Merz B. Schwanen
A quality t shirt is an essential
part of any wardrobe. They
are a meditation of simplicity,
comfort, and durability. In a
small factory in south western
Germany, the folks at Merz
B. Schwanen strike a perfect
balance between practical
durability and luxurious comfort.
A Chance Encounter
Last summer, while researching the “Master Craftsmen” project for Japan, I met the husband and wife team Peter and Gitta Plotnicki in New York City at the Capsule trade show. For those of you not familiar with Capsule, it is a trade show of clothing, bags, and objects for men, without all the pretense of high fashion. These are real clothes presented by the people who make them. In most cases you can talk with the owners of your favorite makers of fine goods. Everyone has a story and a history which makes it an enjoyable day of conversation.
When I walked into Merz B. Schwanen’s set up, their muted palate attracts an understated appreciation. On the racks were short sleeves, long sleeves and tank tops in a range of light grays, blues and natural tones. At the front of the line up was a heavily worn shirt that looked like the well loved garment of a factory worker. I asked Gitta if the worn shirt was the same as the newer shirts and if so, why show both? She said they were indeed the same shirts. The shirts pick up such interesting character with wear and washing that they like to show them side by side. The softness that develops is natural, and does not have a faux vintage look to it. Men’s purveyors, unlike women’s, are obsessed with authenticity. The buying crowd is well informed on historic designs and genuine fabrics, so the faux-vintage pieces never stand a chance.
History of the Merz b. Schwanen Factory
Merz B. Schwanen has been based in Swabian Jura since the 1800’s. The t shirts they produce have been coveted for well over a hundred years ago. When Germany was still a collection of waring states, she said that Bavarian soldiers were known to take the Schwanen shirts off the backs of dead Swabian soldiers. I have heard of soldiers during American soldiers taking the gold fillings from Japanese soldiers mouths, or the heavy winter coats from Germans, but I had not heard of anyone taking a undershirt because of its quality. But the German’s have always had an eye for quality, even in t shirts. While I might not go to war over a Schwanen shirt, I can say that they are now a staple in my closet.
Men’s clothes do not change as drastically as women’s clothing. We have a few different styles that sum up or dress, work, and play outfits. Since the silhouette is constant, all of the attention goes into the details. After a lovely chat with Gitta, she said I had to talk to her husband Peter, who was off with some buyers when I arrived. Turns out he is a huge Leica fan and we hours of things to discuss. We started first with the details that he feels make a Merz b. Schwanen shirt different from your run of the mill t shirt.
The Fabric: The original shirts are a specific ratio of cotton to viscose threads. They have played around with the ratios, but found that the original mixture gives the best balance of stretch, comfort and elasticity.
No Side Seam: Most t shirts are made by sowing a front and back piece of fabric together, which creates two seams on either side of the shirt. Merz b. Schwanen shirts are all made on the original circular knitting machines that spin the entire body of the shirt in one piece. Each machine makes one sized shirt. So there is a machine that makes as size 3, a size 4, ect. This creates a limitation to the amount of shirts they can produce, but Peter is happy to have keep the output lower and opt for a finer finished product.
Buttons: The distinctive three buttons on their original button facing shirts are vintage. They are dead stock buttons that are limited in number made from fabric wrapped aluminum. Their all cotton line uses a small horn button instead. When I asked Peter what will happen when the buttons run out, he said “They will be done.”
Sleeves: The sleeves of most of the Schwanen line up are sinched at the end. This tiny detail means the sleeve stays put when slipping on sweaters. It may feel like a tiny detail, but I appreciate not having to re-adjust every time I put on a sweater.
When I asked Peter is he would ever consider expanding and moving he said, “I can’t.” The machines are actually bolted to the factory floor. A single drive train operates all of the circular knitting machines on leather belts. He has a very small number mechanics who know hot to maintain the machines. Even something as simple as changing the fabrics from a cotton/viscose blend to a 100% cotton requires complete retuning of the machine. While I was in Japan at Momotaro Denim, I encountered the same exact phenomenon. The older looms are finicky machines that need constant maintenance. But neither Merz b. Schwanen or Momotaro want to sacrifice the feel of their fabrics for newer machines. Its an admirable commitment to the end product that is more of the exception than the rule these days. I hope to visit Peter and Gitta in the coming months and if so, I will bring back my impressions of the factory at work.
Go Against the Grain
World wide I see a mounting global backlash to cheaply produced goods. More and more, there are small workshops opening, re-opening, or resurrecting the manufacturing skills of the late 1800s and early 1900s. The only difference is that now there are no industrial titans locking workers into their factories. These are home grown, personal operations who pour their heart and souls into their work, their workers, and their products. Companies like Merz b. Schwanen are paving the way for younger people to explore the world, discover a trade that means something to them, and make their passion a reality. As an artist I feel really tied to this concept. I have run the gamut of building things I loved to things I hardly cared about. While its often difficult to put into words, when you can pour yourself into a project the outcome is noticeably more potent.
If you would like to get your hands on some Merz b. Schwanen shirts have a look on their website for a dealer nearest you.
Check out their website: http://www.merz-schwanen.com/en/
Dealers List: http://www.merz-schwanen.com/en/shops/austria/