Textiles, once a signature craft of Philadelphia industry, teeters on the brink of extinction, with 178 companies left in a city that once housed many times that.

There are hopes of sustaining the sector - mainly by connecting it with a younger generation of more design-oriented artisans.

But to do so, the textile-manufacturing sector must overcome a daunting calculus: Are enough skilled workers available in the Philadelphia area to keep the existing companies alive long enough for the young entrepreneurs to grow enough business and expertise to sustain them?

As Philadelphia's factories closed, their workers moved on - and now manufacturers here say it's a challenge to find the skilled workers they need.

"If you want to find a sewing operator, or someone who knows how to cut fabric, or someone who knows how to dye fabric, or fix a knitting machine, those are hard competencies to find," said Mark Sunderland, assistant dean of design, engineering, and commerce at Philadelphia University, founded in 1884 as the Philadelphia Textile School.

On Wednesday night, however, the optimists convened in Frankford at the first gathering in recent memory of the city's textile sector. Old-line manufacturers and the young artisans met and mingled at Global Dye Works, a former textile factory that is now a warren of artists' studios.

Steve Jurash, head of the Manufacturing Alliance of Philadelphia, and Karen Randal, director of the city Commerce Department's office of business attraction and retention, organized the event.

"All too often we hear that manufacturing is dead in Philadelphia," Jurash told the group. To him, the fact that 178 textile manufacturers remain is proof that "manufacturing is very much alive."

But, as he said Wednesday, 56 percent of local textile manufacturers surveyed said they had trouble attracting skilled workers.

"The thing that concerns me the most is that the average age [of textile employees] is 49," Jurash said. "Who is coming up behind them?"

"No one," someone in the group called out.

Decades ago, the city's textile industry employed thousands of Philadelphians. Now the average company employs 13.

Even as recently as 2001, 4,500 people worked in textile and apparel manufacturing in Philadelphia, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. By 2010, that number dropped below 2,100.

The fading of Philadelphia's textile sector is not just attributable to the global push for cheaper labor. "It was the growth of the mass consumer market," said Walter Licht, a University of Pennsylvania history professor.

"Our textile industry was highly specialized and did not compete with the large-scale, standardized cloth producers of New England," he said.

In Philadelphia, before a fabric got to a cutting floor, it might have moved through a half-dozen companies, each highly specialized in a component of fabric manufacturing, from spinning to dying to finishing.

The result was a high-quality product that attracted high-quality, high-cost manufacturers. But mass consumption, fueled by the rise of stores like Sears, Roebuck & Co., required low-cost mass production - not Philadelphia's strong suit, Licht said.

Even today, the remnants of Philadelphia's textile industry reflect that heritage - high craftsmanship and high specialization for niche markets. In fact, that characteristic fuels Jurash's and Randal's hopes for collaboration between the young artisans at Wednesday night's event and the old-line manufacturers who still operate plants in the city.

For example, in attendance were David Littlewood, owner of G.J. Littlewood & Son, founded in 1869, the oldest surviving dye house in Philadelphia, and partners Mira Adornetto and Elissa Meyers, founders of BlueRedYellow, a city dye business so fledgling that the company doesn't have a phone number.

Randal said she hoped the event would connect design students from the region's universities with companies able to sew, create patterns, cut fabric, create specialty dyes, create specialty fabrics, and manufacture samples.

"We graduate these wonderful trained designers," she said, who move to New York or abroad to manufacture.

Designer Sarah Van Aken had been manufacturing her line in Bangladesh. Now her factory, S.V.A. Holdings Corp., employing 14, sits atop her Sa Va Center City boutique.

"My youngest employee is in her 40s, and there is no one coming up behind them," Van Aken said.

The workforce at CSH Inc., a custom cutting and sewing house in Port Richmond, is mainly Asian, recruited by owner Steven Levin's manager, Mai "Lilly" Yau. She learned the trade in Hong Kong and hires immigrants who gained their experience in China and Cambodia.

"I remember when high schools had classes [in industrial sewing]," Levin said. "They used to come to my factory on field trips."

At Littlewood in Manayunk, master lab technician Bill Cook mixes dyes and solutions. He spent part of a morning fine-tuning a sky-blue hue to be used in paint-roller covers sold by a big hardware store chain.

"The lab technician is one of the hardest jobs to find," said Cook's boss, David Littlewood.

It takes skill and experience to know which dyes are appropriate with each material, to make sure the color holds when viewed in daylight, artificial light, or in something akin to sunset lighting, and then finally to calculate manufacturing costs, striking a balance between quality and expense.

As Cook worked in the lab, the employees, largely unskilled, loaded fibers into vats to be dyed a rich gold - also for paint-roller covers, these bound for a rival chain.

Littlewood ships the dyed fibers to a fabric manufacturer that weaves them into a material then affixed to a paint roller, which is wrapped in plastic and goes on the shelf in the store.

Cook handles the initial chemistry and David Littlewood's brother, James, the head dyer, has the skills to make adjustments in the course of the dying process. Both men are in their 50s. The youngest local industrial dyer they know is 30, the nephew of one of their competitors.

Sunderland, the associate dean, said Philadelphia University, despite its broadened focus, still graduates students with enough technical textile expertise to contribute at Littlewood's.

"But, then, what's their advancement?" he asked. "How would they move up?"

Sunderland applauds the effort to stitch together a new textile community, aligning old-line manufacturers with the city's fashion designers, including graduates of his school. He also points to new users of speciality textiles, particular biomedical firms.

"I am optimistic about the textile industry in Philadelphia," he said. "I think there are a lot of opportunities."

Contact staff writer Jane M. Von Bergen at 215-854-2769, jvonbergen@phillynews.com or @JaneVonBergen on Twitter.