Reviving American Design: Ohio Knitting Mills

Photo courtesy of Ohio Knitting Mills.

As an art school graduate, creating a business centralized around great design was at the forefront of Steven Tatar’s to-do list. It wasn’t until 2005 that he encountered the opportunity of his dreams: reviving an iconic knitwear factory.

Founded in 1927, the family-owned Ohio Knitting Mills flourished for nearly 80 years, and was once recognized as one of the largest American knitwear manufacturers – crafting clothing for labels like Pendleton, Van Heusen and Jack Winter.

Though the mill was instrumental in bringing design to the masses, American-made goods slowly transitioned overseas. Subsequently, Ohio Knitting MIlls closed its doors in 2004.

Just one year later, Tatar was introduced to Ohio Knitting Mills and its rich history. Though only the skeleton of the original mill remained – most of the equipment was sold or scrapped – Tatar was ready to take on the task of reviving what was once an epicenter for American craftsmanship. After five years of studying knitwear and the manufacturing process, the mill began to produce new garments under Tatar’s creative direction.

Now, Ohio Knitting Mills is preparing to take their fourth collection of men’s sweaters to market.

Learn more about Ohio Knitting Mills from President and Creative Director, Steven Tatar, in our exclusive Modern Midwest Q&A.

Modern Midwest: Tell us a little about yourself. What’s your background?
Steven Tatar: I come from a family of design entrepreneurs. I’ve had numerous career zigs and zags since graduating from art school; with a multi-dimensional range of projects and practices. Over the last three decades, I’ve designed and created products, public spaces, architectural interiors, films, programs, graphics, stage sets, and more other stuff than I can remember.

MM: Why did you decide to take on the knitwear industry?
ST: The opportunity to caretake the Ohio Knitting Mills and nurture it back to life literally fell into my lap. I’ve long had a goal of creating a design-based business, and when I discovered the treasure that is the Ohio Knitting Mills, it was almost a matter of recognition that this venture was to be my next calling. I basically simply said ‘yes’ to it, and then set to figuring out how to unfold it.

MM: Ohio Knitting Mills has quite the legacy. Tell us a little bit more about the rich history behind the brand.
ST: The factory was founded in Cleveland, Ohio in 1927 as a manufacturer of knit menswear. It mostly supplied apparel to the middle market, selling its goods exclusively under contract customer’s labels, such as Arrow Shirts and Van Heuson. In 1947, the mill expanded to also produce women’s separates, which were becoming very popular after WWII. Over the next five decades, Ohio Knitting Mills produced a vast range of goods for men, women and children that reflected the vitality, playful color and pattern sensibilities, and optimism of Midcentury Modernism that was disseminating into the rapidly emerging American middle class. Sold across the country by retailers large and small, Ohio Knitting Mills was instrumental in bringing design to the masses during the nation’s expansive postwar era.

Over the next five decades, Ohio Knitting Mills produced a vast range of goods for men, women and children that reflected the vitality, playful color and pattern sensibilities, and optimism of Midcentury Modernism that was disseminating into the rapidly emerging American middle class.
Steven Tatar

MM: How has the mill grown since you revived it?
ST: By the time I took over the Ohio Knitting Mills archive and name in 2005, the original mill had been dismantled, and most of the equipment sold off or scrapped. It took five years for me to learn enough about the actual process of making knitwear and to locate the various necessary suppliers in order to begin producing new Ohio Knitting Mills labeled garments. Now, as we enter 2016, we are preparing to take our fourth full collection of new Ohio Knitting Mills sweaters designed and produced in-house to the men’s market.

MM: Tell us about your design process.
ST: I’m a collector of all things industrial and historic, and have an equal interest in artifacts and ephemera of Modernism. Our studio / factory has practically every flat surface covered with images and objects of all types that I’ve gathered over time; it’s like working in a giant mood board. I let all these different influences marinate over time, and keep one of my pin walls as a landing spot for ideas and images that I think might be an ingredient for an upcoming collection. When it’s time to put together the collection or a project, I will start moving these various parts and pieces around almost as if constructing a dialogue or a narrative. I often have a bit of a theme or storyline in mind to act as a broad framework for making design decisions along the way and to help me edit elements. For me, the biggest challenge in designing isn’t finding my ideas – I feel constantly surrounded by interests and ideas are flowing through me constantly – rather it’s the process of editing and clarifying all my interests into an understandable and accessible body of work that the marketplace can embrace.

