The loss of mechanical machines

When I was a kid, we used to go on field trips to a local textile factory. There was one machine that sat separately in a large production hall. The manager proudly explained that it was an electronic loom and it could reproduce exactly and quickly any design you enter in its computer memory.

Twenty years later, all looms are electronic. But during my summer visit to Northern Italy, the cradle of the famed textile and fashion industry we all admire, I was surprised to hear people speaking of mechanical looms with nostalgia. Something has changed in the last decades and it’s not just cheap Chinese competition. The machine as we know it is gone, quietly.

I had the chance to visit a small family-owned textile factory North of Milan and was allowed to take pictures. The owner wasn’t interested to appear in one of them, though, even when I offered him the resulting images to use in any way he wanted, for free. He had become very, how shall I put it, unenthusiastic about his business. Something has changed that’s altered the industrial landscape and the culture of production.

See, this is the only mechanical loom in the factory. While it’s severely outdated, the owner has kept it because it’s the first loom his father bought 50 years ago when they opened the factory and joined the Italian economic boom. He is now using it for small orders only. It’s his good luck charm.

I don’t want to wax poetic, modernistically, about machines. But there’s something more important we lose when we replace machines with computers. In fact, computers are not really machines, since their main function is not about raw force and movement. It’s about commanding movement. When we lose mechanical machines (what a mouthful!), we lose our personal connection to how things work as we’ve relegated that commanding task to a computer. We lose wonderment of how things work. There’s something touchy-feely about moving those steering wheels by hand, just as making your own photos by hand instead of taking it. Wheels, one of the most interesting and useful designs invented by humans. They tell a story through the moving thread they help propel.

See, for example, this electronic loom, producing underwear trimming. You can’t really see how it works. You can see something nice coming out of it, but you have no access to the creation process.

Not only that, but also attitudes to what these machine produce have changed, too. We take so much we have in our modern lives for granted. Some 50 years ago lace was a luxury item. Today nobody cares about such beauty just because it’s created by a machine at such a low price.  For example, I like this lace, but would hardly wear a dress with it. It now carries connotations of a specific style that I and most people I know don’t identify with.

This space in the factory has been cleared up because more machines are expected. So, the process of mass production and high volume is bound to continue…

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