Right opposite the house where we live, in the heart of our Swiss valley, there is an old factory. Seeing it never fails to make me feel a bit sad, not only because its closing, some thirty years ago, was a huge shock for the village, but also because la Dubied, as it was known, had a close relationship not only to the world of textiles, but also to the world of knitting.
In 1867, a young man called Henri-Edouard Dubied came back to his native Switzerland from the Paris Universal Exposition and created a knitting machine factory, having bought the production rights of a small knitting machine invented by the American clergyman (of course, there has to be a clergyman in the story) Isaac W. Lamb. These first machines were probably rather similar to the one featured in the advertisement below. Working circularly, they were meant to produce tights and stockings.
They were powered by a hand crank and produced long tubes of knitted fabric. This meant their users still had quite a bit of work to get a sock out of them, as socks basically are two tubes of fabric joined together at an angle by the heel. Knitting short rows for the heels and decreasing the toes involved a lot of fiddling with the machine’s needles, and the grafting of the toes and, of course, the weaving in of yarn ends still had to be done by hand. (This Youtube video demonstrates how a similar, century-old sock knitting machine works).
Some of the machines produced in the Dubied factory were sold to textile factories specializing in hosiery, but they were also meant to be bought by women looking for a way to add their contribution to the finances of their family by selling tights or stockings. They made it possible to knit one pair of socks in two hours.
This 1933 French advertisement says : “I earn a good living by knitting on a DUBIED machine. Learn at home for free.” By this time, the knitting machines, as you can see at the bottom of the ad, were long, horizontal and made it possible to knit sweaters.
Paul-Edouard Dubied, Henri-Edouard’s son, became an engineer and perfected the machines by adding a motor. One generation later, they evolved into the Wevenit knitting machines, used to produce double jersey fabrics — quite a long way from their hand-powered ancestors. These machines were extremely popular and sold well, particularly between 1967 and 1972, a period where the consumers’s appetite for double jersey fabrics was ever growing.
Dubied’s Wevenit knitting machines were used above all by factories producing tracksuits like these ones. 1972 was a fatal year for Dubied. The growing concurrence, in particular of knitting machines produced in China, caused a sudden collapse of the market. Dubied never quite recovered from it, though it managed to survive for another 15 years. When it closed in 1987, it was still providing work for 750 people, and its end was a catastrophe for our village and its 3.000 inhabitants.
The site was huge, but the parts closer to our home still retain something of their former glory. The building featured below was dubbed “the neckties’s tower”, because the commercial offices used to be housed in it. Nowadays, they have been transformed, I think, in flats, as the curtains you can glimpse at some windows seem to evidence. I particularly like this building because of the big fresco, whose painter I couldn’t identify, adorning its front.
On this picture, you can guess it on the left side. I’d say it dates from the fifties, but that would need a confirmation. It depicts a young woman, wearing a traditional Neuchatel attire, keeping watch on a small flock of sheep all while knitting stockings on DPNs. The scene is set in a scenery typical of the surrounding Jura mountains, with its soft green hills and peaks and its fir trees. I all at once like the painting and its vaguely cubist style, its colours, the way it strongly links the production of knitting machines with long-lived local traditions ; and yet I can’t help smiling whenever I see it, because the artist who made it clearly had no idea of how knitting actually works.
Look how the stocking, proudly shown by the young shepherdess to the occasional passer-by, connects to the knitting needles ! Does it connect at all, anyway ? It seems to be simply folded over the DPNs and hanging from both sides.
Then there is another mystery : how on earth does she get a green sock from a yellow ball of yarn ? Or is that a yellow stripe you can see on the right of the stocking ? Then would it mean she’s knitting it sideways ? On DPNs ?
Still, I like her and like paying her visits whenever I can — after all, she’s just across the street. She’s one of these characters who make me feel a mysterious, knitterly connection. Maybe I should go and knit a sock in front of that picture.
As for the Dubied factory, its buildings are fortunately not abandoned to a slow decay. They have been restored and now house small businesses and start-ups.
This is a good thing, because the main hall, under its huge glass ceiling, encased between glass walls and doors, is an architectural beauty which is now offered a second life.
I’m not sure if visiting it is possible, but that’s certainly something I should like to do.
And the day I do, I’ll bring a knit along… to close the circle.