Lila’s Own Fabrics
The entrepreneur behind Montréal’s Montloup wants to reinvent the textile industry.
Upon the ruins of a once-flourishing textile industry in Montréal, Lila Rousselet is building a community-based model. It’s a sector with a dirty reputation, but her company, Montloup, produces environmentally friendly textiles for local designers.
She opens a drawer. Little squares of multicoloured fabric are stacked neatly inside, each bearing a tag: organic cotton, bamboo, interlock, jersey, and so on. Designers can feel these and choose the right fabric for their creations. Located in the Saint-Laurent borough, the office is small: fabric rolls are displayed along a wall, and there are no windows. “We try not to spend too much time in here,” says Rousselet.
Even though she aspires to more spacious digs, this location is strategic. The office is situated directly above the Tricots Parisiens Ltée factory, established in 1963, where old circular machines valiantly knit textiles for various uses.
This is where Rousselet’s fabrics and samples are made. “Many people think it’s really simple, making fabric, but it’s not true. You have to find the right thread that goes with the right machine and make sure the machine is run properly.” She has built a partnership with Joseph Leb, the owner of Tricots Parisiens. “Jo is my mentor. He’s the one who taught me everything.” Rousselet is one of the only women to have an office in the factory. Despite her small stature, she isn’t about to let anyone push her around. Over time, she’s grown accustomed to hearing comments about the way she dresses or wears her hair. “It’s an outdated mentality, for sure,” she says.
Thirty-year-old Lila Rousselet didn’t know much about industrial knitting when she set up shop here. But she did know a lot about textile design and the production chain — she hopes to reduce the environmental impact of the latter as much as possible.
Raised in the small city of Oyonnax in the heart of the French Jura, she became interested in fabrics because of her mother and grandmother, who made clothes for her out of material she chose herself. After going to school in Lyon for textile design, she crossed the Atlantic in 2013 and enrolled in a three-year program at the Montréal Centre for Contemporary Textiles, where she teaches today. “In Lyon, the training was very conceptual. I wanted to learn the technical side as well. I wanted to learn how to knit.”
Fabric and machines
A stone’s throw from the Metropolitan Autoroute, a sustained hum sounds from the industrial knitting machines. Rags stuffed under the office door block the noise and dust from the highway. At 83, Joseph Leb is another era’s ideal picture of a boss: strong build, piercing eyes, words employed parsimoniously. He has supported Rousselet since the beginnings of Montloup in 2018. She was flying solo at the time, after a disappointing first experience in business. Leb’s employees taught her how to thread (and unthread) the machines.
Rousselet is not just interested in what can be done with fabric: she also wants to know how it’s made. Her curiosity is rare among textile designers, and lack of training is causing this knowledge to disappear.
For his part, Leb has seen the highs and lows of the textile industry in Montréal since he arrived here from Israel in the 1960s. At the time, making clothes was the largest manufacturing industry in the city by far (and it remained that way until the 1990s). Today a large part of Tricots Parisien’s work is making industrial fabrics “that not everybody wants to do,” says Joseph: hospital sheets, fabric for prisoners’ uniforms, and so on. The rest are clients like Rousselet. “We hope she’s gonna get big orders.”
But increasing her production is not necessarily what Lila Rousselet is after.
“We have to produce better and produce less. Even big players like H&M are turning to organics. That’s good, but if they keep producing in the same quantities, organic won’t be better.”
It’s a statement that’s not in line with the usual model of trying to attain endless economic growth. Unthreading and threading a machine again for small quantities of fabric is very costly. This is why Rousselet has put a system of collaborative pre-sales in place, with base colours. “Most of my clients want the same thing, so the idea is to join forces,” says the entrepreneur.
Rethinking the industry
“In many ways, Lila keeps jumping ahead,” says Leb admiringly. This applies to her business model, but above all to her near-obsessive concern with choosing only the most environmentally friendly materials, in one of the most polluting industries around. Lila does research, rethinks suppliers’ practices, and convinces designers to take part in her whims and experimental projects.
And she’s direct. Alexandre Robin, owner of Mercerie Roger, a screen-printing studio that produces T-shirts, can testify to this. “She won’t tell you that bamboo rayon [which involves the use of chemical agents] is great, even if she does sell it,” he says. For a year now, he’s been working on a more eco-friendly range, from collars without synthetic fibres to the cotton thread used to sew the pieces together, including the least toxic dye possible. “Lila is interested in things — like cotton — that grow already coloured, so we were guaranteed to become friends in an industry where you get resistance the minute you even broach this kind of question,” he explains.
Rousselet shows me a piece of fabric made with pima cotton from South America. It feels surprisingly soft and stretchy. “But it’s definitely not the same as spandex,” she says. She believes that in order to get past synthetic fibres, we need to design clothes differently. Customers must accept items that are a little less fitted. “People want the moon, but you have to make compromises.”
Last year, transport challenges related to the pandemic led to a shortage of organic cotton, a product that’s mainly produced in India. “My goal is that in five years, 100 per cent of my raw materials will come from North America. I think I’ll be able to do it even sooner,” says Rousselet. She mainly offers organic cotton from the United States, but she wants to take this a step further:
“I want to visit the people I work with, have a map of my suppliers, know where the cotton grows and who spins it. I want to know if people are well paid — this is becoming essential.”
She also hopes that one day Canadian hemp, transformed into thread, will be available on a larger scale.
In the factory, Nicolas’* radio, tuned to the Italian AM channel, is barely audible over the noise of the machines. He unrolls a length of freshly knit material to check for imperfections — he points out a dropped stitch that the machine didn’t catch.
Nicolas is 68 years old. He’s been working for Tricots Parisiens for 25 years. “My family in Italy keep telling me to stop!” His eight-to-five days in the factory, enveloped in a fine cotton dust, are numbered. “Jo keeps the place open just for us,” he says.
He and his colleagues are all over 60 years old. Labour shortage has been an issue in the sector for a long time, but Rousselet has an unfazed optimism. “I have faith in life,” she says.
Outside, a nest of house sparrows sticks out over the edge of the building’s crumbling concrete. This species of bird is not native to Québec, but they have adapted, finding shelter and food in the fissures of industrial parks. I can’t help thinking of Rousselet. She, too, has made a nest here, learning from the city’s old structures, and making them new again.
*Joseph Leb, citing the industry’s labour shortage, has asked that the last names of his employees not be revealed.
Eugénie Emond is a freelance journalist. She works with various media outlets, including Radio-Canada.