4.12.2007

Scalamandre: a brief tour, or, My Determined Effort

About four years ago I visited the Breakers, the Vanderbilt “cottage” in Newport, RI. It was explained that in restoring the building several elaborate fabrics and wallpapers had to be recreated from original 100+year-old damaged remnants. Scalamandre, a name I was vaguely familiar with, had undertaken analysis of fiber content, color and patterning and then reproduced these fine specimens of Gilded Age excess. With a little research I discovered that company excelled at small-run bespoke fabrics and high-end hand-screened wallcoverings of up to sixteen colors. Most importantly, the 75-year-old concern that had created custom silks for the White House, fringe for Big Bird, and tassels for the Old Merchant’s House museum was also responsible for the brilliantly zany zebra wallpaper* in the Red Sauce Italian landmark, Gino’s of Lexington Avenue. And at the time (this was late 2003) they were taking shipments of sticky, raw silk to finished dyed and woven fabric all under one roof—in a mill in Long Island City. I was astounded. Someone still did this? In New York City, no less?
I then made a determined effort to get a look inside the place…
Long Island City**, a former industrial center, home to stapler factories, printing plants and shellac distributors, is now in the process of being radically transformed. At the time of my visit, the Scalamandre mill was probably among the last light industrial holdouts.

I found it on a non-descript and fairly bleak street: a relatively small 19th-century brick building with strangely beautiful skylit spaces and worn plank floors.

It was an idiosyncratic manufactory mixing pedal-powered wooden looms, Eisenhower-era machinery, handwork, and modern computer-run technology. I was fortunate to get a quick tour of the mill that day, learning a little about warps, swifts and loom cards in the process. Very shortly thereafter Scalamandre announced they were moving out-of-state, and selling the building.
I later read they were having a kind of fire sale—a dream flea market of antiquated bits and pieces, fabrics and trimmings, emptying the place of its arcane and –to the outsider—inscrutable devices. I was so emotional about that building (true)—I couldn’t even bring myself to go.


An important part of Scalamandre’s work is historical research and reproduction. In an on site studio in that mill they analyzed samples soiled by coal and wood smoke, faded by sunlight, or brittle with age. Probing hidden seams for color and poring over contemporary publications for design documentation they resuscitated vibrant color schemes and completely reconstituted complex repeating patterns. I loved the notion of forensic design technology, a sort of CSI: Decorative Arts Unit.
... ...
*The paper shows up, charmingly, in The Royal Tenenbaums, and, rather less interestingly, in Kate Spade’s bathroom.
**The 7 train’s elevated path through LIC into Queens, with its magni´Čücent sight lines to Midtown Manhattan, is rather exciting and should probably be landmarked.

Images from top: the view from the 7 train; "the Old Mill"; hand-screening wallpaper, with the zebras in the background; swatches, and spools set up for weaving
stripes; looms; some of the afore-mentioned Eisenhower-era machinery: a dying vat; quality inspection; patriotic passementerie; antique spinner, and spool boxes; classic zebra wallpaper at Gino's from the New York Times

11 comments:

Judith said...

Truly nostalgic for me. My dad designed and manufactured specialty silk jacquard upholstery fabric in Paterson, NJ. Scalamandre was a competitor of his, although, in all honesty, he didn't have the finesse to attract the caliber of Scalamandre's clientel They did their dying in house? At least they only had themselves to blame if the lot came out wonky. My childhood dinners were filled with tales of goods being ruined by bad dyers. Where did they move the mill to? Down South? Asia?

angela said...

Yes--dying in-house! I was amazed. they also, as I recall, got shipments of RAW SILK! I guess they... spun it? I have no idea.

They moved the mill to North Carolina I believe...

Wilfred said...

I am so happy that someone got a bit of a visual record of this great company. I teach design and textiles at Parsons and I would love to have access to more photos as teaching tools. I tried contacting people at Scalamandre just prior to their shuttering their Long Island facility in the hope that they were making some kind of historical and technical record of their work and its scope. The were a national treasure, with fabrics created for the White House, Versailles and many other historic monuments as well as domestic and commercial settings. They did it all, the spun, dyed, wove, printed and provided appropriate passamentrie for their textiles and all with the greatest artistry and skill. I have not had a great deal of luck trying to locate them to see if I might follow up on their work. Is it possible that they may have abandoned their name?

angela said...

Wilfred
I was told they were moving operations to North Carolina and keeping a showroom/office in Manhattan. I believe they have an archive-- I was not able to see it when I went-- but it sounded tantalizing. I think that must still be around.

I think you need to try contacting their PR department and try again...

Please let me know if you find something more...

bluemlein said...

Wilfred-

That Scamalandre has abandoned their great historical reputation? nothing could be farther from that assumption, you can stop worrying.
As you may know I am fighting the counterfeiting ring currently operating in the Eastern US. They sell - on eBay, which can be sketchy - all manner of phony fabrics as Scalamandre, Brunschwig, Pierre Frey etc. They also sell this phony stuff on Design Diva. People who have never seen a top fabric first-hand might think they are getting something "nice" but they are getting cheap trash produced in Asia.

If you want to get in touch with them try contacting Trish Connolly:

TConnolly@Scalamandre.com

I am certain that the company will appreciate any show of support.

The current lawsuit Tiffany v. eBay should provide some sort of direction. Let's hope that it will be decided in Tiffany's favour because it will mean that there will be legal requirements for eBay to ensure the authenticity of the items being sold.

Trish Connolly said...

I know that this is a little late but I am just learning about blogging and have a lot of catching up to do.

Let me respond to some of the posts I see here.

Believe mewhen I say we are still here and going strong.

There is no lack of visual history. As a matter of fact, a textbook exists for design students which has an accompanying DVD featuring a tour of the Scalamandre showroom and mill with explanations by the Scalamandre Bitter family. This was done just before we sold the building and moved our operation.

Hopefully you all still consider us a national treasure.

We continue to work with The White House and any historical house or museum who needs our assistance.

Yes, we did receive shipments of raw silk.

We did in-house DYEING, not dying! We are all alive and well!

We didn't move the production to North Carolina, it went to South Carolina but ultimately closed.

When we sold the old red brick building in Long Island City, continued renting an office space for our studio, our custom trim department and archives. Unfortunately, our archives are not open to the public.

Anonymous said...

Scalamandre has been sold to a man who was convicted of cheque fraud - see bluemlein's blog

FK said...

A text was published last year that features a DVD of the Scalamandre 110,000 square foot mill in Long Island City before it was dismantled. The title of the book is Fabric for the Designed Interior. The supporting web site is: www.fabricforthedesignedinterior.com

Anonymous said...

The Kheel Center archives at Cornell University has photographs, oral histories and text records documenting the Long Island City Scalamandre factory and its workers, collected between 1981 and 1983. Contact the Kheel Center for more information about the collection, or to arrange to use the material. http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/library/kheel/

angela said...

Thanks to the reader noting the Kheel Center archives!
Funny I recently passed the Kheel Building in Manhattan-- a 1920s Gothic affair on 7th ave across from FIT-- and I was struck by the name in Ye Olde English type. I'll need to look into these Kheels!

Anonymous said...

My Father after he Immigrated from Italy worked at Scalamandre in Lonig Island City as a Fringe Weaver in the early 1950s,

LinkWithin

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...