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

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Delaware Samplers - Symposium and Exhibit

Image taken from a sampler by Deborah Ferris, 
1783, in the collection of the Delaware Historical 
Society (N1993.001.661)
There is an exhibit of Delaware samplers at the Biggs Museum of American Art (Dover, DE) from March 7th - April 20th, 2014.  This is a result of the fantastic Sampler Archive project led by a consortium of museums and univeristies.  

An attending symposium will include projects as well and is from March 21-23rd with lectures on March 22nd.  Get to the website and register soon for the symposium!

If you want to read more about the project and learn some of the background, there is a nice article online from a Delaware online mag.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

New Giveaway! SANQ Magazine

While I am building up a collection of great things for giveaways around Christmas, I am surprised at how many items are building up and it is only February! So I thought I would pepper a few through out the year to keep everyone on their toes!

So here is a copy of the latest Sampler & Antique Needlework Quarterly!

So if you are interested in it - Please email me at with SANQ Spring 2014 in the subject line.  Include your mailing address too!

Send the email by March 6th at midnight EST!

Sunday, March 2, 2014

New Jersey Sampler - an Exhibit

sampler 645x379

I had a wonderful encounter in the Huber's booth a few weeks ago.  I met a gentleman (Daniel) who is co-curating this amazing sounding exhibit in the fall of New Jersey samplers at the Morven Museum in Princeton, NJ.  Sounds like a do not miss! From the website:

Hail Specimen of Female Art! New Jersey Schoolgirl Needlework, 1726-1860

October 3, 2014 – March 29, 2015
This landmark exhibition will be the first to focus on the important contribution of New Jersey in the creation of schoolgirl needlework in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. With over 150 works on view, this exhibition will undertake the first survey of schoolgirl needlework completed in the state or by New Jersey girls prior to 1860. This exhibition and accompanying catalogue will create a lasting record of the best known examples. As part of the museum’s mission to showcase the cultural heritage of the Garden State, the curator’s will bring new light to the needlework done in New Jersey during this important period of American history.

Organized geographically, the exhibition will feature works from every region of the state. Although many elaborate and important examples of New Jersey needlework will be featured in the exhibition, the curators have also included more modest examples that highlight other aspects of the educational environment, social class and familial situation experienced by young girls in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. A Sampler Discovery Day to be held in October 2013 is expected to help uncover currently unknown New Jersey needlework descending in the families of the makers or in unidentified private collections, thereby expanding the knowledge of these important historical objects.

The exhibition will feature loans from across the country including needlework completed in every New Jersey county (accounting for the numerous re-organizations of New Jersey counties in the nineteenth century). In presenting examples from every part of the state, the exhibition will distill the educational environment that existed in New Jersey from Cape May to Sussex. The exhibition will also compile an accurate picture of girls academies and the instructresses who taught at them. Research being conducted in preparation for the exhibition is uncovering previously unrecognized connections between needleworks through the motifs and designs employed by different instructresses.

The exhibition will occupy 1,709 square feet in five galleries within the second floor of the Morven mansion. This exhibition also coincides with the 350th anniversary of New Jersey and extensive state-wide celebration and programming. A number of presentations are planned to discuss the significance of New Jersey schoolgirl needlework and related topics. Speakers currently planned include: Amy Finkel, Stephen and Carol Huber, Linda Eaton of Winterthur, Peter and Leslie Warwick, William Subjack, Dan and Marty Campanelli and Daniel Scheid.

The title of the exhibition is borrowed from a needlework stitched by Trenton-born Anne Rickey (1783-1846) “Hail Specimen of Female Art” was stitched onto her sampler in 1798. Anne Rickey was the daughter of Quaker merchant, John Rickey (1751-1829) and his wife Amey Olden (1757-1849).

Curators of the exhibition: Elizabeth G. Allan, Dan & Marty Campenelli, and Daniel C. Scheid.

Above image: Elizabeth Hammell, Burlington County, NJ, August 1829. Collection of Daniel C. Scheid