Pioneer of the Needlework Industry
By Rita Vainius
By all accounts Joan Toggitt was diminutive in stature, barely 5 feet tall, but her status in the needlework world became that of a giant and her name is legendary. Most of the people who knew her agree that while did enjoy knitting and crocheting she was not overly involved with that aspect of the business. Her talents lay elsewhere.
Joan Toggitt was born in 1907 into a wealthy Jewish family in Vienna, Austria. Her father was the first Jew to be presented at the court of Franz Joseph. She had a privileged childhood and enjoyed all the cultural and educational opportunities available to the affluent society of the day. At a young age, she contracted polio and credited her governess with saving her life and consistently requiring her to exercise to regain the use of her legs. In time, Joan was again able to walk and eventually even play tennis, though in later life she developed a limp and became increasingly crippled.
As a young woman Joan married a man whose father was the chief Rabbi of Prague. When the Nazis occupied Austria, Joan, along with her husband and mother, were among the last Jews to leave while this was still possible, intending to emigrate from Europe via Holland. They were turned back and subsequently ended up in Spain where they were able to book passage on a freighter. They did not even know where it was bound until they embarked. The destination was Shanghai.
Arriving in the late 1930's they decided to settle there along with many other Jews who had fled to China from their homelands in Europe. Having some knowledge of needlework, Joan noticed the excellent quality of the handwork produced by the native women of Shanghai. She had a cousin in England with a connection to Paton's (a large yarn and thread company) and Joan conceived of the idea of importing yarn to make into gloves and socks. She set up a cottage industry, hiring the local women to knit them and then exporting the finished product to a select group of outlets overseas such as Abercrombie and Fitch in New York. This venture is indicative of Joan's prescience: she spotted opportunities where others did not and knew how to turn them into lucrative enterprises. Her business was successful and she continued it throughout the war and even after the Japanese had occupied Shanghai. An anecdote she related many years later described how the Japanese invaders would stop her rickshaw, but she refused to bow to them and pay homage as the Chinese were forced to do; one example of her indomitable character.
"She set up a cottage industry, hiring the local women to knit them and then exporting the finished product to a select group of outlets overseas such as Abercrombie and Fitch in New York."
While in Shanghai both her mother and husband died, but Joan decided to stay on because it had become her home and she was operating a profitable business which she had expanded over the years. In 1949, when Mao Tse Tung was in power, he decided to kick all foreign companies out of China and required them to pay reparations to the communist state. This left Joan virtually penniless and without a homeland once more, this time without any immediate family to cushion the blow. Forced to abandon her home and the business she had worked so hard to establish, Joan intended to resettle in England where some cousins offered to help her get back on her feet
En route from China to Great Britain, Joan decided to make a stop in New York to visit a former professor from Vienna who lived there. They fell in love, were married and Joan began life over in the US. She got work as a secretary at a lumber company, but harbored more ambitious plans for the future. Through her contacts in England she began importing books like the Shakespeare plays which she sold at book fairs. She made the acquaintance of a stationary buyer for the McCreary's Department store chain who mentioned that she loved the cards that used to be available from a source in Vienna. No sooner said than done: Joan tracked down the company and began importing them along with the books. In the evenings, Joan, with her husband's assistance, would unpack the crates of merchandise, assemble the orders and price them for delivery. During her lunch hour at the lumber company, Joan would hustle around New York City searching for new customers. She got requests for embroidery books and added these to her product line. Along with these books, women began to ask for fabrics. Many immigrant Jews had become involved in the textile and apparel trade and Joan used these contacts to expand her merchandise and network of clientele. Someone asked if she could procure the European pre-worked canvases which had been so popular before the war and finding them led Joan back into the needlework field. To say that Joan Toggitt was enterprising is a gross understatement.
Slowly but steadily Joan built her business constantly discovering new products to import and finding outlets for them. It was through her efforts that many European companies were first introduced to the US market. Through her determination and dogged persistence, Joan eventually became the exclusive US representative for several companies. Zweigart, a manufacturer of embroidery fabrics and canvases, was one of the largest and most prestigious of these.
