According to textile engineer Connie Huffa, the last year she taught at Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science (1998), less than 5 percent of the students were studying textiles and the following year the college changed its name to Philadelphia University. This year, the school merged with Thomas Jefferson University, which focuses on health sciences.
“It had been the premier textile college in the United States,” notes Huffa, co-owner of textiles innovation center Fabdesigns in Malibu, Calif., which has been in business since 1988.
“The main issue [facing narrow fabrics companies] is that the people who know how to jockey a machine are retiring,” she says. “These are people who know how to listen and hear it running well or not and make minor tweaks that are needed—especially for medical, military and aerospace applications. They spend years and apprenticeships honing their talents. And in today’s corporate world, we’ve seen them be the first fired in a merger or acquisition because they lack a college degree.
“We are running out of people who know how to use their hands and not just a computer,” she continues. “There are fewer and fewer people who want to learn the details. They think of these machines as printers—that everything is easy. Put any kind of yarn in and what they want comes out. When they ask how long it takes to know what they are doing on the machines and we tell them a couple of years and even then they might not have seen everything, their eyes glaze over.
“I’m not sure we can overcome the challenge, except to appreciate and respect the people in our industry that we have left and help them pass on their knowledge to the next generation of genuinely interested makers.”