From Looms Came Computers, Which Led to Looms That Save Fashion Week

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

c.2014 New York Times News Service

NEW YORK — Just back from Mozambique with suitcases full of clothes for Fashion Week, Emily Thornton, a designer, could see what was missing from the collection she would be helping to mount for the Edun clothing line.

“A few tops with a wide stripe from the bust to the waist,” she said, for garments that would weigh about 10 ounces.

That epiphany arrived midweek, with the whole Fashion Week production beginning Thursday. Those who enjoy dancing barefoot on the razor edge of deadlines might consider a life in the fashion industry.

On Thursday morning, Thornton, 31, arrived at the glass storefront of Stoll New York on West 39th Street in Manhattan, where seven high-speed knitting machines are visible from the street window. Cones of yarn are transformed into fabric at the rate of 250 stitches per second, give or take. Built in Germany by Stoll and sold around the world, the machines are like 3-D printers. Stoll deploys the ones at its 39th Street shop to show how they can create a full garment to exacting requirements, with virtually no waste of material, a service New York designers use year-round for their creations, said Beth Hofer, the shop’s senior manager.

But on a week like this, Stoll’s is also a place where deadline fevers can be cooled.

“The things that I am making here this week will be on the runway Sunday, at 6 p.m.,” Thornton said. “It’s like instant gratification. You can run across the street and change things. You can give them new things. Or if one yarn doesn’t work, you give them another yarn.”

Of course, she pointed out, most of the garments for the line, which was founded by Ali Hewson and her husband, Bono, to support economic development in Africa, had already been finished in Mozambique. “We are just filling in the blanks,” Thornton said.

The machines at Stoll are booked through Fashion Week. A package arrived from Italy on Thursday that needs to be straightened out in time for a Sunday show, said Markus Kirwald, a Stoll manager who works with the designers. “That’s plenty of time.”

Not true for the 10 accessories that were delivered Wednesday. “They need it Friday,” Kirwald said. “A mistake from somewhere else. It didn’t come out quite the way they wanted, so we have to clean up the mess.”

In the 19th century, the development of the Jacquard automated loom made possible the mass production of textiles. The loom was controlled by a piece of paper, with the pattern cut in pinholes; wire hooks pulled the colored thread into place.

It led to another invention: An engineer working for the U.S. Census Bureau learned of the loom from a relative in the business. He applied the principles of the loom to counting the population of the country, which was doubling every few decades. Holes punched in a census survey card could indicate race and sex. Pins would count the holes. Herman Hollerith started a company that used the counting machine for commercial purposes; eventually, that business became part of International Business Machines, now IBM.

Stoll keeps an archive of the patterns it has created over the years to show designers the possibilities of its equipment. Hofer lifted a handsome swatch, dating to the early 1980s, from a rack.

“This one was made using the Apple IIE,” she said, looking at the label.

The computer, with its technological genes in the automated loom, has been used to program Stoll’s knitting machines for close to four decades now.

Thornton’s design for Edun began in a workshop on Grand Street with ancient technology. “I use pencil on paper,” she said. “That’s how it begins.”

Throughout the Stoll shop, fabrics made on its machines in the shop and elsewhere are displayed. A Serbian company has one set of fabrics; a Peruvian company’s soft alpaca has a prominent position.

“I love the industry because it is so tactile; it doesn’t exist in the ether,” Thornton said. “Yet.”

Asked if he expected visits from still more anxious designers, who needed work finished in time for the show, Kirwald glanced toward the door.

“They come near closing time,” he said. “To be on the machine first in the morning.”