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...



  1. So the key is to somehow create more demand - a loud and persistent demand. It takes making our craft cool and popular once again...and our craft takes TIME... Oddly enough, with the job market so bleah - it's the one thing a lot of younger people have, perhaps the only thing! The hardest part is that there is so little money in their hands. But small orders are not so much - and one can market the made goods on ETSY to those who like the items and have neither the time nor the talent and drive to make things. Making embroidery cool and fun for the young...that's the only way. If they get hooked on DMC and Anchor at 10 or 12 - by the time they are 20, they'll be ready for the big girl (and boy) toys!

  2. Thanks for this article, Tricia - an excellent explanation of the tenuous nature of the fine needlework market!

  3. Thoroughly on the nail Tricia and I don't think that enough of us out there have enough appreciation of just how lucky we all are to be allowed to participate in this very small window that you have enabled for us. Even if we had lived in the 17th century when embroidery was at it's height of popularity it would have been beyond the reach of most of us and so we are incredibly lucky to be a part of this right now in a small port hole sized window in the 21st century. Rae.

  4. Very interesting article. A similar thing has been happening for some years in the fine art world with pigments. The fine art world is not large enough to support the production of pigments that go into making various paints. It depends on other larger industries to provide the demand for them. If the larger industries such as automobile manufacturing no longer demand a particular pigment, it is no longer produced and is not available for artist's paints either.

  5. This article sheds light on significant things about embroidery: First-it's people like you ,Tricia, who have the desire and the means to have these speciality fibers produced. People like you have the clout to make these items available to us. I do realize that it takes many people to make it happen so I thank all of you-manufacturers, teachers, bloggers,designers...

    Secondly, embroidery is not a quick hobby. It forces one to sit, think and savor. As a 45 year old whose children are college age I can sit down for longer periods of time and embroider. That being said how I spend my time is up to me. I dont Facebook or watch t.v for hours on end. I do find the time for what is important to me ie, embroidery, reading, gardening, exercise.

    Ok, I'm getting off track but what it boils down to is I ADORE EMBROIDERING!! and as long as there are dedicated people to supply me with the materials and learning experiences I will embroider and give my money to help that economy.

    Can I get an Amen!? : )


  6. Thank you for the inside view. We need that reality. I don't want to give up the embroidery, for lack of materials, that I have just learned to enjoy.

  7. très, très intéréssant article!
    j'ai appris bien des choses.
    Merci à bientôt

  8. That "box of waste" noted much would it cost to just buy that outright? Some of us have very small projects for which just that much materials would be perfect. One of a kind items, not necessarily embroidery just something for which a noncorrosive material like gold would be perfect.

    Any idea? i doubt if they would get that much for the smelting value but really have no firm idea. Ballpark or guesswork is fine.

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