Picture this: an old workers’ shirt, amid a jumble of clothes at a Berlin flea market. The label shows simply a swan. It is found by a couple, Peter and Gitta Plotnicki, who are instantly impressed by how different it is to anything that they have seen before. They embark on a journey to trace the piece back to its roots, and find out how it came to be. After traveling to the Swabian alps where the shirt was made, they go on to restore to traditional loopwheeler machines used to manufacture it, and begin to use them to produce clothing again. Past becomes present, and Merz. b. Schwanen is reborn. We chat to Gitta about the rich history behind their brand, and the importance of simple, functional items of clothing that feel beautiful on the skin.
Can you tell us a little bit about your journey to founding Merz b. Schwanwen in 2010?
It all started one day at a flea market in Berlin. We found an amazing old workers’ shirt, and Peter was so impressed by the making of the item that he convinced me to track it back to its roots. We had both worked as freelance designers for almost 20 years, yet we had never encountered anything quite like this before. We found out that it had been made in the Swabian Alps, in the south of Germany. That was where our journey began.
How did you find out more about the history behind that single workers’ shirt?
We managed to trace the shirt back to the town where it was originally manufactured, Albstadt. When we went there, we found this whole room full of treasures; loopwheelers dating back from 1920 to 1960. They were so beautiful, and Peter was immediately inspired – he asked me what I thought about the idea of starting to make items on these very old machines. It felt at once ridiculous, but also like a dream to do something like that.
Merz B Schwanen
What was it that fascinated you about the original shirt that you found?
It was just so different to the ones we have today. The first thing that struck us was the surface and structure of the fabric – neither of us had ever seen anything like it. Next, the triangle insert under the arms, used to save on material. It also had these beautiful knitted ribbons on the sleeves, and such a carefully made rayon label with a real shine to it. Modern machines are actually too fast to work with rayon, so most labels are now made from polyester. When it came to making the labels for our garments, we managed to find someone who makes the rayon labels using an old loom from 1890. You can’t just program a pattern in digitally – you have to punch the holes onto a card to input the design into the machine!
Could you tell us a little bit about the loopwheeler machines?
Well to start, a loopwheeler is a mechanical machine which slowly rotates around cylinders to create a long tube consisting of many rows of cotton-yarn. The result is a warped jersey-textile – ‘wirken' in German – with a special structure. Furthermore, for every size shirt that you want to make, and every different section, you need a different machine. To make a simple shirt, the setup of a loopwheeler needs to be changed by hand. which requires a lot of human know-how, skill and experience. This is why only one type or size of product can be produced at a time.The machines also run very slowly and don’t put any tension on the yarn, which in the end makes for a very special structure of the fabric. I personally think the most magical thing is the sound that they make – it’s almost like music. It makes for a very calming, comfortable environment for the workers.
Was it difficult to find people with the skills to operate the old machines?
It took almost a year. We were very lucky because our manufacturer is super technical and he looked into how they worked. He even found retired people in the local town that knew how to work these machines, since they had worked with them before new technology had come along and taken over. They were really happy that their old skills were being used and valued again.
Merz b. Schwanen
What is the story behind your brand’s name, Merz b. Schwanen?
Relatively soon after we started to design and produce our first items, we arrived at a point where things needed a name. At first we wanted to use our surname – Plotnicki – but it just didn’t feel right and in the end we had to trust our instinct that it simply didn’t do it justice. Meanwhile, unbeknown to us, in the Swabian town where all the knitting machines are everybody was talking about these crazy people from Berlin who wanted to work with these old machines. Word got back to the relatives of the original Merz b. Schwanen business, who asked if perhaps we wanted to continue their brand name. In such a simple gesture, they gave us a whole century of history. We even celebrated the handing over of the name with all their relatives – it was a beautiful thing.
How do your current designs reflect your brand’s rich heritage?
One thing that we loved about the first piece we found was the sheer functionality of it. For example, it had ¾ length sleeves, so that they wouldn’t get trapped in the machinery whilst its wearer was working. There was nothing on the piece that didn’t serve a purpose, and we try to bring this ethos to our own designs. It’s this idea of having the courage to know that less is more, and not complicate things too much.
Why is it important to you to work with natural materials?
A lot of the items that we make are base layers, meaning that they are in direct contact with your skin. And how it feels on the skin is one of the most influential factors when it comes to choosing our yarns. We like to work with natural materials, because it feels like they really allow the skin to breathe. But it’s not black and white – when we come across a man-made yarn that feels beautiful on the skin, we're happy to use that too.
Merz b. Schwanen
Where do you go to look for inspiration?
It’s a combination of a lot of things, to be honest. We travel a lot and love people watching, spending our afternoon sitting in a café and looking at what people are wearing. We also absolutely love going to flea markets and vintage clothing markets. We actually have a big archive at of beautiful old garments at in the office. Some people like to collect different things, and we collect clothing! For our colours, we take a lot of inspiration from nature. By simply going outdoors or for a hike we end up seeing all sorts of beautiful shades in the wood and the leaves. In fact, almost all of our colours are natural - we use natural indigo and try to avoid harsh chemical dyes.
Your brand has managed to preserve craftsmanship that dates back to 1911. Do you think that a revival of artisan skills like this should be central to the sustainable fashion movement?
On one hand, I think it’s really nice to appreciate old arts and skills but a lot of recent technological development is truly amazing as well. I think it’s more about starting to be conscious about what is involved in the making of a single piece of clothing, whether that manufacturing process is old or modern. If you think about how many people are involved in making just one item, you can start to revaluate its worth. It all starts with the farmer who grows the cotton, then someone has to pick it, spin it, weave it, cut it and sew it. There are so many steps and so many people involved, so I think it’s enough to be conscious of this and revalue what a new piece of clothing is really worth.
Does your interest in sustainability overlap into other areas of your life, aside from fashion?
The way that we manage our brand is born out of a deep-rooted belief in sustainability that we have had for a long time. For 20 or 25 years now we have been buying and eating organic – even our wedding cake was made from whole grains and buckwheat! At the time, some of our guests maybe thought that was a little strange and weird but for us it just felt and tasted good. We thought it would be really beautiful if we could bring this passion to our business as well.
What is one tip that you can offer to anyone trying to make his or her wardrobe more environmentally friendly?
You don’t have to be too dogmatic and change your whole wardrobe immediately so that everything in it is sustainable. Maybe it’s more about taking care of what you have, making sure to wash and dry everything carefully or mending things if they break. Try to really think it through before buying something new, so that it doesn’t end up hidden away in the back of your wardrobe. Perhaps try to ask yourself if you really need it? When you start shopping mindfully, I think with time your wardrobe will become more environmentally friendly.
Merz b. Schwanen