At G.J. Littlewood & Son in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Parker Donahue unloads a dyeing machine full of fiber that will eventually be used to make paint rollers for Home Depot.
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PHILADELPHIA — The textile industry, once a signature craft of Philadelphia, teeters on the brink of extinction, with 178 companies left in a city that once housed scores more.
There are hopes of sustaining the sector — mainly by connecting it with a younger generation of more design-oriented artisans.
But to do so, the textile-manufacturing sector must overcome a daunting calculus: Are enough skilled workers available to keep the existing companies alive long enough for the young entrepreneurs to cultivate enough business and expertise to sustain them?
"If you want to find a sewing operator, or someone who knows how to cut fabric, or someone who knows how to dye fabric, or fix a knitting machine, those are hard competencies to find," said Mark Sunderland, assistant dean of design, engineering, and commerce at Philadelphia University, founded in 1884 as the Philadelphia Textile School.
On a recent weeknight, however, the optimists convened in Frankford at the first gathering in recent memory of the city's textile sector. Old-line manufacturers and the young artisans met and mingled at Global Dye Works, a former textile factory that is now a warren of artists' studios.
Among attendees was David Littlewood, owner of G.J. Littlewood & Son, founded in 1869, the oldest surviving dye house in Philadelphia.
Even as recently as 2001, 4,500 people worked in textile and apparel manufacturing in Philadelphia, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. By 2010, that number dropped below 2,100.
In Philadelphia, before a fabric got to a cutting floor, it might have moved through a half-dozen companies, each highly specialized in a component of fabric manufacturing, from spinning to dyeing to finishing.
At Littlewood, master lab technician Bill Cook mixes dyes and solutions. "The lab technician is one of the hardest jobs to find," said Mr. Cook's boss, Mr. Littlewood.
It takes skill and experience to know which dyes are appropriate with each material, to make sure the color holds when viewed in daylight, artificial light, or in something akin to sunset lighting, and then finally to calculate manufacturing costs, striking a balance between quality and expense.
The youngest local industrial dyer Mr. Littlewood knows is 30, the nephew of a competitor.
The work force at Philadelphia's CSH Inc., a custom cutting and sewing house, is mainly Asian, recruited by owner Steven Levin's manager, Mai "Lilly" Yau. She learned the trade in Hong Kong and hires immigrants who gained their experience in China and Cambodia.
"I remember when high schools had classes [in industrial sewing]," Mr. Levin said. "They used to come to my factory on field trips."