last five fabrics I have searched and chosen have been discontinued while I am contemplating the sample I was sent - once in the time it took to mail it to me!  On the supplier end, two of the three mills in the USA that I have dealt with for silk fabrics for my courses have gone bankrupt.  Those kits are no longer in my line.  The last ten years of world economic recession has dealt a death blow to so many medium and niche businesses that didn't have the ability to wait out for an upswing.  If they have survived, they have reacted by cutting down production, product lines and only weaving/spinning the minimum they have to do to turn on the machines.


That is the word you hear routinely now.  From me, from the shop owners, from the distributors, and from the manufacturers.

What?  From them too?  What does that even mean - They make the stuff!?

What that means is that textile businesses today have seen their market shrink so much since the 1980s that they no longer have the capital to run their machines to make the 500 yards it takes to turn the machine on to fill the order for 50 yards because they will have to put the other 450 yards on the shelf and it might take years to sell that.  Effectively they would be spending more to make it than the sale.  So they put the order on backorder.  They wait until a few other people order 20, then 50, then 30 yards, etc.  Then when they have 250 yards on order, they can turn on the machine as that 'run' is paid for.  The 250 yards on the shelf will be the profit that comes in over the longer period and then that cycle starts again.

That is why we seem to see this feast or famine behavior in our threads.

Visiting a Gold Thread maker to understand
the machine capabilities and minimums
Manufacturing like this is called "Made to Order".  It used to be that this was the model used by only the highest end companies making really rich and expensive materials.  It is now the model for most linen makers, thread producers, and much of decorator fabrics.  What is the difference between this and "Custom Manufacturing"?  Well, Made to Order means that they have either samples to show and a brochure/website showing the patterns.  They have some means of you deciding among options to order with a SKU attached to it to collect the orders until there is enough.  It means that they can bank half of the material because there is a way to sell it - there is an advertising infrastructure out there.  Color cards, samples, etc.

Custom manufacturing means that I come to them with an idea.  I want that pattern in a color they don't make.  Or I want silk wrapped purl.  Or some linen dyed wode green blue.  I know they can do it, but it will take a bit of work.  They will have to invest a bit of engineering, sample making, dying of three ways to get a decision from me.  It means that they can't put half the manufacturing run on the shelf as it doesn't exist in their color cards, swatch books, etc.  So they can't sell it in a reasonable time.  And who is going to pay for that time invested in figuring it out?  So Custom Manufacturing means that you are going to buy everything they make of this idea.  And that means knowing what the minimum order is.

Box of waste from two threads being made that day.
In Gold thread making, some of this can be sent back
to be smelted and metal recovered reducing the cost of
the waste in production.  Since this is gold, silver and
copper, the cost of even a little waste on running the
production adds up and makes the minimums go up
A minimum is whatever needs to be run on the machine to get past the waste of starting the machine -
that is called the minimum.  If you expect a fabric to cost about $50/yard and it take 20 yards of weaving to get all the tension correct, etc - you have to weave enough fabric to absorb the cost of the 20 yards of waste fabric raw materials in the cost.  If you had only wanted 20 yards, the fabric would have cost $100/yard.  So there are minimums to make it cost effective to turn the machine on.  Minimums vary by what and machine.    Sometimes it is the amount of silk thread that goes into the dye pot.  Sometimes it is the waste on the braiding machine before the tension is set just right.  It is common to find at least 250 yards in woven goods and at least 10,000 yards in thread.  To custom manufacture -- you need capital.  That means cash to invest and some plan on how you are going to convert that material back into cash so you can make the next thing.

An old die found in a box.  My visits
to production facilities always turn up
opportunities.  I described a thread I
wanted using pictures of historic embroidery.
The manager was willing to get out
the archives of tools after telling me
how much it would cost me to design the
right piece for the machine to make it.
We dug for a half hour and found it!
Decades old but still would work!
The reason why we have the Cabinet of Curiosities course is that I started to realize that all the textile companies were going to Made to Order business plans.  This made it easier to take up idle machine time with my Custom Manufacturing orders - as I didn't need to fit into a schedule or kick normal production off a machine.  They would schedule that machine for me no matter if I was ordering a 'standard' product (which all stitchers assume is sitting on some warehouse shelf) or for something custom.  And to get it when I wanted it -- and not be backordered -- I would have to order the minimum anyways.

