How Fabric is Made: Visiting the Zuleeg Weaving Mill

I have purchased all materials, patterns, workshops, etc. myself. All opinions are my own.

Last weekend, early September 2019, I attended a sewing retreat hosted by Zuleeg, a German fabric manufacturer/weaving mill located in northern Bavaria. On the first evening of the retreat, we got a tour of the mill and a first-hand look at how fabric is made.

A two-storey building with a white exterior. The sign above the door says "ZULEEG".

I recommend this article for basic information on how weaving works.

Design

Our tour guide was Steffi Romig, the textile designer for Zuleeg. She has the dream job of designing the fabrics that will then be produced. To accomplish this, she uses CAD software, which allows her to get a preview of what the fabric will look like up front. She can define the different colors, weaving patterns and finishes and then print off a “swatch”.

Before this software was available, she had to have a sample woven, which is of course more costly and takes more time. Now, she can go through more iterations faster and needs fewer actual fabric samples.

She also has a library of yarn samples available to help her. Zuleeg has a big warehouse of yarns that can be used to weave their products. Of course, customers can use yarns not available in the warehouse, but then cost and production time increase. So it can be advantageous to make use of the stock on hand.

Once Steffi has finalized the design, she creates a spec sheet containing the details of how to create the fabric. This includes the yarn and color choices as well as the pattern to be woven. For both the warp and the weft threads, a pattern is defined.

Prep

Usually, Zuleeg weaves fabrics in continuous lengths of two to four thousand meters. This means, of course, that the warp threads have to be of that same length. The first step in preparing to weave is to wind the thousands of warp threads onto a warp beam, which is basically a big “spool”. This is done by machine.

Two women stand in front of the drawing machine. It is painted in a muted green. Behind them is a large rack holding thread cones. The rack is the size of a small room.
The woman on the right is in charge of winding the beams.
The different layers of warp thread have to be separated.

Then, each individual warp thread has to be threaded through the eye of a heddle (a flat metal stick). The heddles are suspended from a shaft or harness. During the weaving process, the weaving pattern is created by selectively raising and lowering the heddles as the shuttle moves back and forth.

A long needle moves from the back through the empty heddle and grabs a warp thread. It then pulls it back through the heddle to thread it.
A different perspective of the same process.
The warp harness frame is seen from the side. Eight harnesses can be seen from the side, with the threads running through them.
The finished heddles on their harnesses. Each harness can be raised and lowered independently to create the weaving pattern.

Each warp thread is also threaded through a second metal tab. Should the warp thread break during the weaving process, this tab will fall down onto a conductive plate, which will cause the loom to stop immediately. This allows the loom operator to find the broken thread and repair it as quickly as possible.

A metal frame holds five rows of metal tabs. A single warp thread runs through each tab.
The metal tabs with the warp threads wound through them.

The woman operating this drawing machine told us that this process was still done by hand when she completed her apprenticeship.

Typically, the cost to prepare the warp and set up the loom is around €2,500.

Weaving

Once the warp has been set up, the loom can be set up with it. Zuleeg has several types of looms in use. They have single- and double-beam looms. Double-beam looms use two warp beams and enable weaving of double-sided cloth, with two different patterns on either side.

They also employ looms with different shuttle technologies. The shuttle transports the weft from side to side. We saw rapier looms, which use two small “fingers” to transport the warp. Each rapier goes halfway and then hands off the yarn to the other rapier. Zuleeg also has air-jet looms, which propel the warp from side to side pneumatically.

Behind the warp threads, two rapiers can be seen, meeting in the middle of the loom.
Behind the threads, you can just make out the two rapiers meeting up to pass along the weft.

Quality Control

After weaving, each length of fabric is inspected in order to keep Zuleeg’s error rate down at 0.6%. The inspection room is outfitted with special workbenches with strong lighting. The quality insurance professionals wind the fabric from one beam to another while closely watching for any defects. When they find a problem, such as a knot or doubled-up thread, they can usually repair it so it becomes invisible.

After the fabric is made, it is inspected on a workbench. The workbench is about two meters wide and has a backlit work surface as well as strong lights above. The inspector moves the fabric from one beam to another.
One of the workbenches used for inspection.

In case there are too many defects in a piece of cloth, they will notify the weavers about the issue. Often, debris in the loom causes the issues. A technichian then has to clean it.

A woman repairs a flaw in the fabric by reweaving the pulled thread with a needle and a pair of sharp tweezers. She wears magnifying glasses.
Repair in progress

Finally, the fabric is sent off to another company for finishing and distribution.

About Zuleeg

The company was founded in 1925 and is now one of just a few surviving fabric manufacturers in Germany. The company is now being led by the third generation of the family and has adapted to modern market needs by manufacturing fabrics for fashion as well as corporate wear (think airline and railroad uniforms) and technical textiles (high-visibility, flame-retardant, etc.). They produce over 2 million linear meters of fabric per year.

They’re located in Franconia, a region in northern Bavaria, in a small town named Helmbrechts. Conveniently, there’s also a fabric finishing company (Knopf’s Sohn) in town, which Zuleed also uses. The finisher will wash and treat the fabrics in various ways before they’re sold. They can dye and coat the fabrics, as well as apply solvents (to remove residues from the manufacturing process) and perform mechanical (shearing, milling, crushing…) and chemical (antibacterial, antistatic, latex impregnation…) treatmens.

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