Once World’s Knitting Capital, Ridgewood Searches For A Niche

To the Ridgewood knitting industry, once the origin of three out of every four sweaters worn in the United States, the end came much the same way novelist George Garret’s grandfather famously went broke: slowly, then all at once.

Competition from China, as well as India, Malaysia and Mexico, coupled with a post-millennial recession to deal a final, fatal blow to an industry that had been teetering since the late 1980s. Today, the industrial zone on the Brooklyn-Queens border, as recently as five years ago home to some 500 factories that provided the industry with yarn, needles, dyes and finished sweaters, has been all but abandoned.

“It was as if we had a bathtub full of water, and we had a leak in it, and then someone just reached in and pulled the plug,” said Herb Derlath, former vice president of the Knitting Mill Owners Association of Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island.

After its membership plummeted from around 500 to 30, the organization disbanded in 2001. Derlath estimates that 200,000 jobs were lost from the Ridgewood-Glendale-Maspeth area alone, once home to 2,200 mills.

Like many of the factories, Derlath’s G & E Knitting Mills was a family business. His father was part of the large influx of Europeans who worked in the thriving industry in the 1950s. “They knew everything from metallurgy to mechanics, and took a lot of pride in what they did,” he said.

Carl Matzelle, owner of Mary D Knitting Mills in Ridgewood, remembers hearing similar tales about the industry’s glory days from his father. “There used to be a knitting mill on every corner. It was considered the knitting capital of the world,” he said.

His company has managed to survive for the moment, mostly because it upgraded to electronic machines and cut its staff from 15 to a handful. But Matzelle is warily eyeing the federal government’s plan to comply with the World Trade Organization’s demands and drop all textile import quotas by 2005. “That could put a real hurt on us,” he said.

Chris Balos, owner of Jamco Knitwear in Ridgewood, was more frank. “I have four kids, I’m 36 and basically, I’m screwed,” he said. “Next year, when the quotas drop, we’re done.”

Only a few staff members walk amidst the spinning machines in his factory at 16-20 Decatur Street. The rest of the jobs, from answering the phones to sales, Balos does himself.

Jamco is a knitting contractor, producing mostly naturally-colored fabric that is dyed and finished elsewhere. Contractors have been hit hardest by China’s unbeatably low prices, having no part of their business that can’t be sent overseas.

In reaction to this trend, former tag and label maker Andy Chasen sought out a knitting niche that was virtually unexportable. Two years ago, he founded U.S.A. Blanket and Scarf, an Internet portal that sells one-of-a-kind patriotic and custom knitwear for gifts and fundraisers, and has them produced at a Glendale sample maker.

His FDNY scarfs and 9-11 memorial blankets are popular, but, he said, “I wouldn’t call it survival.” He sells vitamins to health food stores to make ends meet.

Creative Knitwear, located at 59-00 Decatur Street, has found its niche by “doing everything, from A to Z,” according to co-owner Radomir Novacov.

Founded in 1995 by two textile workers with business degrees, the business has found success by forging a partnership between manufacturing, finishing and a showroom in Manhattan.

His partner, Andrew Korzenny, explained that, if there is any hope at all for the domestic textile industry, it lies in the fickleness of fashion.

Trend-setting brands like Banana Republic have their pieces made in China, where a sweater that once cost $18 in the U.S. can be shipped from overseas for $8, sometimes even $4. But these orders must be placed six months in advance. In contrast, trend-following stores like Mandee need a quicker turnaround, and are more likely to turn to a domestic manufacturer who can deliver in a month or less.

“The economy is not so strong, so the stores are waiting to see if the stock is moving before they order,” he said. “This industry is all about speed.”

The only way for manufacturers to meet these deadlines is by anticipating the trends themselves—something that the older generations of knitting mill owners tended to leave to the designers. Novacov and Korzenny make daily checks of the Web sites of trendsetting brands like Armani Exchange and Forever 21 to stay on top of knitwear fashions.

“You cannot just sit and wait for the order, because it will never come,” Korzenny said. “That kind of thinking is history.”

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