The 4th of July is a very interesting time at Fabdesigns, having one partner from the British textile industry and the other an American native from Philadelphia that grew up only blocks from the Liberty Bell. Philadelphia was a hotbed of the knitting industry until the mid-90s as the largest and last major brand-owned knitwear knitting factory closed its doors. In the last decade, Jefferson University absorbed what was once the quintessential textile college in the US, The Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science which attracted students from all over the world. As higher education pushed a "working smarter and not harder" agenda, as Mike Rowe famously states,1998 was the last year the word "Textile" was in the name of the college, where a Fabdesigns principal taught in the masters of textiles program. At that time, less than 5% of the students actually studied textiles.
Today, the US is seeking to re-shore production. Yet, many of the large factories have been gentrified from Maine to Wisconsin to the Carolinas. Hialeah, Florida, just outside Miami was a hub of knitting, sewing facilities, and fabric jobbers. Today, Silicon Valley is moving into South East Florida from the West Coast in the same way the Dot Coms took over the garment district in Manhattan, and decades-old factory floors of trolling racks, pattern makers, and the people in them along with their knowledge vanished. Where will the knowledge come from to scale the brilliant ideas?
In the last dozen years, there is not a day that goes by that Fabdesigns doesn't receive an email, text, or a call from a start-up, a research assistant, an indie brand, a professor, or an entrepreneur who wants to create the next digital transformation of the apparel industry to 100% complete sustainability. They send their NDAs to protect their ideas, which take weeks to negotiate with their expensive attorneys.
"Made to measure."
"3D knit on demand."
"Custom fit bras."
"Custom fit footwear on demand."
"Whole-Garment / Knit-And-Wear with all custom fit on demand in all natural fibers."
"Custom fit smart textiles on demand."
Most of you that receive these same calls and emails are smiling in the same way we do when they arrive.
There is a lot of passion in the pitches and a desire to revolutionize the world. Yet, the vast majority really want a "Little Red Hen" to do all the work, while they scramble to patent things that already exist and sell their start-ups to larger brands, and make founder's returns money or get multi-million dollar research grants.
Few have ever made anything with their hands. Fewer are actually interested in learning the basics of textiles, materials, or how machinery works and the expectations of development timelines are weeks instead of years. Most are more comfortable behind a screen and keyboard. There are exceptions, though the vast majority are more passionate about the selling and marketing part where the start-up rewards investors. They are not to blame. Machine dealers tell them it's easy to make 3D products. There are few places including higher education for them to learn the basics of textile science with real machinery present that they can touch and use without an attorney or insurance agent hovering over a Dean.
'The machines have computers on them. So, how hard can this be?' We're told about degrees in computer science and mechanical engineering and even PhDs. Some say, 'But, we learn differently."
Has the movie The Matrix really convinced people that they can learn an entire category of science by reading a book, or taking an introductory class for a month at a machine builder?
In reality, the knowledge gap could not be farther from what it once was. Machine builders are responding to this need, not by educating, but by dumbing down the textile technology to point and click. What a person sees on the screen - in theory - the machine will make, just like a printer, without breaking itself. Does the customer understand what the machine is doing? Not really. Is it effective? A percentage of the time it is. Is it efficient? It appears efficient for a hand full of machine sales. Though sales are far off from the hundreds of machines sold per year by each brand in the 90s. Sales will need a lot more support from academia actually training people in the basics, as well as industry support in general to reach those levels again.
What is true is that machine sales in the US are one machine here, a handful there, and few know how to operate them. Footwear companies depleted the knowledge pool a decade ago, paying former professors and industry leaders many times over what they earned previously to sit in meetings and attend trade shows. The failure rate of start-ups and newbies purchasing machinery is high. Machines are resold to others in a revolving cycle that is perpetuated by the persistent marketing of 3D knitting and Whole Garment / Knit and Wear as easily as 3D printing by salespeople who have likely never knit anything in their lives. The US needs to get out of this short-term goal mentality if re-shoring is to succeed in any meaningful way.
On this day of American Independence, perhaps it is a good activity to reflect on what it really means to on-shore production and bring our country and our industry back to a state of self-sufficiency.
