If you are new to Thistle Threads, you will not have the storyline and thus not understand why things can't be broken up and may be tempted to ask. Don't. Please don't.
Let me tell you the story - it is too long for a blog and even the brief outline of the story is too long...
I am a materials engineer and an embroidery historian. Through my work in product engineering for decades I have had the opportunity to visit many production facilities and deal with getting products to market. I know this aspect of business well. So for me engineering of a new heated jacket and remote control in China is exactly the same as getting new threads to market. It's all technical specs, prototyping, quality control, supply chain, packaging, etc. So when I was working in my off time on a set of embroidery projects for teaching that required threads I couldn't find in stores and started visiting the suppliers of linens, threads, gold threads, silk, needles, etc for our embroidery hobby - I freaked out. I could look at a business and see it through the lens of a production engineer and I knew exactly what I was seeing.
I was seeing an industry that had been contracting for 100 years. Businesses were getting smaller and smaller every decade and less of them. The owners would often boast of how they now had 'all the equipment', meaning that everyone else had gone out of business and they bought all the machines as they did. So they had everything. The world's supply of that type of machine. Sometimes they had the archives of all the businesses for the last 200 years - the samples of everything that had been made and some notes on the making. Where would it go if they closed???
Concerns that used to make gold threads had shrunk to the point where we were down to two experts in the world who could remember 'the old days' and how to make most of the threads from the 18th-19th century. These were the only people on earth left would could possibly have the knowledge to figure out how to make the threads I wanted - those from the 17th century. And they were past US retirement age already.
I saw businesses where the equipment was 18th century with a computer added to the side in a Frankenstein hacked together way. Or old Victorian iron and had their labels on them proudly proclaiming that they were made in 1850. There were no dials, computers or anything to tell an operator what settings it was at. I asked many questions. I would find out that 'Herb' was the expert at that process because he knew where to put the brick on the lever to make the rollers the perfect distance to make that thread. He knew which of the dozens of scratches on that lever was the right one.
For many of you visiting such places, you might wax romantically about how they 'do it the old way'. But as a production engineer - I had a complete emotional meltdown. I mean it changed my life. A complete meltdown. I often cried when I left. The list of what I 'saw' was:
- The companies were too small to weather ups and downs of production volume. Too few orders or too many and they would be stressed to the point of breaking.
- Everyone working was over 55
- Everything was based on artisan knowledge
- No parameters for a piece of equipment were written down for a product
-The knowledge wasn't being passed down to anyone else
-The equipment had no process controls that would allow you to go back to exact conditions time after time (think your oven temperature controls)
-There were no replacement parts for production equipment
- Apprenticing would mean years of working with someone who didn't have years left
and I could go on and on...
I was standing there in my mid-30s wanting to embroider the most difficult and interesting historic embroideries for another 45 years and I was seeing in front of me that there might be at best 10 years of most of the knowledge left before it was gone forever. I was witnessing extinction of rare species. I spent some time getting to know everyone and discussing this with a few others in the business who were long-term knowledgeable to see if that was the estimation they had as well. Everyone felt the same - we were at the brink of never being able to make current things or remake things I wanted to embroider with.
The most common thing people say upon this realization is 'Someone should do something'. I knew that there was no 'someone' out there. If I wanted threads for myself, and to achieve my lifetime goal of making an embroidered casket, I would have to be that 'someone'. All my life I have done a little exercise every 5 years. I write everything I can think of that I want to do on little post its and then organize them into goals. It makes decisions easier. Making a casket was a big one. I had also just recovered from an arm injury that almost took the use of my right hand away. My stitching hand. So unlike most people, I was acutely aware at a young age that everything I stitched could be my last and I had to get rid of 'cute projects' and do the stuff that I really cared about. A stitching bucket list.
So I put together a huge 15 year plan. I was already maybe 5 or more years into the research and looking for my own cabinet maker willing to make me just one cabinet. I had been talking to many well known historic furniture makers and was compiling a list of issues I had to solve so they could even consider the project. I had by that time realized that to get the ONE casket I wanted the way I wanted it - I would have to teach it as a project as that was the only way to get the locks. The locks to make the boxes so they could have secret drawers required locks that don't exist today. I had to make almost 1000 boxes to get locks made. That was a HUGE thing. I mean HUGE. Now I would have to add thread making to the list as I had just found out I couldn't just 'order it'.
I should have given up at that point. Really. But I didn't. That means I am crazy. Who would do that?
I often think of one of my favorite scenes from National Treasure where they are talking about the protection of the Declaraion of Independence and how they would need to steal it to protect it:
Ben: We don't need someone crazy. But one step short of crazy, what do you get?
Yes, so I am crazy, obsessed, passionate. I would bite off putting together a supply chain to allow 1000 caskets to be made again with all the bells and whistles, bottles and inkwells, hundreds of amazing threads that didn't exist on the market. I would put all the profits for 10 years into it to make it happen. I would document the thread companies, the processes, reinvent the supply chain, and it goes on and on.
All so I could have one myself.
I could list out the 15 year plan but it took me about 900 pages of pictures and text in the course Cabinet of Curiosities to explain the process to figure out how the cabinets were made, figure out the hardware and locks, redesign them, remake them, how were the embroideries applied, make the papers again, design the glue...
