German Knitwear Manufacturer Bleyle

I recently found this boy’s knitted suit in an antique mall and was happy to find lots of information about its German manufacturer – Bleyle.

Thirty-five year old Austrian-born Wilhelm Bleyle bought a knitting machine in 1885 to make knitted clothes for his six children. Four years later he founded his yarn shop that offered knitted goods in Stuttgart Germany. He began the enterprise with five knitting machines and eight employees. What he offered that was different from most knitted garments at the time was sewn construction made from knitted pattern pieces. This technique produced a better wearing, easier to make garment suitable for active wear.

Left: Company stamp with image of similar suits as one pictured above, I originally thought the suit was 1920s, but now I wonder if it could be early pre WW1 1910s…

Knitted sailor suits were especially popular for young boys at the time and by 1901, his business moved to a full factory building to produce 12 different styles of sailor suits. Manufacturing branches opened in other cities in 1905 and 1912. In 1913 Wilhelm handed over the company to his sons Max and Fritz, as well as his brother-in-law Arthur Weber. Wilhelm died in 1915.

The best wool stocks were seized by the army in 1914, and Bleyle chose to cease making civilian knitwear in 1916 due to the poor quality of wool allowed for civilian production. The company made uniforms and later in the war was retooled for making armaments. Clothing production was difficult in the postwar German economy, but by 1924, the company was once again producing clothing for children, as well as suits, coats, and sportswear separates for women. 

The company left Bleyle family management in 1939 but still exists today with production centred in Italy.

Ersatz – German Paper Fashions from the Great War

The Great War caused great shortages of wool, leather, and linen – materials required for making uniforms and airplane wings. These materials were in especially short supply in Germany and Austria where paper was developed as a substitute textile for making civilian clothing.  

Before the U.S. entered the war in April 1917, American publications ran articles about Germany’s inventiveness in developing ersatz materials. In January 1917, the New York Sun reported that the Germans had developed paper-based threads for making “…girdles, doilies, aprons, working garments… the inventors have discovered a way to give the ‘paper cloth’ great resistance to dampness…” Paper cloth, woven from tightly twisted paper threads, resembled a coarse linen or hemp burlap that had been originally developed for making sacks.

German corset made of paper cloth, c. 1917 – 1920

Shortages did not end with the war in Germany and Austria, where paper clothing continued to be made. In 1920, the U.S. Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce imported a selection of Austrian paper clothing items to display on a tour around the country. When the Washington exhibit opened in September 1920, the Associated Press reported that “one suit is quoted at fifteen cents, and is washable…” The Washington, D.C., Evening Star reported, German-made suits were selling in London for the equivalent of 46 cents to $1.95, and that a man could buy a new suit each week of the year for less than the cost of a wool suit.

The U.S. trade publication Textile Worldnoted “It seems quite evident now that the German and Austrian manufacturers intend to cover the markets of the world with their paper substitutes for real clothing… Officials in Washington do not believe that this competition will ever be felt in the United States. The material used in the German product is too coarse and crude to meet with favor here to any extent unless many refinements are adopted.” 

close up of paper fabric

Although paper clothing piqued curiosity, the public remained unconvinced and consumers preferred to wear cloth made of traditional fibres. Ironically, rayon, which was made from chemically processed wood pulp (the same raw material as paper), became the best selling new fibre of the 1920s.

The first book of fashion…

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Schwarz depicted with his employee Jacob Fugger on left, and in an elaborate red and yellow slashed silk outfit. A recreation of this outfit was done by a costumer and is shown in a film on the BBC link at the bottom of this blog.

In 1520, 23 year old Matthaeus Schwarz began a record of his fashionable life. He started commissioning watercolour paintings of himself wearing his latest clothes. For forty years he kept a record of his fashions while he worked as the head accountant for the wealthy merchant and banking Fugger family of Augsburg, Germany.

His well-paid position afforded Schwarz the luxury of his habit for looking good. Starting with an initial commission of 36 pictures to cover a retrospective of his early life to age 23, Schwarz would ultimately have 137 watercolour portraits done of himself, painted by three different artists. When he turned 63 he had the pages bound into a volume, but continued to have portraits done until he was 67 years old.

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The outfit on the left depicts Schwarz wearing a doublet with a remarakble 4,800 tiny snips or ‘pinks’ in the fabric, and on right in four types of mourning dress following his father’s death.

As a member of the emerging middle class Schwarz had the money to dress well but not necessarily the right to wear whatever he chose. He was bound by social conventions and sumptuary laws that forbid certain luxuries or extravagances to those not of noble birth. However, in the typical pursuit of fashion, when something is suppressed something else blossoms to excess elsewhere in the outfit, and Schwarz’ cutting-edge outfits rarely show restraint.

Schwarz married at the age of 41, and although he tried to convince his son to carry on the project, the fashionable pursuit eventually ended, leaving a legacy of the first known ongoing period account of fashion. Schwarz died at the age of 77 and the fashion book was handed down through the family for generations. The book is now kept in a small museum in Braunschweig, Germany. For more information about this remarkable document and a video of one of his pieces being recreated and worn, check out this link.