The stuff that dreams are made of: Merz b. Schwanen

There are no fairy tales in the fashion industry. There’s just the pressure to succeed. Bankruptcies. Mass production. And one exception called Merz b. Schwanen.
Text Wiebke Brauer
Photo Merz B. Schwanen

Once upon a time there was an old shirt. This is how the story begins. And in a world where textile manufacturers struggle with an ever-faster succession of trends, designers throw in the towel amid the pressure to produce, fast fashion has become a bane rather than a boon, and a growing number of people hanker for garments that not only last long, but also have a history, you can’t tell this story often enough.

The story begins in the year 2010 with a man who finds a shirt at a flea market. He runs his hand over the fabric and marvels at its workmanship. The man’s name is Peter Plotnicki, a designer in Berlin. And the object of his desire is a batch of placket front shirts. Thickly woven workers’ underwear. From the now-defunct German textile company Merz b. Schwanen, founded in 1911 by Balthasar Merz in Tailfingen, a district of Albstadt near Stuttgart. But Plotnicki would only find that out later. The region was once home to many hundreds of textile businesses – until the market was flooded by cheap products from Asia. Most manufacturers gave up, and so did the family-run business Merz in 2008.

More than 30 authentic circular knitting machines from the 1920s to 1960s are sitting on the wooden floor – unused, dusty but intact.

Plotnicki’s fingers caress the undyed cotton fabric, brush the fabric-covered buttons and cuffs knitted in various mesh sizes. The shirts feature triangular inserts under the arms and carefully woven textile labels with a logo stitched in finespun rayon. What they don’t have is lateral seams, which is a rarity in itself. “This is exactly what I want to make for myself,” Plotnicki thinks. But instead of just daydreaming about it, he sets out to look for the original manufacturer. The shirts he found do not sport any brand labels, but only a description of the 
fabric: “Plush ware, soft and pliant”. This doesn’t get him anywhere; nonetheless, he finds what he’s looking for. In the Swabian Alps he meets Rudolf Loder. Loder is one of the last textile manufacturers in Albstadt. And now the story takes another odd turn. Loder not only knows that Plotnicki’s find originated with Merz b. Schwanen, he also owns the machines that were used to produce the shirts. More than 30 authentic circular knitting machines from the 1920s to 1960s are sitting on the wooden floor – unused, dusty but intact. Loder had purchased the machines from the former manufactory owners and kept them for nostalgic reasons. What Plotnicki sees is not an opportunity for a museum; he sees an opportunity for firing up production once more.

In January 2011, Merz b. Schwanen unveils its first new collection at the Bread & Butter show in Berlin. And returns to life in the year that also marks the 100th anniversary of the company’s birth. A bizarre coincidence? We think not.

After that, everything falls into place at an astonishing pace. The company’s headquarters are moved to Berlin, the descendants of Balthasar Merz offer the brand name to Plotnicki, and he mobilises a troop of retired workers to repair the old knitting machines, as no one else knows how. In January 2011, Merz b. Schwanen unveils its first new collection at the Bread & Butter show in Berlin. And returns to life in the year that also marks the 100th anniversary of the company’s birth. A bizarre coincidence? We think not.

Seven years on, two small businesses in Albstadt knit the shirts, and a cotton weaver supplies the fabric for the plackets. The sewn-in labels come from a small company that crafts them by hand on old looms. All of this results in a sustainable, durable and expensive product made in Germany. “We don’t care about fast-paced fads,” Plotnicki says. Even if he wanted to, he couldn’t.

“We don’t care about fast-paced fads" – Peter Plotnicki

The outmoded machines set the pace, and it is slow. While modern knitting looms have a production capacity of 600 kg of fabric per day, the old machines put out only 6 kg. To quote Plotnicki again, “We don’t want to create fashion.” Still, that’s exactly what he’s doing, while benefiting from the ongoing vintage trend. Fortunately. But as we all know, Lady Fortune has always played a role in fairy tales.


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