And test. That means prototype so you can have a successful project. What happens when the complicated expensive box gets thrown around the FedEx facility? Design packaging boxes with a packaging company and ship several test $3000 boxes around the country and back. What happens to the box when a student lives in Florida in super high humidity or the New Mexico desert? Yes, we made caskets take a bath and take an oven bake. Extreme testing resulted in changes.
The glue, the locks, the tapes, the papers... Now start on the threads. Video the makers making the threads to preserve the process as best as I can. Make small machines based on their machines in my home and prototype threads so I can explain what I want - the companies are too small to take time to research themselves. They can't be making threads to make money for their salary that way. Fly to Europe over and over. Solve supply chain issues for the companies - find them the supply of colored silks they need - smooth over business relationships.
Find the experts and convince them to join my journey of madness into the rabbit hole. When working as an engineer I got a backhanded compliment once from a vice-president of the company. He was shaking his head and said that I could sweet talk anyone to jump off a cliff with me. Well, if the gain was enough and the vision is big enough... yes, someone will want to come along for the adventure.
Experts aren't usually 20 years old. They are usually 50+ years old. They have a lifetime of learning and experience and study to give you. And unfortunately today, the market for many of the things I need have gotten smaller and smaller so there aren't budding experts behind them. When you add to that how the hand skills of the younger generations haven't developed - there really isn't anybody to fill in once the expert retires.
So I went and found my experts and they were in the last phase of their careers by definition. That is of course why they were interested in my adventure. It interested them and they wanted to be part of something else. They believed in it - so they agreed to put a significant amount of their time and expertise to support the project. We gave it a time frame that coincided with their needs to retire or go on to some last opus project of their own before they retired. And what I was asking was a really, really big ask. Imagine someone who only makes individual custom art furniture agreeing to make 900 boxes over 10 years that are exactly the same and don't even have beautify grain of wood on them. That is like telling you that you can't embroider with thread and yet you have to make 1000 of the same sampler. But they all believed in the project.
So we are at the end of that time. The end of the Cabinet of Curiosities. I can't guarantee that the materials, threads, finishing materials, etc will be there in a few years or even next year so I can't any longer sell patterns, boxes or materials separately. I know that the boxes have to have their finishing materials to work properly. I have gone out on risk and had over a half a million dollars of stuff made so the last of the boxes can be done as projects. Why would I take out a part? I can't replace it.
So please don't ask me to take a piece out of the kit. It actually hurts me to get those emails, they are painful. I am sorry that you didn't hear about the project when I started it and you could have gotten in on the easy ground floor. I am sorry that it wasn't the right time in your life. I am sorry that you didn't believe me when I said that this was for a limited time every time I gave an interview, wrote an article, gave a lecture, made a mailing, or placed an advertisement. I said over and over that it was a 10-year ride at best before everything started to collapse.
And that goes for threads too. Yes, there are threads that you have seen someone have and no, they aren't available in that color anymore. I get questions of 'when will you be getting that back in stock?'. I don't know and I am starting to put up on my site if things are now permanently gone. It isn't because I don't want them - it is because for some manufacturers we are actually working on a priorietized last list of what they make before they disappear - and they are already retired. Some we ask what they want to make and they tell us what they don't want to make anymore - it is no longer the situation where everyone gets a purchase order and makes that. If you are 75, you come home from a vacation with your wife and you call us and say that you have a few days to make threads - how about X in Y color. And we say YES!! We will take whatever you are willing to still make. Someone will want it. This summer I had one of my summer interns inventory vast amounts of my stash and remove threads from inventory - making me a list of the things I need to take off the market for my own use for the next 30 years. I haven't taken enough I know, and I will be sorry too.
And since I did all this work to develop them, yes, I have first rights to sell them when they are made. So you can decide I must be bluffing and go off and call a dozen shops... good luck. I am sorry that the casket costs more than you want it to cost. That is how much it costs.
So the invitation is to join the adventure and get on the rocket ship with the rest of us - the ride has been so amazing and it is hard to put it all in words. It is literally a once in a lifetime opportunity. But please don't email me and ask me for just part of the adventure. I will have to wait for the next astronaut willing to go all the way to the moon.
Even those of us who never even considered stitching any 17th Century-style pieces are grateful to you and your astronauts. Thanks.ReplyDelete
Fabulous article Tricia and a most wonderful journey we have been the beneficiaries of your research and expertise. Notes, articles, photographs, animations, mirrors and caskets, fabrics and papers, tapes, threads and more fascinating treasured threads combined with such overwhelmingly amazing organisation and encouragement to complete. Congratulations and thank you.ReplyDelete
The journey with you has been exceptional and rewarding! You have left a definitive mark in the history and heritage of historical embroidery. Thank you for the adventure and dedication.ReplyDelete
Thank you for the reminder and short history of how much work the Casket of Curiosities project has been. And most of all, thank you for bringing back, even if only temporarily, such wonderful needlework materials. It will be a much poorer art world when they are gone permanently. Because even if they are brought back someday, odds are they will not be nearly as nice, if the knowledge has been lost.ReplyDelete