N.J. embroidery industry undergoes sharp change Company adds $750,000 electric loom in bid to prosper Company adds $750,000 electric loom in bid to prosper

October 01, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

GUTTENBERG, N.J. - Behind a nondescript facade on a quiet street here, huge looms with thousands of needles are noisily working their magic in rhythm, transforming rolls of plain fabric into delicate designs that will one day adorn a fancy nightgown, lacy underwear or a little girl's party dress.

Punctuating the dance are the quick movements of a nimble-fingered worker known as a "watcher," who jumps in when a skein of yarn snaps, rethreading the needle and marking the problem spot with tape, even as the machine continues to pulsate.

Most of the looms in the small embroidery factory owned by Deerbrook Fabrics are choreographed by "punchings" - rolls of paperdotted with holes like those of a player piano.

But Deerbrook recently added a $750,000 electronic loom that is far more efficient. While other companies have balked at such a huge investment, Deerbrook president Ed Parseghian said he had no choice: "If I don't do this, I'm not going to survive."

These have been troubled times for the once-flourishing embroidery business in Hudson and Bergen counties. More embroidery is produced here than in any other region in the nation, but the business is rapidly shrinking, raising concerns that it will eventually succumb to the same forces that have killed off other manufacturing trades in the area.

Market share declines

In the last 15 years, New Jersey's share of the domestic market for embroidery has declined to 70 percent from 90 percent, according to a report last year by the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken.

Foreign and domestic competition and the more austere fashion trends of recent years have driven a number of family-owned companies out of business. While some manufacturers take heart from recent signs that embellishment is returning to women's apparel, many others are so demoralized that they have ignored offers of state aid to help them modernize their operations. "People don't have the appetite to put more money into the business," said Stanley Kotkin, president of Dako Lace, a 41-year-old company in West New York, N.J.

Cy Thanikarry, the director of the New Jersey division of economic development, acknowledged that the industry had been slow to grab the life preserver extended by the state. "I am disappointed because I still believe that this industry has tremendous potential," he said.

Founded more than a century ago by Swiss immigrants seeking proximity to New York City's garment factories, the embroidery industry in northeastern New Jersey has provided work for successive waves of new arrivals. Around the turn of the century, hand-operated looms were replaced by automated machines, which were soon imported on a large scale, turning hundreds of Swiss, Austrian and German immigrants into manufacturers.

In recent decades, most of the workers - including those who start out on the lowest rung as "shuttlers," loading bobbins of yarn into boat-shaped shuttles - have come from Spanish-speaking countries.

Advantage of bedrock

Northeastern New Jersey was well suited to the industry because the 40,000-pound machines could be anchored in the bedrock of the Palisades to keep the needles from vibrating. Most of the looms are programmed by punchings, with the arrangement of the holes determining whether the fabric is to be transformed into, say, so-called Venise lace, in which the background fabric will later be burned away, or eyelet embroidery with tiny holes, or a loosely stitched embroidered panel that will be used to decorate a bra.

Today, some of the punchings on the old machines have been replaced by computer disks, but Deerbrook is the only manufacturer in the region with the latest electronic Schiffli machine, named for the shuttles, which look like small boats, or ++ "Schiffli," in the Swiss-German dialect. "I never thought I'd work with computers," said Hernan Orihuela, a Deerbrook foreman who has worked for the company for more than two decades, as he demonstrated how easily he could adjust a design with a few strokes on the keyboard. "It's a big jump up the hill."

In its survey of northern New Jersey's $300 million-a-year embroidery business, the Stevens Institute counted 400 companies employing more than 3,500 people, mostly in small factories with two or three antiquated machines. Since 1980, however, as many as 150 other companies have shut down, said I. Leonard Seiler, the executive director of the Schiffli Association, the industry's trade group.

"These are first-generation-immigrant jobs that pay good money," said Silvio Laccetti, a Stevens professor who helped write the study. An experienced worker can make more than $30,000 in base pay, the survey said.

Unions dwindle

But over past decade, union membership has dwindled to about 670 from 1,300, said Luis Lozada, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 211T, which merged with the textile workers' union in 1995.

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