Throwing money and grants at academia and ‘public-private partnerships’ to incubate manufacturing is not working. There is a huge funnel of money going in and very little coming out for the efforts and costs. On the heels of gutting the US patent system in March of 2013 by changing the rules from proof of inventorship, to first to patent and unleashing a Pandora's Box of industrial espionage and David and Goliath lawsuits, in March of 2015 President Obama launched a Competition for New Textiles-Focused Manufacturing Innovation Institute. This is not a criticism on the effort or the people involved, most of which are honored friends and colleagues. This is a very broad assessment of the idea that the US government has no clue about the intricacies of what it takes in manufacturing clothes, shoes, and daily commodities, aside from military contracts.
The US Textile industry has been hamstrung from all sides. To effectively re-shore any quantity of goods, US and Western Textile companies need government support money spent on no and low-interest loans for capital expense equipment.
Those domestic companies in a position to quickly scale jobs, talent, and production for the US are poised to help the US to rejoin the international manufacturing competition. Little is happening to help the US textile industry as a whole to rebuild, replace, and reshore the massive productions that once populated the country, with modern, safe, and efficient manufacturing to meet domestic demands for fashion, commodities, and home goods. Instead, what is most concerning is that more regulations, registrations and tax schemes emanating from California being proposed nationwide as businesses flee the golden state.
These same California regulations purported as effective in protecting workers' rights' have instead stunted and squelched the already legal manufacturing and destroyed the manufacturing workforce in California, without doing anything for workers except reducing their numbers, having them replaced by automation or outsourcing overseas. The reality is that many former textile and apparel workers are forced into entry level jobs or retraining programs for other industries such as solar installations, casino workers, warehouse workers, health care, and other industries supported by political grants to nonprofit training centers. To bolster these programs, the state has raised minimum wage to over $16.00 per hour in most places and over $19.00 in others.
Yet, illegal sewing operations continue to evade radar and disproportionate fines, taxes, and bureaucracy have made it nearly impossible for legitimate businesses to operate or for many to start businesses. Even more businesses continue to flee California for tax friendly neighbors like Nevada, Arizona, and other states. Perhaps the answer is not over regulation, over taxing, and spending on entry level service jobs where many never level up but building America's wealth and skills back in manufacturing excellence by rebuilding our knowledge pool.
The fact is that few if any people 30 years ago had PhDs in manufacturing, yet they could put their hand on a machine and know if it was struggling or running properly. Many of these people were ousted from their jobs 10 and 20 years ago in favor of more 'educated' staff and our industry lost an entire generation of knowledge through arrogance. This is why it was astonishing for many of us who have been in the industry a long time to learn that a well-known and respected university gave a PhD candidate a PhD for knitting pleats, which previously was second year work in most 4-year textile programs prior to 1998. Is this a bellwether for our industry? Have participation trophies taken the place of real innovation and improvement on what came before? What is apparent is that many are ignoring the past as if generations of knowledge and know how that came before didn’t exist before Pinterest, Amazon, and the iPhone in 2007. Relearning the 'hard way' to do things is not the way of the future. It takes too long. Hands get dirty and there must be a better way to get to the end goal of making things far more quickly. We have computers now and AI.
Textiles are like any art or any instrument. Anything worth while takes practice and good mentors, or else everyone would be doing it well. We all know that is not the case. Few are making really excellent products, and most have 'old school' mentors and new people interested in learning how to make things fromt he fiber upward. They are create great products as well as a new generation of artisans. The vast majority are otherwise creating emdicre fabrics that rely heavily on a few month training classes when purchasing equipment. There are grades of execution amongst production facilities and design houses. There are preferred vendors, second string alternative vendors, and last string all over the world. The preferred usually have mentorship and apprentice programs in place where people learn cross functionally and grow their knowledge as well as contribute..
As the years tick by the mentors that work on Stolls, Steigers, and Shimas in our industry are being discarded. The same is happening in cicular knits, sock knitting, weaving, warp knitting, non-wovens, and narrow fabrics. The people who know so much about yarns and fibers are taking early retirement after a tumultuous 2020, 2021, and 2022 as factgories cut back on staff and R&D.
