Visit to Texprocess – Sewing machines and sustainability

To get a handle on the state of the art in sewing machines, I visited Texprocess in Frankfurt, Germany. For some time I have been getting limited and inconsistent information about sewing machine models and capabilities for sewing shoe uppers from US based distributors and resellers. In the US there is no industrial machine showroom where you can test these machines in person. Pfaff and Durkopp/Adler, two of the biggest sewing machine manufacturers, have showrooms in Europe. Pfaff’s showroom is in Kaiserslautern, not far from Frankfurt where the show was held. I had initially hoped to see the show and the showroom in one visit. Among other things, I learned that Pfaff and Durkopp/Adler are all part of the same company (together with several others).

The very practical aspect of trade show, however, meant that all the machines and all the people would be at the show. It takes time to pack it all up, move it back, set it up, etc. One thing at a time. I was really only interested in the Pfaff and Durkopp/Adler machines, but since pretty much every sewing machine company would be there, it seemed like a good place to survey what’s available. I made a return visit to see the showroom a little over a week later.

Walking the floor

stereotypical texprocess attendee

My first impression was of a sea of blue suits. So many guys dressed in various, but mostly lighter shades, of blue. I don’t know yet what the attendance numbers really were, but they said it was their largest attendance ever. 2017, the previous show in Frankfurt had 13,000 attendees. Here’s how Texprocess presents itself:

“Leading international trade fair for processing textile and flexible materials.”

At Texprocess, international exhibitors will present the latest machines, plants, processes and services for the manufacture of garments and textile and flexible materials in Frankfurt am Main. Techtextil, the leading international trade fair for technical textiles and nonwovens, takes place at the same time as Texprocess.

In the world of post bed sewing machines for shoe uppers, I saw many brands that I’d never heard of. Most looked almost exactly like either Pfaff or Durkopp/Adler machines. Some of these are in fact made from the head of one of those machines and then fitted out with different motors and controllers.

While the main focus of Texprocess was on the garment industry and textiles, shoes feature prominently with most major machine manufacturers having a dedicated section of their booth space for footwear. There are more comprehensive machine shows for footwear, but my focus on this show was for just the sewing of the uppers.

Petroleum Textiles

The amount of petroleum based material at the show gave me the impression that the oil industry completely dominates the garment world. Producers of sustainable, organic fiber materials are in tiny booths with “specialty” products. There is still a huge obsession with “high performance” and “technical” materials. Read that as athletics and the military. Despite evidence that people are more sedentary than ever, this industry would like us to believe we are all mountaineers, top athletes, in need of protection from explosives or chemical attack, or going to the moon.

It has been my goal for several years now to replace my nylon sewing thread with linen. I believe linen would make an appropriate replacement, but can not yet find a supplier. Despite the emphasis on sustainability at the show, new this year, I got only a few weak leads at the show and no actual thread. Linen is still widely used in the heavy sewing of shoe construction – insoles to outsoles, etc, but the lighter weight thread, lighter than would be used for construction, but not as light as you would use for a shirt, is not on display anywhere. (It might have been there, but I didn’t see linen thread for shirts either).

Not textiles

The highlight of the show for me was an exhibition that was not so directly related to the show. Compare the text of the description from the Texprocess website with the printed handout that was available in the exhibition area.

Curated by the Stijlinstituut Amsterdam and structurally implemented by Dutch architect firm Refunc, “Urban Living – City of the Future” is proving the Netherlands’ expertise in providing answers to current, social and global challenges associated with the urbanisation megatrend. Awaiting the visitors are exhibits from, amongst others, the textile upcycling pioneers DenimX, research institutes like the Hyperloop team from Delft Technical University (TU Delft), contributions from the Next Nature Network as well as independent representatives of the Dutch creative scene like textile architect Samira Boon.

Handout about some the Urban Living exhibits

In a cross-sector, collaborative and innovative way, the representatives of the Dutch creative industries will be presenting pioneering solutions to global challenges. Along these lines, they will be showing how a future urban narrative can be told from a Dutch point of view that also reflects the country’s own identity: open and transparent, bold and original, inclusive, multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary.

Jeff with recycled polypropylene sunglasses

There were so many interesting things that the description above does not capture. Too much to discuss on those topics here. Keeping it on topic, there was a booth to make your own sunglasses out of recycled polypropylene flakes. The two Spanish graduates from ITU Delft staffing the booth both hate plastic. Why make more things out of plastic? One reason is to capture the plastic that is already out there. That stuff is not going away on its own. It can be turned into something people want and would use. Yes, this is related to making shoes!

Part of getting the fit right in making custom shoes is making vacuum forms to fit lasts to feet. A vacuum form is made of the lasts, I put the client’s feet inside these “glass slippers” so I can check the fit. In making the forms, a sufficient amount of extra material is required. Even when keeping the sheet and frame as small as possible, the amount of cut-off, or wasted material compared to the form itself is huge. This is the nature of vacuum forming.

Recycling and reuse

In addition to making a pair of sunglasses (!) we talked about how to directly reuse the waste material to make new vacuum forms. This material is used not just by low volume small shoemakers like me, but is a staple of the orthopedic shoe industry, and the production of orthotics and prosthetics. Closing the loop on the use of plastic in these areas would hugely reduce the need for more new plastic. The longer term goal is getting plastic out of the loop completely. Plastic is forever. Once it’s been made it’s here to stay. We have to learn how to live with it responsibly even as we try to eliminate it wherever possible.

More about the polypropylene sunglasses:
It’s a related project to Precious Plastic:
I started a discussion on the Precious Plastic forum here:

Lastly, a shout out to André Campos at ForEver | Portugal, a vendor at the show that in fact seems to be doing something sustainable – making recycled rubber soles. André spent quite some time with me explaining how natural rubber can be recycled, and what they make with it.

Sustainability is a tricky word. It can be used to mean just another way to sustain the status quo, or it can mean creating a full cycle process that can sustain itself without depleting some other resource. I prefer the latter.

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