Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Old White Linen

For those following needlework vs robotics, the new Old White Linen arrived and it is now on the shop website. I have heard from many that the story of how things get made is interesting - so a bit of explanation on this one.

With the size of the industry and market, a weaving of 800 yards of especially fine linen can last a manufacturer 10 or more years, selling pieces off the shelf to distributors, etc.  The Montrose Linen that I fell for and have used up in the Casket courses was on the shelf and not-purchased for 20 years.  We used it up in 8 years.  So you are getting the drift that a production run can last a long time, especially for the really good stuff (think obscure) on the edges.  This is the same for the silk threads we use too (think about the times you have complained about a dye lot change...well that dye lot change may be the overturning of stock that is 10 years old - so dyes and environmental laws have changed during that time frame).

So last year we were getting to the end of the beautiful 73" wide Old White Linen that was 40 count and originally made for ecclesiastical work (not tons of turn over there!) and table cloths.  It had a great hand, soft color and was both even weave and tight so counted and embroidered work could be done on it.  That is RARE.  We got down to the last 100 yards that had been damaged by the finishers (they put on sizing) and there were small spots on it.  So we bought it and started cutting out the spots to get to the big pieces, saving the odd sizes to be cut further into smaller pieces for samplers for kits.

Then word came that the linen manufacturer - looking ahead at retirement - was out and was making one last run of white (not old white) to fulfill the demand anticipated for the church until the planned retirement.  Ugh.  A planned end.  And right when I had two new classes waiting for more of this linen.  The word also came back that since the last running of this type of linen about 15-20 years ago, the flax fields had shifted from central Northern Europe (Belgium) to southern Eastern Europe (Slovakia/Romania) and that the staple had changed and it was far harder to make this kind of linen, so they wanted to phase it out and didn't want to go to the trouble of making more of the Old White (likely believing that there wasn't really a market to tap it before they retired).

So in a bold move to keep my embroidery going, I ordered 400 yards of the white that was on the loom at that time (knowing that they couldn't adjust after warping up to make more).  It was a purposeful move, throwing a wrench into the works.  They already knew they had a dependable 'market' for that huge weaving run and it would last them as they wound down.  Their choices were to   refuse the order (unlikely), make a second run in a few years which would be inefficient as it couldn't be as large and not know if the flax would be there, or bite the bullet and make me a run of my own in the color I wanted.  Either way, I would get a linen supply and if the calculation was right, in the color I wanted.  The only downside was having to buy and hold on this end.

A week went by with no noise and then - a call from my distributor.  The manufacturer was asking if they made another Old White run, how much would we want?  Of course we went nuts planning for five+ years and adding on top of that.  We made it worth his while and ordered a ton, way more than the original order.

The upside for everyone is that we have the linen again!  The downside is that the width is now standard (54") and not a shock - the price went up after decades of holding.  Now a full yard is needed to lay out a casket on the linen to make it fit.  I am offering it in full yard (for caskets) and 1/2 yard (for mirrors).  In any case you will have left over for mistakes in tracing or for some other yummy projects and it will be in the right color to match.

I call this a 'hair on fire' moment.  Pretty much almost every two months we have one of those moments where the messages back from the manufacturers puts your hair on fire.  I never know what the emergency of the moment will be.  We have survived plant fires that destroy equipment and those long term shelves of inventory, instantaneous retirement of craftspeople, so many surgeries for irreplaceable personal, companies who get us to the prototype run phase of manufacturing and then decide to NOT make our stuff after two years of work, businesses attacked by ransom viruses, companies trying to sell and retire, natural material supply changes, environmental laws, royal weddings causing schedule changes, random fluctuations in what is popular putting 'runs' on threads or fabric, and many, many more oops moments than I can detail.  And that doesn't even begin to encapsulate the messages back about minimums to turn on a piece of equipment or reconfigure to make some item which requires 10 different colors to get them to do.  Gulp.  As a product engineer, I understand what they are saying and there are so many spreadsheets to try to figure out what else could be needed to keep that one color in production that I need (or want).  Just this week I called a distributor to order Anchor thread and was told that my order of 600 skeins of one color was below the minimum for the manufacturer to ship to them.  Ah, ok....another 'hair on fire' moment...

A very long time ago I realized that I would need to pay myself less and 'bank' capital so I could stockpile inventory when needed to get through these 'hair on fire' moments.  Imagine just being able to say "sure, I will buy a 10 year supply of linen" just to have it made.  Yea... it is a juggling act and any rational business person would say no and let let it go out of production.  You should hear my husband when I make the mistake of telling him anything.  He is ruthless and wants to see his wife work less - and so spouts the kind of stuff that keeps any normal retail business going.  "Have seasons, keep inventory variety small, discontinue colors and threads, fire sale them and move on".

That ain't happening I tell him.  This isn't normal business (it's passion).  So sorry about the price change of the linen and its size change.  But we have it...and it isn't extinct yet.


  1. And you will never know how much we appreciate the way you handle your business! It's hard for us, as embroiderers, to know how much thread we'll need as our designs evolve--and the stitching itself always takes longer than we think it should--so having a relatively stable source of supply is heaven for us!

  2. I read a lot of Russian church embroidery sites. They are constantly swapping information on the availability of threads because supplies seem erratic, even in the big cities. Out in the sticks, supplies just don't happen. And here (UK) I just take it for granted that I can get the supplies I want! Well done for your foresight.