There have been complaints on the internet of 'why' do European threads have to come to the USA to
then be sent back abroad for orders.  Because they wouldn't be made otherwise.  That's why.  They are all custom and unless you can bring a partially engineered thread to them to copy, order 10,000 yards and pay for it - it doesn't get made.  Almost nothing in high end embroidery threads is made 'on spec' today.  Meaning, no manufacturer holds stock if they can help it.  They make a bit more every time they make something to fill back orders so they can get a little farther and that is it.  And certainly they don't invent a new thread as they don't have the capacity in these days of lean, recession times to send out samples and try to advertise something new.

Tomorrow I will give you a glimpse into the Why the Time is Now to make new threads.  The economy is bad... isn't it?  Yes it is, but we have no time to wait!  The clock is ticking...


Saturday, March 29, 2014

Quilts in Color Exhibit at MFA Boston

While visiting stumpwork over the last year, I have been watching a nice exhibit shape up in the textile department at the MFA Boston.  Based around the Pilgrim-Roy collection of quilts, it explores color in quilting.

The exciting thing is that there is a book! Written by Pam Parmel and Jen Swope.  Jen is a great friend - our oldest have been going to school together for years and so it was fun to do drop off and then run into the museum together over the years.  She is wonderful and 'thinks different', often seeing connections between things that most do not.  I am looking forward to reading her writing on the collection.

The exhibit will be on display from April 6th - July 27th, 2014. Even if you can't get there, a host of lovely interactive videos, etc are on the website to enjoy!


Thursday, March 27, 2014

Amazing Progress on Jamestown Jacket

I was so wrapped up with limited internet access out west that I forgot to publish this draft!
There has been amazing progress on the Jamestown Embroidered Jacket for Pocahontas - the wedding is in early April!  The team is planning on finishing on March 26th so they can sew the jacket together.

As of March 12th the numbers were:

Total of 55 Embroiderers and 1026.35 hours of work!

Back……………….….123.08 Hours
Right Front……………161.08 Hours
Left Front……………...168.24 Hours
Upper Sleeves…………238.06 Hours
Under Sleeves………....330.043 Hours

They have made mind-blowing progress with the workshop open from 9am-9pm on weekdays and 9-5pm on weekends with multiple people on each frame.  It is really a test of how fast could objects like this be created in the 17th century and such a wonderful public project as well!


Upper Sleeves

Back on March 12
Fronts - just the gussets left!
Under Sleeves

Coif and its pattern on March 12th

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Blogging at 35,000 ft.

Geez - technology is great... and not so great!  Today if you are flying over land in a plane outfitted with satellite WiFi, you can go on like normal at your desktop (until you battery runs out - which mine is in about 15 minutes).  So I thought I would make a post!

Thistle Threads will be closed for shipping and limited email response for the next week, you may have gotten that from the 35,000 feet comment.  Of course my bag is full of work stitching (there isn't any other kind at the moment) and I have my computer with me, but I will be trying not to focus on work.

But let me give you something to focus on!  If you are in Cabinet of Curiosities Part I, you have had a full lesson on the Flemish embroidered cabinets that may have been the inspiration for our English rage of embroidered caskets.  If you aren't maybe you should sign up!  The 2014 running of this course is starting May 1st.

Here is a wonderful Flemish cabinet that was on auction just this week.  It has been later altered to add gold highlights to the wood in the nineteenth century.  The embroidery is typical of these pieces and known to be professional.  Maybe I will be able to add more about this later this week... but the computer is telling me that I am done and need to pick up some magazines instead to while away my time in the air!

Friday, March 7, 2014

Lampworked Faces

Lamp worked heads from basket at Holburne Musuem
Last year we raised funds to help the Holburne Museum purchase a unique beaded christening basket with lamp worked figures, something most people hadn't seen before.

The heads include extra details such as the ribbonlike blue glass around the edges of the decollate of the queen, which clearly shows in profile that it was intended to be bare.  The head has some damage to it as you can see in the picture.
Detail of lamp worked head of basket at Holburne Museum 

Well, another piece has come to life at an auction at Bonham's that is of great interest!  This piece is a beadwork picture on a satin and it also shows two figures, not royal, in a general positioning.  The picture also features two lamp worked heads, which is why the piece is demanding between $17,000-$25,000 as a range.

The two sets of heads are remarkably similar and can be assumed to have been made by the same supplier.  The woman is strikingly similar, if you look really carefully you can see the blue ribbon glass on the edges around the woman which has mostly been covered by beadwork.

It appears that the hair on the two Bonham's pieces is worked of glass.  I think (but can't be sure) that the hair was originally worked of glass on the Holburne basket.  This is certainly a really wonderful example of items that were produced for use on projects showing up.

Bonhams Lot 54 12 March 2014
Bonhams Lot 54 12 March 2014

Bonhams Lot 54 12 March 2014