MM: What’s unique about your craft?
ST: Knitting is of course an extremely widely used method for producing textiles- over one third of all apparel worldwide is knit, with the balance mostly created by weaving. However, in today’s high-volume, low-cost mass produced world of apparel, knitwear has become an almost generic commodity that has been stripped of so much of its richness and complexity. It’s almost as if knitting is slowly becoming an extinct language, or at least one that is forgetting much of its vocabulary. At Ohio Knitting Mills, we are working towards rediscovering the complexity and diversity of the visual and textural possibilities of knit textiles that was once commonly created, but was left behind with the wholesale exporting of our industry to off-shore low cost manufacturing countries where the price of the product was the most important consideration, and the design language of the product simply didn’t readily translate.

It’s almost as if knitting is slowly becoming an extinct language, or at least one that is forgetting much of its vocabulary.
Steven Tatar

MM: What’s the manufacturing process like? What has stayed the same since the mill’s inception and what has changed?
ST: As was the case when the original Ohio Knitting Mills started, we use industrial knitting machines to create yardage of knit fabrics that are then cut into pattern pieces that are sewn into garments. However, over the first generations of the mill’s existence, they used a type of knitting equipment and a technique called warp knitting, which was a method that made possible the creation of particularly complex textiles with many different colors and yarn types combined into single fabrics. This method of knitting, and the machines that did this production, was very labor-intensive and relatively slow, and required substantial quantities of yarn to execute, so compared to modern methods of production, warp knitting became quite expensive to use. Today, higher speed flat bed knitting machines with digital interfaces produce knit fabrics more cost effectively, but can not produce the same complexity and richness of textiles that were made possible by the older, but slower methods. Also, the traditional garment assembly approach of cut & sew has been largely replaced by linking, which is a method of joining garment seams by sort of knitting together sleeves to bodies, etc. with yarn. This newer assembly method requires less yarn to produce a single garment, so is also more cost effective.

MM: Do you think Ohio Knitting Mills is contributing to the rebirth of the American Knitwear Industry? Why?
ST: I sure hope so! We frequently hear from a wide range of labels, both large and small, asking us to work with them to create knits for their product lines. As practically the entire knitting industry in the USA has moved offshore, today it is very hard to find any mills anywhere that will produce a style in quantities under 300-500 unit minimums. And the focus on keeping costs low has stripped out the expertise and even equipment to create complex and unique products.

But most apparel/fashion designers are producing small, specialized collections, and frequently do not have the resources to effectively work with factories halfway around the world, nor the cash to order quantities of product they can’t be sure they will be able to sell. Also, knitting is a very technical process that requires a lot of expertise where how the fabric is knit must consider the finished garment it is intended for. Wovens on the other hand is far more flexible and forgiving – a designer can create their styles by simply buying woven yardage that fits their vision and intent, and is readily available from many, many sources. At Ohio Knitting Mills, we make an effort to be available to work closely with other designers to help them realize their ideas for their knits and at quantities that make sense for their customer bases and budgets. We educate, assist, and collaborate.

MM: Why is it important to preserve the practice of American-made fashion?
ST: I believe that there is no more fundamental form of cultural expression than what we literally wrap ourselves in, namely the cloths we wear. While it may still be true that there are numerous American fashion designers, the fact that far, far fewer people in this country actually participate in making our clothing (today, approximately only 3 percent of the clothing sold in the USA is made in this country) is deeply concerning. When designers don’t have access to the factories that produce their designs, can’t work directly with the cutters, weavers, knitters, stitchers, pattern-makers, finishers, etc. that actually make their goods, they lose the opportunities of discovery and invention that can only come from getting one’s hands dirty at the source of creation. Imagine if pastry chefs could no longer get their hands on raw ingredients, but were limited in their kitchens to only baking from boxed cake mixes. This is the narrowing and neutering of fashion creation that this country is experiencing as we have abdicated our means of production. And we are losing not only techniques of creation, but also risk the loss of an essential aspect of our cultural voice.

