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??