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?? 



  1. Wow. None of this had occurred to me. Your post is very sobering.

  2. I agree that these people need to pass on their knowledge, at least get it suitably written down. The fancy threads/yarns will always be catching a person's eye in a textile. Failing that, go to China & Japan, they have held onto their handcrafting thread history/techniques. Europe/American/etc would have to revert to plain textiles that depend on color and texture only. I, myself, have taken up spinning (drop & wheel), learning as much as I can about weaving (vertical frame, warp-weighted & modern 4 harness) throughout history and all over the world, decoration techniques of all sorts and anything else that goes along with it.

  3. I think you need to offer more classes, The mermaid/ grotto, the lion box etc.

    Thank you
    Melody mCMath

  4. Tricia, Thank you so much! This is a wonderful idea. I have just pulled out my needles again after a long rest and am having a very hard time finding quality threads. I have been addicted to your Blog/Website from the moment I stumbled across it. I REALLY want to make the Glittering Snail (he is so darn cute!) and am finding some the threads bit by bit, but not all. I have just finished helping out on the Jamestown Jacket and had a very fulfilling adventure, can't wait till the next one.

    Kathleen Hutcheson

  5. Tricia,
    I make this suggestion hoping someone nearer your neighborhood would be interested.... Perhaps a novice (or college film major) would consider creating a documentary about this vanishing craft? Maybe DMC or Au Ver a Soie would underwrite the expense? Once the film is complete it could be posted on numerous sites to help raise awareness and (maybe) stimulate interest in learning the skills for production. Thinking in the same venue, has anyone thought of filming the artisians at work while they explain their craft? At least enough to understand how to begin and end a project on the 19th century equipment?

    Thank you,

  6. Cynthia,

    A good idea. And if Trish wants to send me around the world to produce the documentary, I'd be happy to step up to the plate and do it! ;)

    Unfortunately, I've run into this problem with a personal project of mine: documenting the history of women who have worked in the field of animation. As time marches on, more and more of these women are retiring and passing away--many without sharing their history of working in the field. So historians like me are left with only snippets of information scattered to the winds with which to build a (mostly) accurate picture of their careers. The real limiting factor that I run into when interviewing women animators (other than the women who have died) is the time-and-money factor. While the topic is relevant to half of the global population, people interested in the history of women working in the field of animation is such a niche market that's it's incredibly hard to raise the money necessary to interview the handful of women who are still around from the 'Golden Age of animation' or obtain copies of the few interviews they've left behind. Yes, Skype makes it easier to interview contemporary women animators, but that still leaves a massive gap from the (very) late 1800's until about the 1960's. And what about those firsts? Already one of the three African-American women who were the first to work in the animation industry has passed away. Who out there took the time to record her history? I haven't found anyone yet (though there may have been someone who did it). Even now, Giannalberto Bendazzi -- a professor and animation historian who produced one of the canon texts on the history of animation can't get a publishing company interested in publishing the updated version of his book.

    So, without a concerted effort to gather these histories, and the funding necessary to produce such an effort, a portion of the human experience will be lost to the sands of time. Much like we are seeing with the production of gold threads. It's a very frustrating situation that we find ourselves in.

    Chuck "Tricia's Web Guy" Wilson

  7. These threads at Blumchen may be of interest to some. The Plattlitze' Metallic Ribbons in Leonisches Gold & Genuine Silver Lahn "are Made in Germany especially for Blümchen" on an antique machine.