And we haven’t even touched on the more economic and broad social considerations of engaging our own population in manufacturing the products we use. Yes, these are big, important issues that demand our attention.

I believe that there is no more fundamental form of cultural expression than what we literally wrap ourselves in, namely the cloths we wear.
Steven Tatar

MM: Where do you get your inspiration?
ST: Where don’t I get my inspiration? I walk, I travel, I snoop around, I shove things into my pockets, I listen to a lot of music and sounds, [and] I try new things whenever I can. I place a premium on being an interested person, and particularly make an effort to not confine my interestedness to what’s familiar and comfortable to me.

Oddly, I don’t tend to look at much fashion for my design inspiration; this is in part because I believe so much of fashion is self-referential, and because my tastes and curiosity is so much broader. I’m more interested in architecture and engineering, sciences, and cultural anthropology to discover compelling forms. Much of my texture and color palette references landscapes and the natural world. Though I certainly look at art, I’m probably more inspired by world of graphic and communication design and illustration.

MM: Your website is largely oriented towards men’s clothing. Do you have plans to expand into women’s wear?
ST: Absolutely! We are eager to get more deeply into women’s wear, but want to be sure we have the necessary resources in place first. It’s a very different market than the men’s side of the business, so we will need to have sufficient design, marketing, and distribution people and networks under our belts before really wading into that space. Trends in women’s wear change much more quickly than for men’s, and it’s a much larger and more competitive space. We want to be sure that when we enter that world, we’re prepared to be effective and successful.

MM: For you, what makes the Midwest, specifically Cleveland, great?
ST: My daughters always say that Cleveland is a secretly cool city, and I’ve become fond of saying this as well. It’s true. The Midwest seems to almost universally have the balanced combination of vast resources and materials available, totally manageable and reasonable costs, lots of room to spread out and try things and make messes, and plenty of competent and talented people to collaborate and participate with.

And there exists a certain get-it-done sensibility that’s unencumbered by pretense and preoccupation with brand status and social positioning in the Midwest that I find very honest and authentic. I spend a considerable amount of time every year traveling – frequently to the east coast big cities – and while these other places may be exciting and compelling in their own ways, they are also fraught with substantial ass-pain to navigate and afford, and seem increasingly occupied by and even consumed by endless positioning exasperated by an onslaught of social media demands.

Maybe Cleveland isn’t on the bleeding edge of hip and now, but it’s plenty cool with more than ample fascinating stuff happening around town, and the best part is that it’s all accessible. And for those of us who are creating culture here, there is a genuinely appreciative and eager audience that is unjaded and embracing.

MM: What’s one thing someone who isn’t familiar with Cleveland should know about the city?
ST: This town was once at the epicenter of industrial innovation and design. In fact, the profession of industrial design emerged from Ohio. Over the second half of the Industrial Revolution in North America, Cleveland (along with other Great Lakes cities like Detroit, Chicago, and Milwaukee) was the Silicon Valley of the world. We made everything here from books to bridges to boats, including countless amounts of consumer goods that defined popular culture. Many of the built monumental structures in this country – the Empire State Buildings, Hoover Dams, and Golden Gate Bridges – were created with engineering, metallurgy, and machinery created in Cleveland.

In fact, the profession of industrial design emerged from Ohio.
Steven Tatar

MM: What’s something new – or challenging – that you’re working on?
ST: We are attempting to scale and expand Ohio Knitting Mills by entering into joint ventures with other American factories and brands. If we are successful in these efforts, we may well have the tools, resources and partners to dramatically expand our product offerings and market presence while bringing our cost of goods down to a more affordable level. Fingers crossed, and stay tuned!