Plauen lace has its roots in a centuries-old tradition of textile manufacturing in Saxony, Germany. The brand is still standing its ground by combining old ways with an innovative spirit, as Hardy Graupner reports.
I'm in a room crammed full with richly embroidered items ranging from tablecloths and curtains to decorative covers, handkerchiefs and wall hangings. There's also an old embroidery machine in this little museum in the Saxon town of Plauen.
This is the realm of Andreas Reinhardt, CEO of a local lace company called Modespitze Plauen. He's also the chairman of an industry association representing the interests of firms that have come together to work under the Plauen Lace trademark.
Ask him about the history and centuries-old traditions of the local lace-makers in and around Plauen, and you'll soon realize that Reinhardt could easily fill a book with his profound knowledge of the trade.
"Plauen lace never stood for one individual company," he tells DW, but for the sophisticated embroidery coming from many decentralized firms in the region. The brand experienced a crucial boost in the age of mechanization between 1860 and 1910. Plauen turned into a boomtown and the worldwide craze for lace helped lift the surrounding Vogtland region out of poverty.
Plauen's population exploded, reaching 128,000 inhabitants by 1912, making it the fourth-largest city in Saxony.
"There were about 20,000 embroidery machines in the region back then," Reinhardt says, most of them rented out to wageworkers who toiled away in facilities next to their own homes for various companies promoting their own collections.
The quality of the lace made the brand world-famous, and it has never lost any of its shine. Decentralized lace-making continued in East Germany after World War II, with embroideries from the Vogtland region washing millions upon millions of hard currency into state coffers. The workers used many of the old, but reliable machines, thus keeping fresh investment at an extremely low level.
"There were about 3,000 embroiderers in the region in East Germany working in a decentralized way," Reinhardt notes. "Today, there are just 10 firms licensed to use the Plauen Lace name, and we're talking about a total of 200-250 workers here right now."
Reinhardt makes a point of emphasizing that the label serves to show the lace-makers' deep affinity with the region.
Andreas Reinhardt's Modespitze Plauen company is keeping old traditions alive while at the same time looking for new, future-oriented fields of activity
"Everything we sell has to be produced here and has to do with the embroidery trade, or else it would deceive customers. Some details of our work have been copied, but there are some technologies that even the Chinese haven't been able to copy," he says.
"So, we can still offer very exclusive products, and our brand points out this exclusiveness to customers."
While there's been no need to reinvent the trade, the Vogtland lace-makers have nonetheless been trying hard to move with the times. Reinhardt says his own company, Modespitze Plauen, has been placing emphasis on social responsibility in the supply chain and sustainable production.
The firm's organic fashion collection boasts bio cotton made from natural seeds only (no genetic modification involved), with embroideries of this kind now also increasingly being used for curtains, tablecloths, handkerchiefs and other items.
Since 2016, the company has been getting all its electricity from hydropower, and since 2018 it has been involved in carbon offset schemes for gas usage. It's already 90% CO2-neutral, as Reinhardt points out.
"We're talking about very pricey, high-end products, and our customers can expect us to produce in a sustainable way," Reinhardt says. "The highest international tracking standards are applied when it comes to our purchases of materials, and social and ethical aspects are fully observed."
A sample of GOTS-certified organic lace from Plauen (GOTS stands for Global Organic Textile Standard)
While the very survival of Plauen lace can be viewed as a major success story, there's no denying that the trade has seen many ups and downs, moving from sales peaks to slumps and back. "You have to be creative and open for new ideas," Reinhardt says.
"We're constantly looking for additional fields of activity and business opportunities, also in the high-tech sector," he emphasizes. "But it's not about catering for huge markets — rather, we modify our machines to serve particular niches in order to be able to make products for selected clients."
Right now, Modespitze Plauen is involved in a project with Chemnitz-based high-tech firm FiberCheck that specializes in integrated embroidered sensors to monitor the health of fiber-based composites.
"We develop sensors for fiber-based composites used in vehicles, bicycle frames, safety helmets and rotor blades of wind turbines, to name but a few," FiberCheck Chief Technical Officer Peter Wolf tells DW. "Until recently, there hadn't been any sensors yet to monitor the health of composite materials — just sticking separate sensors onto rotor blades for instance isn't very helpful as they would come off again in no time on such smooth surfaces."
So, the idea is to integrate such sensors into a fabric that will then become an integral part of the rotor blades right from the start.
"And this is where Plauen lace comes in," Chief Financial Officer Tobias Meyhöfer elaborates. "The folks up there are experts in embroidery and can even stitch sensors and integrate them into their fabric — and who would be better suited to do this than a renowned company like Modespitze Plauen?"
The sensors that are firmly embedded in Plauen fabric can potentially save wind farm operators a fortune.
"We monitor the elongation of the rotor blades that occurs when heavy winds hit them," Wolf said. "If there's too much strain, the blades may bend or even break apart. Our sensors can send all relevant data to autonomous systems in time so that operators can readjust the affected blades and prevent further damage."
No matter how important the current partnership is, embedding sensors will no doubt remain a niche product for the Plauen lace-makers. They seem well-advised to stick to their traditional product range while keeping up their exclusive quality that comes at a price.
"Higher energy costs and higher labor costs are unavoidable," Andreas Reinhardt says. "But if you try to keep your product prices low by using lower-quality textiles and less elaborate manufacturing processes, your products will start resembling those of your rivals in other regions of the world, and why would anyone want to buy your products when others sell it even cheaper," he asks.
"No," Reinhardt concludes, "the best way to go forward is to stick to our very sophisticated products that no one else has on offer — they sure are expensive, but then we don't have to win over everyone out there."