Tuesday, October 30, 2018

A Bonanza of New Threads

I have just posted twelve new thread families to my shop website - a bonanza of new threads.  While it looks sudden, this is years in the making!  For those who were recently at a talk I gave at Winterthur or are in my courses (the talk is now live inside of the class chatroom - NING), I gave a video assisted description of how these threads are made.

Let's start today with purls.  This is a thread type that is seen both in 17th century stump work and in old and current passamentary (tassels, fringes, etc).  It is a silk covered wire that is made into a spring.  These springs have wonderful texture and can be used as couched lines to fill in or highlight areas, can be made into trellis patterns to fill big flowers, and can be looped to made tassel bits or fills on stump work.  They are highly versatile and fun to work with as there has been nothing like them for years.

Back when we had just been successful in convincing Bill Barnes of Golden Threads to make Gilt Sylke Twist - I gingerly stuck my toe out and begged for silk purls.  Bill said yes, it was possible to make them, but he would need a silk supply (I got right to work on solving that) and wouldn't the market want something less expensive, like rayon?  This is a problem that comes up over and over where the greater market place has switched to lower cost shiny threads because of the lack of knowledge by the consumer about fibers.  Cost is the biggest thing because they can't recognize the difference.  I insisted over and over as the prototypes came in that no, it had to be silk.  And finally, about a decade ago, we started getting them and in a handful of colors.

Quickly it was apparent that this thread would be a hit.  Gradually I designed projects to expand the
Silk purls on a large tassel
color line until the Cabinet of Curiosities was developed and having shaded families in silk purl was top on my list... those 17th century embroiders had so many in shaded families!  It was a heady time, but making the silk purls for the Cabinet of Curiosities was onerous for Bill.  He made over 25,000 pieces of silk purl just for that one class.  Which meant that making extra for the retail market was tough.

Now one can wonder, well its 'thread', isn't thread made in bulk all the time??  This is what I wanted to show in my talk, that many of these unusual threads use processes that are not high speed and in fact aren't really mechanized much either!  This is hand labor and in some cases far more hand labor than you think.  This is where heading into the workshops (as I won't really call them factories) makes all the difference for me.  Once you understand the process to make a thread, as an engineer I can quickly do the mental math to figure out what the production capacity of a company or person is and then...I freak out.  The capacities are low compared to the demand, and remember, these people are making tons of other threads for us!  So sometimes it is more of a 'here is my list and this is the priority for now'.  In other words, threads for classes come first, then something new for a Frostings Box that I need so I can have the prototype threads to use for making the class model, and THEN excess of something for retail sales.  And often the timeline gets drawn out longer and longer because we are just asking for more than the capacity of the company.

So the natural thing is off-load the threads that others could make and keep the most delicious ones with the most capable makers.  So that was done as well as looking for more companies who can make threads - silk purls being a priority as the demand is just something that far outstrips what is produced.  That has been hard.   VERY HARD.  This is where you have to understand how the industries are organized.  Since these threads are for conservation or the very small slice of the hobby market that cares about gold threads - these companies have been shrinking for years.  We are down to a few who are single operator or just two workers and at retirement age.  There are a very few who make on a larger scale, but they only produce for the professional embroiderer market in the middle east and other places where ethnic clothing is important.  They don't service the hobby market - their minimums are just too large and that is how they have been able to survive.

This one piece of fringe contains silk purl, silk millary,
striped gimp, and facette. 

So then looking at the passamentary industry, we also see that they have consolidated and contracted
quite a bit because the fashion is not for complicated fringes and tassels.  But the equipment and know how is there!  So we started down that track.  But it has been a very hard ride and we are now on the third company and have finally 'hit pay dirt'.  Inherently passamentary wants to be flexible.  They need to offer that fringe or tape in 10 color ways and it might have in it 10 different thread elements that are highly complicated.  So it is all made to order.  And since it is made to order, they might only need 5 yards of the fringe for that furniture project - so they need a way to make only 5-10 yards of that complicated thread!  Get where I am going here?  They have forsaken improvements in mechanization over the last 100 years for the magic of flexibility.  Same is true in gold thread making.  You can have a product line of 100 threads off three pieces of equipment if there is a lot of hand labor involved.  If you want to make in high volume, you need to start specializing the equipment and then that piece of equipment and person needs to be kept busy - so your minimums go up and you look for a market that only wants lots of one thing.

This is actually how silk purls
are made in Passamentary companies
Because of the flexibility, the means to make these threads is positively primitive and is EXACTLY the same as in the 17th century.  Sometimes I look at the equipment and can find the same diagrams from 1590, 1751, or in early 1800s.  Nothing has changed!!!  Except, instead of having an army of people doing it (6000 people in London alone in 1713) we have 5.  So the volume of thread that can be made at a manufacturer is limited inherently.

Because of this, we have gotten started and stopped many times.  My desk is literally littered with pieces of gimps and plates and purls of all types of incredibly amazing combinations.  We get to the point where we agree that they can make it, they have sampled making it with the silk we want, maybe at some point we have gotten even to colors and validating colors to our thread line... it is two years of meetings and samplings and all that and the first big order goes in...

And at that point, the company comes back and informs us that they don't want the business.  Effectively we have put an order in that is too large for them to take.  Yes, that happens and happens far more than you would think.  No one can stop all their regular business to take an order that will use all their labor pool for six months - and then hope that this new customer will come back or that their old customers will.  They play it safe and stick to what they know and keeps them in business. And I hit my head against the door with Lamora and we start again digging and looking for another company hidden in the back woods of some country we haven't found and talked to yet...
New #4 sized silk purl thread in the entire blue family!!

So that is what makes today sooooo EXCITING.  After two years we have a passamentary company joining Golden Threads and Benton and Johnson making silk wrapped purls.  No one company can fulfill the demand for my business and the retail market and other teachers.  We need them all and will continue to buy everything they all make!  But having a third company with their production capability has ended the drought of silk purls.  In fact, now there are purls in additional sizes in the Au Ver a Soie color line I use AND 13 new colors made especially for the retail market - like needlepoint.  And the boxes of purls keep rolling in - a new box just this week.  I can't tell you how excited we are to go from a trickle of purls to a flow for once!

Tomorrow I will talk more about the purls and how they are made at the different places.

1 comment:

  1. I had no idea these were still hand-made using centuries old techniques in such small quantities! Thank you for dispelling that notion, and for persevering in your search. Even though I don't (yet?) use such threads, it makes me happy that there's enough demand from hobby embroiderers that companies don't want or can't accept orders for the quantities needed. Great news on the new source!