This year, 2023, AI burst onto the scene. Where did it come from?
During the pandemic, over $10 billion dollars was put into AI by investors, many of the big tech firms pushing Industry 4.0. Designers are nervous. Brands are concerned about their styling. This uneasy feeling is no different in the movie, music, and video game industry, where AI is replicating and creating. People are worried about their jobs. Will they even be needed in the future? No one expected Industry 4.0 to be devoid of creative people. To many, there appears no security beyond a few months until the big companies can figure out how to replicate the style of the designers they have in footwear, apparel, home furnishings, and everything else we consume. The goal is to regurgitate everything creative people were paid to do into millions of things they were not. The very soul of the creative individual is at stake. Hollywood is about to go on strike for this very reason. Blizzard has created their own AI to use the styles of all the artists that have ever worked for them to generate new art and games. How long will it be until Fashion does the same?
It seems overnight, our industry is exploding with a whole new set of potential customers. Most of you that receive these same calls and emails previously described are now receiving emails and calls from people with no textile or design background at all, wanting to make tangible products from AI generated concepts. Most are even less interested in knowing what it might take in materials, skill or machine types to make a product and just expect yarns and fabric to be made as easily and in realtively the same time it takes for AI to create the concepts. The once Little Red Hen now needs to embody all the magical and supernatural powers of a metaverse of superheroes or heroines combined. But AI is making designers concerned about their jobs and brands nervous about an onslaught of litigation expenses to enforce copyright and patent protections. Some poignant questions exist about AI generated content, versus the skills needed making that content reality. Is AI just a digital concern or is it a more serious concern for manufacturers of tangible goods?
At Fabdesigns, we did an experiment this past week. How good is AI at designing knitwear?
For fun this 4th of July, we took the images of our founding fathers and heroes of the American Revolution and dressed them in modern knitwear. We are pretty savvy about knitting and design, so coming up with prompts seemed relatively easy because we know what we’re looking for and what is producible. Our experiment showed that AI did well less than 20% of the time. Few items were able to be made on mass-production machinery and most were deformed, even when asking the AI to not create deformities or add extra legs or arms. There is no concept of what is difficult to make at a factory level or what is just impossible to make using AI to create knitting designs. I am assured by experts that AI will get better and better, until it is smarter than all the humans on earth combined.
AI is an absolutely wonderful tool to stoke the imagination. Yet, it will take people who know textiles, what knitting is and is not, how the fabric is formed, how and why yarn drapes, and the capabilities, as well as capacities of the machines in order to turn any AI-generated concepts into tangible products. In designing marketable products of any kind, we need a mix of product types to make a profit. Not everything can be a 5 on a complexity to produce or assemble scale. Most companies have 10% or less of 5’s which are show pieces that draw in the customers, but the customer typically ends up buying 1 and 3s which are more versatile.
Our industry needs a program like SCORE that is specific to textiles, focused on mentoring the next generation who are truly interested in creating tangible products. Our industry also needs people willing to learn and put in the hard work and practice that it takes to master the science, art,, and nuances of textiles in the same way it takes a student to master a piano or any other instrument or art form, and then apply their own style, perspective, and improvements to pass on to the next generation.
Without mentors and students to build actual products and systems of manufacturing to scale, it appears that our textile industry is a cycle of grants, research, funding, non-profits, and startups that end up being absorbed by bigger brands that send production and technology overseas. We have all heard that brands want to re-shore products, but their MRP and ERP systems are based on pricing that comes from vendors in countries where the government subsidizes industry and some unknowingly are supporting forced labor or below-poverty wages. As we all learned during the PPE crisis, in many cases the raw materials cost more than the finished goods.
I hope you have as much fun looking through the AI-generated 4th of July Founders as we did making them. How many can you spot that actually can be made? Let us know.
Happy 4th of July, and to all our British friends and family, “ Happy Treason Day from your Ungrateful Colonists.”
Thank you for being such a positive part of our celebration this year.
Bruce and Connie Huffa
"We liked to knit before it was cool."
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