German textiles

High-Tech Threads Revive a Dying Industry

Christo NY Atelier Floating piers project
Famous wrapper Christo shows off his 2016 'Floating Piers' installation.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    It cannot beat Asia on price, so Germany’s textile industry has taken the global lead in high-tech textile development.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • The number of textile makers in Germany fell from 7,700 in 1970 to 550 in 2013.
    • Most production shifted to Turkey and then to Asia for cost reasons.
    • Germany’nearly 600 mid-sized textile companies in Germany most recently had sales of about €13 billion ($14.6 billion).
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    Audio

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Bright yellow thread shoots across a five-meter width of fabric 285 times a minute. Two looms rattle loudly as they push out lengths of polyamide fabric, centimeter by centimeter – 200 meters a day.

The weaving will continue around the clock through October, until the textile manufacturer Setex has produced 90,000 square meters of shimmering dahlia yellow. This batch is for a very special client, the famous installation artist Christo.

The Bulgarian-born artist will use the German-made fabric for his 2016 project, “Floating Piers,” a 16-meter wide wrapped walkway between two islands in Italy’s Lake Iseo.

Konrad Schröer, the company’s founder and principle owner, guarantees the material will be “colorfast, waterproof and stain-resistant.” It is not the first time Christo has used fabric from Setex, based in the Münsterland region of northwestern Germany. In 1995, he and his late wife, Jeanne-Claude, used 100,000 square meters to wrap the Reichstag in Berlin. Ten years later, they unveiled “The Gates” in New York’s Central Park – thousands of saffron-colored gates erected with Setex fabric.

Hardly any industry these days can do without modern textiles and textile fibers. They are found in spacesuits, auto insulation and stents for heart surgery.

In 2013, Mr. Schröer, a self-made businessman took over the neighboring company Schilgen, which until then had collaborated closely with Christo. Setex then developed the material for “Floating Piers” together with Christo and coworkers. “The material may not be reproduced,” said Mr. Schröer. “That has been regulated contractually.”

The synthetic paths in Italy will be destroyed after the project. So visitors won’t try to cut pieces from the installation, Setex is producing extra fabric to be distributed as souvenirs.

The Christo project is just one sign that Germany’s textile industry is making a comeback. “In the 1960s, Germany was still a strong production country for textiles,” said Ingeborg Neumann, president of the German Textile and Fashion Industry Association.

Then, for cost reasons, much of the production shifted, first to Turkey and then to Asia, and many textile companies closed down. “Back then, too little was being invested,” said Mr. Schröer. “Some companies were allowed to die.”

 

Setex MD Klaus Struffert and project lead Diana Goecke watch christos material sputnik
Setex MD Klaus Struffert and project lead Diana Goecke watch Christo’s cloth being dyed. Source: Sputnik

 

In the nearby German textile belt of Bocholt, for example, only two factories remain out of a total 40 weaving plants and seven spinning plants that employed 15,000 people in the 1960s.

Altogether, the number of textile operations in Germany decreased from 7,700 in 1970 to 550 in 2013. The number of employees in fabric and clothing production declined by 90 percent.

It became essential to develop new, modern textiles to survive. “Many garment manufacturers expanded their range or changed during that time,” said Ms. Neumann. Some specialized in so-called technological textiles – and soon found lucrative new markets.

Hardly any industry these days can do without modern textiles and textile fibers. They are found in spacesuits, auto insulation and stents for heart surgery; even sewage pipes and river banks are lagged with high-tech material.

“Technologically, German manufacturers are leading the way,” said Jürgen Grebe, an industry expert from Commerzbank. “They conquered a variety of new applications, in medical, aviation and environmental, and also newer technologies, such as compound- and non-woven technology.”

Worldwide, about 45 percent of products in this hi-tech segment come from German companies. The export quota is about 60 percent. “It has become a classic supplier branch,” said Ms. Neumann.


Video: Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrap the Reichstag, 1995.

Naturally, it helps that the market for high-tech textiles has grown strongly in past years. Worldwide business volume – not including compound- and non-woven materials such as coal fibers – totaled $133 billion most recently. In 2018, Commerzbank expects that to rise to $160 billion.

Meanwhile, nearly 120,000 employees are working again in the German textile and garment industry. The nearly 600 mid-sized textile companies in Germany most recently had sales of about €13 billion, or $14.6 billion.

Pressure to innovate in this high-tech segment remains high: One-fifth of all sales in the branch come from products that have been on the market three years or less. For industry observers such as Mr. Grebe, the transformation of the textile companies is exemplary. “German industry has fulfilled a remarkable structural change in the past decades and will continue as innovation leaders in the future,” he said.

For a mid-sized company like Setex, with 1,100 employees and €150 million in sales, that means pushing productivity to the limits in order to remain internationally competitive. At its two large factories in Greven and Dingden, yarns are spun, colored, handled and cut around the clock, 355 days of the year. About a million square meters of fabric rattle through 200 weaving machines week after week.

Today Setex supplies large retail clients with bedding and mattress covers. It produces fireproof materials for welding and firefighting garments. It makes fire-resistant and lightproof curtains for truck driver cabins or special textiles for shoes.

An important segment is low flammable materials for tent covers, stage curtains and wall coverings for large events, such as concerts or fairs. German manufacturers like Setex score points with clients for their speed and responsiveness.

In the 25 years since founding Setex, Mr. Schröer has taken over five companies, most 100 years or older. “Through that, we have become more varied,” said Mr. Schröer.

Usually after taking over another company, the Setex CEO has to first invest heavily. Textile manufacturing in Germany is capital intensive. At Setex, between €6 million and €7 million is alloted to one textile workplace. “If you do not use capacity, you have a problem,” said Mr. Schröer. Productivity at Setex has improved 15 times since 1990. Any company that cannot keep up with that “has to get off the ship” he said.

 

Martin Wocher is an industry reporter for Handelsblatt Online. To contact the author: mwocher@handelsblatt.com

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