First published in The Record, October 6, 2017
In a dying industry, an embroidery factory survives on loyalty
In North Jersey, once the 'embroidery capital of the world,' Ed Parseghian keeps his Guttenberg factory open out of devotion to his workers.
Edgar Acosta woke up a little after 3 a.m., and he was out the door by 4.
He walked a mile up Main Avenue in Clifton to Van Houten Avenue, where he waited 10 minutes for a jitney bus. He climbed inside and bounced in the predawn dark to Union City, where he stepped into a bodega to buy a small cup of coffee. Then he caught a second jitney north, up Bergenline Avenue into Guttenberg.
He walked the sidewalk on 69th Street, stopping outside a one-story building where a faded sign bolted to the yellow brick reads “Stitch-O-Matic.” But that company, like hundreds of other embroidery factories in New Jersey, closed years ago.
Acosta stuck his key into the lock. He turned it, walked inside, and flicked on three banks of white fluorescent lights. It was 5:23 a.m. Acosta has worked for Deerbrook Fabrics for 37 years, and he has made this arduous commute for the last seven. He has never been late.
This is Acosta’s daily ritual of loyalty to the company and its owner, Ed Parseghian.
“I like working with Ed. I like working with the machines,” said Acosta, 58. “If this factory closed, I’d have problems.”
Parseghian, 88, returns Acosta’s devotion with his own daily act of loyalty: keeping Deerbrook Fabrics open. Most of his local competitors closed more than a decade ago, victims of cheaper imports from Mexico and China and their own failures to modernize, said Silvio Laccetti, a former history professor at Stevens Institute of Technology who worked to save the industry but wound up documenting its collapse.
Deerbrook shrank, but did not die. At its height, the company employed a total of 80 people at its corporate office in Fairview and in factories from Fort Lee to Union City, said Luis R. Piñas, the company’s production manager.
Parseghian closed the Fairview office this summer. He spent his own money to consolidate operations — and his four remaining employees — into the Guttenberg factory. The company lost money for years, Parseghian said. Now he barely breaks even.
This factory does not operate according to the rules of profit and loss. This factory runs on loyalty.
“I have dug deep into my own pocket to keep it going,” said Parseghian, of Franklin Lakes. “Why? I’ve had employees with me a long time. Good people. You don’t just walk away from that. I have an obligation to them.”
'Embroidery capital' no more
Every day, thousands of people drive east on Route 495 toward the Lincoln Tunnel under a sign that reads “Welcome to North New Jersey. Embroidery Capital of the World Since 1872.”
The sign is a holdover from another era, when embroidery companies dominated the economy of small cities in Hudson County and southern Bergen County. The location allowed them to be close to New York’s garment district, and to tie the moorings of their heavy churning looms into the bedrock of the Palisades cliffs. The machines sewed decorative designs and multiple layers of fabric onto cloth used to make lingerie, military uniforms, sleeping bags, coats, T-shirts, and other woven products in need of ornamentation.
“We did a lot of bras,” said Parseghian, who dedicated one of his looms to sewing the same flower onto the same bra for the same lingerie company from 1975 through 2012. “The undergarments industry was very good to us.”
Now, however, the boastful highway sign is untrue. The number of embroidery factories in Hudson County dropped from 400 in 1996 to about a dozen today, Laccetti said. The sign itself was painted by an industry association that closed in 2001.
“Right around 2000, it all fell apart,” Laccetti said.
In addition to foreign competition, many companies failed to invest in modern looms, Laccetti said.
“I saw owners who, the first sign that things were not going to work out, they just closed the doors and let their workers go,” said Piñas, who worked for other embroidery companies before joining Deerbrook 24 years ago. “Eddie is not like that. He’s fighting for this.”
Parseghian is one of just a few who tried to keep up. In 1997 he paid $750,000 for a computerized loom by the Saurer company that is faster than his two old machines, which sew patterns based on patterns cut into long spools of paper. Unlike the old machines, which were built in 1955 and can sew only one color of thread at a time, the newer one can sew four colors simultaneously on wider panels.
“This machine saved the business,” Parseghian said, pointing at the long gray loom.
The machine certainly helped. But there’s another reason his company endured as so many competitors dropped away.
“If he were looking at the bottom line, he would have closed in the 1990s,” Laccetti said. “It’s the loyalty, which goes both ways. Ed is loyal to his workers, and they’re loyal to him.”
A hands-on owner
It was 8 a.m. on a recent Wednesday, and Francisco Colon was struggling to keep up with the computerized loom. The machine had finished sewing a series of ornate purple crosses into a long sheet of white fabric, to be turned into church vestments. Now Colon needed to replace the finished product with a new length of cloth more than 17 feet long.
Parseghian started working in a neighbor’s embroidery factory in West New York in 1946, at age 16, after his father died and left the family with no income. Seven decades later, he still knows how to do much of the work himself. When he saw Colon racing around, Parseghian approached the loom and started pinning the sheet to the machine’s long row of metal hooks himself.
“I try to help out where I can,” Parseghian said.
Parseghian co-founded Deerbrook in 1969 with a pair of brothers whom he later bought out. He could have retired decades ago. Instead he comes to the factory.
“Eddie doesn’t have to wake up in the morning to come to work every day for his own needs,” Piñas said. “He could be fishing.”
Colon did retire. But after a career as a truck driver, mechanic and electrician, now he drives from his home in the Bronx to work at Deerbrook, paying $10.50 every day to cross the George Washington Bridge.
“He doesn’t have to be here. He could find work in New York without coming over the bridge,” Piñas said. “But he’s here every day. He loves it.”
Egma Cardenas is the factory’s last remaining hand sewer, fixing dropped stitches when the loom thread breaks and sewing on leaders that attach fabric to the machines. It is numbing, detailed work that was easier before the company downsized. Now she works beside the looms, struggling to concentrate through their churning din.
“She could be at home getting her kids off to school,” Piñas said, “but instead she’s here.”
The person at Deerbrook with the most to lose is Piñas himself. He has a wife, 5- and 10-year-old sons, and rent on a house in Harrison. He has pinned it all on Deerbrook.
“We knew in the ’90s that overseas competition was going to be a problem,” he said. “I knew what I was playing with. I took a chance. Nobody forced me.”
Now Piñas is 47. He has a little time left to return to school and build a new career, he figures.
And yet he stays. He runs the factory, finds new customers, sends out invoices, orders supplies, does the bookkeeping, makes deliveries, and helps out on the machines. Loyal to the end.
“Eddie is a very fair guy. He’s loyal,” Piñas said. “I saw that in him. And that’s what made me stay with him.”