In The Studio With Karyn Villante of Made*Here New York

As soon as you walk down the steps into the small textile mill near the Norwood neighborhood of the Bronx, you are overwhelmed by a smell similar to your favorite antique furniture store. There is a history here that you can sense over the the whir of the automatic knitting machines. The space is smaller than one would expect, with low ceilings and dust drifting lazily through the air. Being in the mill makes you feel as if you are transported to another time entirely. The mill belongs to Adam Endres and is the manufacturing home to west elm LOCAL maker Made*Here New York.

Made*Here New York is one of those rare companies that has loyalty to its roots, and has never left the neighborhood where it got its start, even when all its local resources dwindled. With more and more American factories moving overseas, a select few have decided to tough it out and keep their production in the U.S. in hopes that more small businesses would follow suit. We are slowly seeing a return of such factories because of people like Karyn Villante, who refused to give up hope on American-made goods.

Karyn, with a little help and moral support from her husband Tom, is the one-woman show behind her business. Her passionate energy and deeply ingrained knowledge of the product is present in everything she does, from raw material to finished blanket and everything in between. After taking a break from knitting to raise her family, she returned to her industry to find a very different scene. The old knitting factories she worked with in Brooklyn and Queens had all closed, replaced with new condos and restaurants.

With a 60% decline of domestic textile mills between 2000-2010, it was no wonder that they were few and far between when Karyn returned. Things are looking up, however. In the last six years, the textile industry has enjoyed a slow but steady resurrection in the U.S. Studies show that since 2009, industrial production is up about 12% for Textile Mills and is continuing to rise year over year. With a lot of determination and a little luck, Karyn was eventually introduced to Adam, who has owned his textile mill in the Bronx for over 35 years. Karyn was immediately impressed with the high quality of his work, and his list of clients including the likes of Liz Claiborne, Maureen Cullinane, and Tricot St. Raphael. They support and respect each others determination for keeping their products high quality and, more importantly, made in New York.

We were lucky enough to be able to spend a morning with Karyn in her textile mill and learn more about her unique business.

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Please tell us a little about yourselves and your work.

I am a graduate of the Fashion Institute of Technology with an Associates in Fashion Design and a Bachelor of Science and Textile Production Management. I worked as a designer for 15 years, domestically designing and producing sweater programs from major retailers such as Saks, Lord and Taylor, Macy’s, and Bloomingdales. I designed sweaters for Women’s, Junior’s, and Men’s. When my second child was born, I left the business world to spend more time with my children.

Flash forward many years later—my daughter, who was twenty at the time, would wear sweaters that she took from my closet. She received so many compliments on the sweaters and she asked me, basically challenged me, to design sweaters again. I decided that I should try— it was so hard to find a nice cotton sweater that was made locally!

It was important for me to manufacture everything here. The factories here are not sweat shops and the makers get a fare wage. Really, there are so many reasons why it is important that jobs are kept in the USA—from the cotton farmers in Texas, California, and North Carolina, to the spinners in the Carolinas as well, and to the knitters here in the New York metropolitan area. There is less of a carbon footprint this way as well, which means less energy spent getting the product to the consumer. I make sweaters in very small batches, and decided to add blankets because they make such a beautiful gift and they are one size fits all! I have fun designing the stitches, and knitting (on the industrial machines) was my specialty at FIT.

You said you left the knitting industry for some time to raise your family. What was the industry like then vs now?

There used to be hundreds of mills here in New York. Now, there are a handful. The industry was booming at one time. Ridgewood, Queens was full of these factories. Knitters were doing so many large programs with major retailers, there was a constant whirring sound of the knitting machines that I loved. Many factories kept cotton in stock, because there was always a need for it. Eventually, the price became a paramount issue and garments made with acrylic, which was much cheaper, replaced cotton. Fast fashion took over. The warehouse of the company I worked at was in the heart of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and it is now a condominium.

A lot of knitting factories are moving out of the United States and overseas. What are the greatest challenges and rewards for you manufacturing your product locally?

It is challenging being a small batch manufacturer. If a knitting mill receives a large order it will typically take precedence over my small order, so planning is key to ensure that I have enough product in inventory at any given time. Another challenge is that yarns react differently with different stitches. Numerous wash tests are done to see how one stitch works with one yarn versus another yarn to ensure a high value quality product.

Rewards are many. Creating a piece of fabric that you envisioned, working closely with local knitters, and seeing the final product come to fruition. Getting positive feedback from customers is amazing. When I’ve done pop-ups at west elm, many customers have said thank you to me, for using American-grown cotton—for keeping it made here!

Where do you seek inspiration?

I get inspiration from so many places. I love textures found in nature, at the beach or by a lake. I love vintage knitting books! Of course I am inspired by my husband and my two daughters, for always believing in me.

Tell us about your studio space.

My studio is an office in my home. I have a “sit and stand” desk from west elm in there. I have cones of yarn, swatches, and different stitches in baskets. I have a small mannequin with a sweater I did for my daughter when she was little.

What does a typical work day look like for you?

No day is typical— that’s what is great! I wear many hats. Some days, I am busy creating new designs, some days I am at a factory, which is where I really love to be. Other days I am planning for upcoming events and pop-ups, photography for my website and social media posts.

Of course, I drink a lot of coffee.

What is it like being a maker in America right now?

People are recognizing the importance of something that is Made In USA! For me, I am hoping that the knitting industry in particular will get a boost from that. I am proud to be a part of it.

What do you love most about New York?

I love the diversity of New York, and all it has to offer. There is so much culture and enrichment to experience here. One think I love are subway performers- those acoustics are amazing!

Top 5 (or 6!) places you need to visit in New York?