Today’s guest post was written by Maya Klauber. Her family owns Klauber Brothers, a sixth-generation family business, and creators of Hanky Panky’s exclusive Signature Lace.
“Your family does what?” is the usual reaction when people first learn about my family’s lace business. They seem delighted, puzzled, but mostly shocked at the obscurity of it all. Aside from admiring underwear or the occasional wedding dress, most people have probably never given lace a second thought—maybe not even a first. Like toothpicks or shoelaces, lace is a commodity that enhances our lives, but little consideration is given to how it got here.
While the name of the business is Klauber Brothers and employs almost every male in my family, it was actually founded by a woman. It was 1859 in Munich, Germany when Rosa Klauber started what would eventually become a six-generation family business. She began humbly, making and selling lace out of a simple street cart. In time, she found a market in Germany and was able to move into a multi-story storefront. Since lace was a handmade, labor-intensive and exceptionally ornate textile, some of it was even sold to queens and kings throughout Europe. It continued predictably this way for years, but in the early nineteenth-century, Klauber Brothers and the textile industry changed forever.
An English inventor named John Leavers perfected a lace machine, which was large, cast-iron and extremely sturdy. Companies slowly began acquiring the famed Leavers machines, as they produced elegant and high-quality goods, increased production rate and decreased the manual labor of workers. Like the companies themselves, each machine was slightly different and created laces with varying widths, lengths or patterns. The machines became so valuable and crucial to the business that many people attempted to memorize the design in hopes of reconstructing them and the death penalty was even imposed upon those who tried to smuggle the machines out of the country.
In 1801, a Frenchman named Joseph Marie Jacquard created the “Jacquard card system”, which profoundly enhanced the Leavers machine. The cards, which have several small holes punched into them, are actually read by the machines and store the design information. Each set of cards has a different configuration of holes that allow metal “droppers” to fall through them in varying numbers. At the top of the droppers are wedges of metal and, depending on how many wedges remain, a bar with threads running through it is shifted a specific distance. There are eight of these droppers and anywhere from one to all eight can fall through to create a “throw”, which is the distance that the threads travel. “Bobbins”, which are two small brass disks that have fine thread wrapped between them, are placed inside of a “carriage” that continuously swings back and forth with each motion of the machine. The initial pattern threads are then “twisted” around these bobbin threads to form the lace design. This is why the person who runs the machine is called a “twist hand.” Technically, Leavers lace was not woven or knitted—it was twisted—which was an entirely unique way to form a fabric. For the first time, a machine used punch cards to control its operation. For this reason, Jacquard cards and Leavers lace machines are actually considered to be one of the first computers. Like all progress, this was met with mixed reactions. While the French Government honored Jacquard, some of the workers who had lost their jobs because of his breakthrough, were very hostile to his innovation.
“I really think these machines ensured the survival of our company,” says my father Mark Klauber, the fifth generation and current head of Klauber Brothers. “The lace that they produce looks handmade—the quality is just beautiful.” He adds, “The modern machines have been designed for speed, low-prices and cannot create as intricate or delicate a lace.” The Leavers machines can also work with several types of thread—cotton, nylon, polyester, metal, stretch and, as the concern for the environment increases, even bamboo and organic cotton. Since the American demand for lace has declined over the years, most companies (especially small ones) haven’t lasted. Klauber Brothers currently owns virtually all of the Leavers machines left in this the U.S.A., but there is certainly more to the survival of this company.
Before and during World War I, the company was thriving in Germany. It had the ability to produce considerably more lace at a higher quality, and began selling it both retail and wholesale to clothing makers and larger corporations. The market expanded and, in addition to beginning its own lingerie line, Klauber Brothers began selling to areas like the United States, England, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. When suppliers or competitors would retire, the company would acquire their machinery and slowly expanded in this way. This small company had overcome financial strife, utilized groundbreaking technology and expanded a once tiny, one woman, business into a growing and successful enterprise. Despite all its initial obstacles, it became clear over time what the family’s greatest challenge would be—their Judaism.
In the 1930s, as Adolph Hitler and the Nazis rose to power in Germany, everything began to change. It became harder for Jews to do anything, let alone own a successful and expanding business. Many new and restrictive laws were enacted, and soon Jews were forbidden to own businesses of their own. The Nazis wrote a letter to the Klauber family, forcing them to sell the company to an Aryan business for almost nothing. In 1935, the S.S. came to the business and upon finding my great grandfather Ludwig Klauber, who was the third generation head of the company at the time, savagely beat him throughout the night. Shortly after that, the family received an anonymous letter warning that “all dirty Jews must leave.” My great-grandmother, Alice Klauber, met several German men by a train station one evening and officially signed over the business. Having read Mein Kampf, Hitler’s 1925 autobiography that detailed the political ideology of Nazism, my great uncle Ernst Klauber realized how dangerous he truly was and, it was because of this, that most of the Klauber family was able to flee on the SS Manhattan in 1939. It ended up being the last boat to America.
While the Klaubers had made the painful decision to forfeit the company, it is believed that the anonymous letter actually came from a friend of the family who was warning of impending danger. On a horrific November night, which is remembered as Kristallnacht (“The Night of the Broken Glass”), thousands of Jewish homes and shops were desecrated as civilians and storm troopers destroyed buildings with sledgehammers and left streets covered in smashed windows. Jews were beaten to death; 30,000 Jewish men were taken to concentration camps and 1,668 synagogues were ransacked and set on fire. Aside from their good fortune and success in business, the Klaubers were now blessed in a profoundly different way.
Today, the company is in New York City, where it was restarted in 1943. My grandfather, Roger Klauber, was only eight when he had to be sent out of Germany to a boarding school in Switzerland because of the growing threat of Nazism. He and his family barely escaped from France in 1939. He attended textile high school and worked diligently in lace factories and later served his country, first in the ski troops and later in the intelligence corps. After the war, he worked as a salesman for Klauber Brothers and ventured to many new areas, such as Cuba. Throughout these formative years in America, the company recognized the importance of remaining open-minded to the rest of the world. Because of this, Klauber Brothers was able to share design and business concepts with several countries and my father believes that it was “these alliances that really enhanced the business and gave it a great chance at survival.” Josh Klauber, my brother and sixth generation in the business today, essentially continues the work of my grandfather in making Klauber Brothers a global company. He recalls entering the business “as a salesman on a whim and with no knowledge whatsoever.” He soon realized that “not only did he like it, he loved it and explained that “he enjoys the job because “he gets to work with interesting people and spend every day continuing an important family tradition.” He even hopes to “pass it on to a seventh generation.” Josh and other salesmen sell thousands of lace patterns to almost every country imaginable, as the business has expanded to South America, Canada, Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zealand.
Lace has a very important advantage over other textiles in this world—the patterns are all unique and copyrighted. Each design is essentially a piece of artwork. Unlike most lace companies today, Klauber Brothers has two highly trained artists on staff who pay close attention to fashion trends, experiment with colors and consider the needs of customers.” My father, who is also commonly involved with design says that “it is the creative process that I really enjoy. I tend to look to nature, art, old books or old patterns for ideas. Sometimes I just wake up with them in my head.” He explains the importance of “listening to the needs of customers, but also leading with your own ideas.” In the thirty seven years he has worked in the business, he has memorized every, single one of the company’s thousands of pattern numbers and can recall them instantly. “It’s a weird knack I have,” he says, “but I think it’s the same reason this company has survived over since 1859—we all care deeply about this family and what we do every day.”