“I grew up in it,” said Steven Zuckerman, vice president of GHIBS Lace and Embroidery Co. Inc. in North Bergen, recently. “My father has been in this business for 40-something years.”
Zuckerman’s company, which he started with his father and brother about 25 years ago, caters mainly to the lingerie, bridal, evening wear and cocktail wear industries. And it is far from the only embroidery outfit in North Hudson, which has long been a center for the field. In fact, the region once housed more than 500 embroidery firms and held 90 percent of the national market share of the product.
Today, there are still many local embroiderers, including 88 firms in West New York alone. But also today, the local industry is competing with overseas markets, and struggling to stay afloat.
Thus, approximately 25 of the nation’s leading embroiderers convened Nov. 30 at a business summit in Hoboken to discuss ways to boost the industry.
At the summit, held at the Stevens Institute of Technology, the firms discussed an advocacy plan aimed at developing awareness and demand for local firms.
“The aim is to try to develop more niche markets,” said Leonard Seiler, Executive Director of Schiffli Lace and Embroidery Manufacturing Association Inc. in Fairview. “To develop more quick response markets and to attract the markets that are less likely to get their business overseas.”
“It is amazing how important embroidery is to people of different countries that come to this area,” said Mary Lobell, the director of folk arts at the Park Performing Arts Theatre on 32nd Street in Union City. Lobell has teamed up with the Stevens Institute of Technology to trace the history of the industry. “People who live here are so involved with it, they don’t realize how important it is.”
Steven Zuckerman’s first taste of the business came at about 8 or 9 years old when he would hand-cut fabric for his father.
“We used to embroider the pockets on old dusters,” said Zuckerman, referring to the housecoats that women wore in the 1950s and 1960s. “I would have to cut the pockets out of the fabric.” He explained that the machines worked on 10 yards of material at a time and he would have to cut each pocket out of the material.
Later, when Zuckerman received his driver’s license, he became a delivery boy for his father.
“Sometimes I would fall asleep on the tons of fabrics,” said Zuckerman, who said that he often woke up at 5 a.m. to pick up embroidery from the thread cutters.
Settling in North Hudson
North Hudson became an ideal location for the industry for two reasons: The area’s close proximity to New York City, which was the fashion capital of the world, and the rock from the Palisades that made the foundations strong enough to hold special embroidery machines called schiffli machines. The machines are so named because their bobbins are shaped like a boat’s hull, the German diminutive word for which is “schiffli.”
The first schiffli machines date back to the early 1900s. A schiffli machine has to be planted into concrete. The heavy schiffli machines had to be anchored into solid bedrock to operate efficiently.
The schiffli machines are about 10 feet long and 20 feet high.
“Schiffli machines can embellish any fabric that a needle can go through,” said Seiler.
However, while schiffli embroidery dominated the industry in Hudson County for many years, another type of machine was used later on in the industry’s history.
“The embroidery industry is really a combination of two industries,” said summit attendee Ken Parsons, editor of Stitches Magazine, a trade magazine for the commercial embroidery industry based in New York. “The schiffli industry and the multi-head industry.”
“A multi-head machine is almost like a type of sewing machine,” said Seiler. “It can be put in on Friday and taken out on Monday.”
A schiffli machine has to be embedded in concrete, and therefore is not readily moveable.
“Once [a schiffli machine] is in, it stays there,” said Seiler.
However, that is not the only difference between the two machines. According to Parsons, schiffli machines have to embroider a minimum of 10 yards of material and specialize in lace and fashion, while multi-head machines can work on individual garments and specialize in logos and brand names.
A rich history
The embroidery industry goes back to about the 1870s. It began in Jersey City with the Swiss immigrants and then gradually moved north into West New York, Union City, North Bergen, Weehawken, Guttenberg and eventually Fairview.
“[The embroidery firms] have been pretty much family-run all the way through,” said Seiler, “and have traced immigration. Starting with the Swiss and following with the Italians, Germans, and Hispanics.”
These family-owned businesses often began in the first floors of homes, and later moved into factory buildings. According to Zuckerman, there are still one and two-machine companies that work out of their basements or other rooms of their homes.
Similarly, the Schiffli Association was originally headquartered in a series of two-family homes on 23rd Street in Union City for 50 years. Now the association is headquartered in Fairview.
During World War II, the industry geared itself toward the military. After the war, they created the commercial emblem market, which focused on the intricate and colorful patches and logos and designs that identify our astronauts, sportsmen, and uniformed services throughout the nation and the world.
“There is no limit to what industry we can get into,” said Seiler.
Firms in the North Hudson area embroider the stars on national flags, military emblems, fine lingerie, home furnishings, apparel, costumes on Broadway, and church work.
“We are only limited by your imagination,” said Seiler.
A decline in the industry
But by the early 1990s, the local industry had suffered severe losses in business and in its manufacturing employment, though it continued to produce more than 70 percent of the nation’s embroidery output. However, the major loss of business came from the growing overseas markets, according to a case study done by Laccetti. “Manufacturing in this country is decreasing,” said Seiler. “And unfortunately we are stuck in that tide.”
Three major problems that the industry has faced are loss of market shares to foreign competition, the need for modern equipment and the computerization of the industry, which makes more training necessary, especially for the Internet.
“We spend $100 a day in wages as opposed to the $100 a month in wages paid overseas,” said Seiler. “That is tough competition.”
“It really comes down to a fair playing field,” said Zuckerman.
Much of the international business loss can also be attributed to a lack of embroiders putting their businesses on the Internet.
The Stevens Institute of Technology has posted a website for the Schiffli Industry Association; however, now it is about five years old.
“We have to do something,” Seiler said, “otherwise it is a downhill slope that will just get steeper.”
The planning for Hudson County’s Economic Redevelopment Master Plan began in 1995 by Hudson County Executive Robert Janiszewski’s office and the Stevens Institute of Technology. It has once again put the North Hudson Embroidery Industry under scrutiny. This alliance gave rise to the Hudson County Economic Summit, which introduced a way to bring together the leadership of the county to identify problems. The first summit was held at Stevens Institute in the spring of 1995. The first one identified was the Embroidery Industry in 1995. “We have had an interest in the embroidery industry and tried to help it since 1995,” said Stevens institute of technology Professor of Urban Studies Silvio Laccetti. “Stevens has been active right from the start and plans to remain active.”
A main goal of the Embroidery Summit held Nov. 30 was to create an advocacy plan, much like the Got Milk campaign, that will bolster North Hudson’s Embroidery Industry.
“The campaign will be a large-scale marketing and promotional assistance effort to help companies of all sizes compete with the offshore and out-of-state companies in present markets and in developing new markets,” said Laccetti’s in his case study.
However, many feel that a marketing plan is a little premature at this point in the industry’s decline.
“We’ve got to stop the bleeding here,” said Zuckerman. “Then we can promote it.”
Right now, the U.S. Government is writing legislature for the Caribbean Basin Act, which will promote free trade with Caribbean countries.
Members of the schiffli industry are lobbying to change the language of the act so that it protects the embroidery factories in this area.