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An Ode to Schiffli Embroidery

Yesterday I took my daughter, who is studying character design and visual development, to see “Toy Story 4”. We were both mesmerized by the detail in every visual aspect of the film, from textures to backgrounds, which have become so sophisticated through the course of the Toy Story franchise over 20 years. As a seamstress I was taken by the texture detail on Bo-Peep’s new outfit. Here’s a shot from “Toy Story 1”:


https://pixar.fandom.com/wiki/Bo_Peep?file=TS2BoPeep.png

And here’s Bo-Peep’s new outfit in “Toy Story 4”:


https://www.google.com/search?q=toy+story+4+bopeep&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjqto72hIXjAhUrT98KHTjaDfgQ_AUIEigD&biw=1536&bih=750#imgrc=BVki-BKBslWGdM:

You can see every thread on the weave of every fabric! Even the eyelet embroidery looks totally accurate and believable. I have a special love for eyelet (also called “broderie anglaise”), which epitomizes to me freshness and summer clothes. When I was an apparel buyer in NYC back in the seventies, eyelet embroidery had a huge “moment” with the popularity of Jessica McClintock’s “Gunne Sax” line of prairie-inspired dresses:


https://www.pinterest.com/pin/38139928066123953/?lp=true

….and Eileen West’s “Queen Anne’s Lace” lingerie wear:


https://www.etsy.com/listing/181707190/butterick-4312-1980s-misses-eileen-west

It was a romantic look, after the hippie fringe-and-tie-dye sixties, and before the severe-shoulder-padded “Working Girl” suits of the eighties. At that time, I had the chance to visit an eyelet embroidery factory, and it was such an eye-opening experience. Those were the last days of American clothing manufacturing, before apparel-making moved to countries with non-union-wage labor. Fabrics were trucked up from the south, where the spinning and weaving mills were traditionally located near the cotton farms to New York City, where the West Side from the midtown Garment Center to the edge of Hell’s Kitchen was dotted with garment factories, and the sidewalks were full of men pushing rolling racks of garments and shouting “Watch your back!”.


https://streeteasy.com/blog/garment-district-nyc-fashion-industry/

When fabric needed to be embroidered, it was sent through the Lincoln Tunnel across the Hudson River to Hoboken, Weehawken, and Union City in northern New Jersey:

Why New Jersey? Why not make embroidery in Manhattan instead of driving the fabric back and forth? Turns out that the island of Manhattan is not stable enough for the pounding of the 600-needle Schiffli machines; they need a more rigid foundation to withstand the intense needle vibration, and the bedrock of New Jersey “Palisades Mountains” was ideal.


https://www.njpalisades.org/

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And how was I invited to see the Schiffli production in the first place? As a buyer at Saks Fifth Avenue, I noticed that some of the my vendors much preferred raschel polyester lace to cotton eyelet embroidery. Finally I asked why they didn’t want to use eyelet. One of the salesmen explained the reasons for the issues involved in using eyelet embroidered trims:

  • Eyelet embroidery comes in rolls made of 15-yard strips, stitched together in seams. Since you cannot have a seam in the trim of a garment (it would look ugly) there’s a lot of wastage, and that cost gets incorporated in the wholesale price of the garments
  • It takes extra time to sew with eyelet, because you have to stop and measure the trim piece before adding to the garment to make sure it has no breaks/seams. (The alternative is to go ahead and keep stitching garments, then weed out the ones with seams that landed in the front, and sell them at huge discount to off-price outlets.)

I didn’t really understand why there were so many seams in eyelet. If you order other laces, for example typical lingerie raschel lace of polyester or nylon, it comes in enormous rolls with hundreds of yards with zero breaks. But eyelet embroidery has a seam every 15 yards. I couldn’t wrap my head around that, so I had to go see it in action. Road trip! Time to leave the garment district for a day and drive over to Union City, New Jersey.


https://www.projectbly.com/blog/made-in-the-usa-embroidery

(I feel badly now, years later, that I don’t remember which mill it was….in my career, I’ve worked with so many suppliers.)

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(NOTE: I also wish that I had my own photographs of the trip, but as I explain to my daughter, taking pictures before digital cameras/phones was time consuming, expensive, and a hassle. Three trips to the pharmacy: once to purchase film, second to drop it off, third to pick up the prints. Who remembers those days?)

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So how does making eyelet embroidery work? The Schiffli machine, first invented in 1863 by Isaak Gröbli in Switzerland, stretches 15-yard lengths of cotton fabric tautly across a metal frame, cuts out a pattern of holes by piercing the fabric using metal borers:


https://www.alibaba.com/product-detail/Schiffli-Machine-Borer_128004815.html

….then zigzag stitches around the holes to embroider a pattern across the entire length. Next the finished fabric is cut into strips using metal knives shaped identically to the scalloped edges, and finally the strips are sewn together to create continuous (but seamed) lengths:


http://www.embroiderysc.com/

…that are wound onto spools and sold to garment manufacturers:

(Vintage bolt that I recently scored at a flea market…you’ll see what I made with it at the end)

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What did I learn from visiting the factory? Aside from understanding how the embroidery is done across a limited length of the fabric (parallel to the selvedge), I was surprised to discover:

  1. The machines are huge. If the stitching area is over 15 YARDS LONG (basically the length of three average cars), the total machine is even longer. Each machine is bolted into the ground with poles of metal.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schiffli_embroidery_machine#/media/File:Fully_automated_schiffli_embroidery_machine_by_Saurer.jpg

2. The process is NOISY: a smaller 5-ton machine has at least 600 sewing needles all stitching in unison. The noise of a single embroidery machine is therefore equal to the sound of 600 garment sewing machines. Larger 8-ton machines use around 1,000 needles. Plus, an embroidery mill can be as large as a football field, with dozens of machines cranking away.


http://unioncitynjhistory.blogspot.com/2014/07/embroidery-industry-in-union-city-new.html

3. The machine needles do not zig-zag; the frame does! It’s the opposite of let’s say a longarm quilting machine, where the fabric is stable and the needle moves across it:


https://abminternational.com/index.php/products/innova-longarm-home-quilting-machines/innova-longarm-quilting-machine

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So if the needles are stationery and the frame moves back and forth, how does the frame know how to move? Originally the Swiss machines were hand-cranked, following a simple stitch chart or pantograph:

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Later Adolph Saurer developed the paper punched pattern roll , fed into the machine to tell it what design to make (this is the type of machine I saw):


https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schiffli_embroidery_machine#/media/File:Schiffli_embroidery_punch_card_reader.jpg

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Now that embroidery has moved overseas (more efficient to have trim made where garments are made) the designs are all created in a CAD system, but one thing remains the same: the fabric frame moves, while the needles remain in place:


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQJMj1yN9Es

(Click on the YouTube link above and open in a new window to watch a video showing the fabric moving while the needles are stationary.)

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What else did I learn? Other than the expense of using eyelet embroidery because of the 15-yard limitation, there are other factors in the cost:

  • fiber content (cotton is generally more expensive than poly-cotton)
  • the quality of the base fabric (yarn twist, yard length, thread count of warp and weft, finishing)
  • width of the embroidery design
  • most importantly, stitch count of the embroidery design

Less expensive designs have simpler designs, fewer eyelet holes, and more open stitching, sometimes allowing fibers of the base fabric to poke through:

More expensive designs are more detailed with a greater number of eyelet holes and denser stitching:

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Remember the trim bolt I showed before? Here is how it looks made up into a simple baptism gown:

There’s something so sweet and pure about Schiffli!

Happy Sewing!

Janety

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