- The Cultural Thread: 130 Years of Embroidery and Lace in New Jersey
The Cultural Thread/El Hilo Cultural exhibit opened in 2002 in a gallery in the Park Performing Arts Center in Union City, New Jersey. Originally scheduled to last for a few months, it will remain indefinitely because of the enthusiastic response it has received. The exhibit explores the history of embroidery in the region around Hudson and Bergen counties in northern New Jersey, which at one time was one of the largest centers of embroidery and lace manufacture in the world. The 650 plants along the Palisades were the heart of the U.S. embroidery industry and produced 85 percent of this country's embroidered products. The industry began with Swiss and German immigrants who brought their patterns and tools, supplying the impetus for the burgeoning businesses. Geographically, the area was perfect for this industry because of its proximity to the New York City market. In addition, the local bedrock was able to support the huge machines, which could weigh up to ten tons and needed shafts that went twenty feet underground to anchor them.
A thread woven through the exhibit is the juxtaposition of the manufacturing industry with the individual artists. The commercial industry thrived through the immigration of skilled workers to the area, and today the region is still home to individuals from various countries who create a variety of textiles for commercial and personal use. Although some individual techniques differ greatly from the commercial styles, what the textiles have in common then and now is that they have always been a source of employment for immigrants. Textile manufacturing was a job that did not require the ability to speak English, and for individuals who brought piecework home ("home work," as it is called by one artist who remembers her grandmother earning money by hand-cutting the delicate items for clothes such as collars and yokes), it provided a flexible way to make ends meet, one that could be planned around family needs. For example, a lacemaker from Cuba worked from her home making bridal gowns and blouses, which she was able to sell to individuals or retail stores in Manhattan. Other similarities exist between the commercial and cottage industries. Both have their tools of the trade, and The Cultural Thread displays a range of tools from sewing machines, needles, and scissors to design books, shuttles [End Page 247] and shuttle trays, a punching gauge (which traces each stitch in a pattern), and a radelils (an instrument calibrated to measure the distance between stitches).
Of interest for the folklorist are the situations in which the commercial industry shows its grassroots beginnings. It was founded as a cottage industry by families who transmitted it to the following generations—and some of their descendants continue in this work today. In many families, men began their work by setting up machines in their backyards, while their wives did piecework in the living space and their children played with discarded items such as spools and the schiffli-shaped shuttles. (Schiffli is a type of embroidery whose name is of German-Swiss origins and describes the little bobbins used in the machines; the bobbins looked like little boats, and schiff means "boat" in German). There are also historical items, such as the original books and patterns brought over from Germany and other parts of Europe, which were used by the founders and passed down over successive generations. Embedded within the exhibit are many stories that relate to this history as well as to the experiences of immigrants and workers; a binder, for instance, contains a collection of stories and photos of the local families. It is rare that one gets to see the personal face of manufacturing in this way.
The exhibit examines the embroidery industry from an array of perspectives and investigates how all sectors of society were affected by it. The everyday items that we take for granted—from retail baby clothes and embroidered Boy Scout patches...