"It was through her efforts that many European companies were first introduced to the US market."
By the early 1960's Joan had established herself with offices on Vanderbuilt Ave. in NYC. The business was thriving and she was constantly adding new products to her line necessitating an increase in storage space. This resulted in relocating the business, first to Broadway and finally to Fifth Ave., where she maintained her offices until her death. She did not limit herself to only fabrics; her line ran the gamut of needlework paraphernalia: threads, books and pamphlets, patterns, accessories and whatever else her customers wanted. Whenever a client asked for an item she did not have she immediately replied that she would get it. She was as good as her word. Joan became expert at tracking down even the most obscure merchandise. As a result she acquired a reputation in the industry as "The Person" to go to for information, products, contacts and advice.
Along with her marvelous detective skills, Joan had an exceptional talent for connecting the right people with each other, such as a designer looking for an appropriate publisher, a small company looking for a distributor, etc., to the benefit of both parties. Many in the needlework industry found new markets, were launched into business or set on their career paths as a direct result of her efforts. Joan was the acknowledged authority if you were serious about any aspect of the needlework trade. As a salesman she was exemplary and her unique personality inspired a singular loyalty and admiration in those who got to know her.
As Joan grew older and had more difficulty walking and getting around, the phone and telex machine became her lifelines. She was constantly talking to people and took a personal interest in their lives. Many have commented that "Joan knew everything about everyone". She kept abreast of trends and used her highly developed intuitive sense to anticipate the changes that lay ahead. Though handicapped, Joan maintained a level of independence and industry no one else seemed able to match. As one long time employee exclaimed, "She was a tiny little thing , but sharp as a tack!". Small as she was, her handshake was severe and her personality and demeanor could be somewhat intimidating. Upon acquaintance, it was evident that one had to earn her respect.
Though she was strong willed, she welcomed business advice and did not dismiss suggestions by those who worked for her. Joan developed a policy of giving away free samples of new merchandise realizing that it would be promoted by the designers, distributors or retailers who were the recipients, and ultimately yield her the greatest returns. She was generous in her personal life as well. A close friend recounts that when she told Joan that she was searching for an old and rare book on Judaica, Joan brought her to her apartment where she had a large library which included a collection of rare books on Judaica published in Prague from as early as the 1700's. Joan gave her the liberty to choose one and when her friend had done so, insisted she choose yet another.
"Joan developed a policy of giving away free samples of new merchandise realizing that it would be promoted by the designers, distributors or retailers who were the recipients, and ultimately yield her the greatest returns."
As a romantic, Joan loved the arts and opera in particular. Often at lunchtime she would go over to the Museum of Modern Art and partake of her lunch amid the sculptures in the garden. Joan was passionate conversationalist about human nature and history, though not her own. In the 1970's Scribner's, a well known book publisher, approached her with a proposal to print her autobiography, but she refused. One of her remarkable qualities was a strength of character which prevented her from feeling sorry for herself and she bore no resentment or bitterness for the pain and sacrifices she had endured. But she did not want to ever look back.
When Joan's husband died, she was devastated and suffered a breakdown, which was probably a cumulative result of the many other losses and upheavals she had endured. She was unable to work and had to close her offices for a short time to recuperate. In the interim many of the companies she repped gave their business to others. To their credit, Zweigart remained loyal and awaited her return. When she recovered from her grief, she came back renewed, more enthusiastic and even more resourceful than before.
While she was still their exclusive represantative, Zweigart bought out her company and relocated their warehouse space to New Jersey. Joan kept her offices on Fifth Ave. and retained her independence in running the business as before. But after the turnover her heart was not in it and some close friends feel that she lost her will to live.
Joan Toggitt died in 1984 at age 77. Her name is still synonymous with the needlework industry and no one else has ever come close to her caliber. Some think no one ever will.
Joan Toggitt Ltd. located in Somerset, New Jersey continues to be the exclusive Sales and Marketing office for Zweigart in the US.
A sincere thanks to Rosemary Drysdale, John Melton and Nettie Wasserman who shared their reminiscences of Joan Toggitt and provided the information for this profile.
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