Category Archives: Southern Textiles

Lily Mills of Shelby, North Carolina

We tend to think of the textile industry as makers of fabrics, but there really is a huge range of products that can be classified as textiles.  My state, North Carolina, has long been a grower of cotton, and much of the industry here involved the production of cotton products.  Much fabric was made, especially in the big denim mills like Cone, and also jersey knits were an important product.  Equally important were products like towels, socks, stockings, and bedding.  But one of the largest components of the industry was the spinning of yarns.

Lily Mills was located in Shelby, on the edge of cotton country in the piedmont of North Carolina.  It was founded in 1903 as the Lily Mill and Power Company by John Schenck.  It was one mill of a growing industry in the area, and by the 1940s, there were twenty spinning mills in the Shelby area, some of which were also making products that were then marketed by Lily Mills.

The range of products made by Lily is pretty amazing, everything from regular sewing thread to yarns for handweaving to heavy rug yarns.  To help promote their yarns they also published instruction booklets and marketed small looms for the home weaver.

Probably one of the most interesting things about Lily Mills was their relationship with the Penland School Of Crafts.  Penland, located near Spruce Pine, North Carolina, continues to be a highly regarded school for craftspersons.  In the late 1940s Lily Mills helped finance the Lily Loom House at Penland.  Weavers who attend classes today still work in the Lily Loom House.  In return, weaving instructors at Penland wrote booklets for Lily Mills, such as Practical Weaving Suggestions.

By the looks of the variety of booklets on eBay and Etsy, Lily Mills must have published booklets for every yarn they made.  There is an astounding amount of material.  And though I’ve never seen an example, I’ve read that during the 1940s they also marketed sewing patterns.

I found these sample cards a few weeks ago while traveling through the area.  I was struck at how fresh the colors remain.

There was no date on either card, but I’m guessing that the code at the bottom of them dates them to 1961 and 1962.

And while it has nothing to do with textiles, the Lily Mills has an important connection to the development of bluegrass music.  In the early 1940s banjo player Earl Scruggs worked at Lilly Mills and stayed with a fellow musician.  The area around Shelby was evidently a hive of three-fingered banjo pickers.  The style Scruggs developed became the standard for the bluegrass banjo.


Filed under North Carolina, Southern Textiles

Emilio Pucci for Formfit Rogers

Not long ago I spotted the half slip pictured above in my not-so-secret shopping place.  My first thought was that it was an Emilio Pucci for Formfit Rogers so I started looking for the evidence:  the initials EPFR printed within the print.  I was just about to give up and call it a good copy when I spotted them.

In 1959 Pucci decided that he wanted to expand into lingerie.  Rather than do the production in-house, he was advised to look for an established lingerie company that would handle production.  Pucci came to the United States, and signed a deal with Formfit Rogers, a Chicago company.  Pucci provided the designs which were printed onto nylon tricot.   Much of the production took place in a factory in Tennessee.

I’ve seen the uncut fabric.  They printed it in big squares, about 72 inches, with an overall print surrounded by a small , about three inches, border.  The pieces were cut, using the border at the hem.  Sometime the border was cut and sewn, for a detail like a V-neckline.

We tend to think of designer “collaborations” as being a new scheme, but this is a good example of how even in the 1960s designers were finding ways to get their designs into the hands of people who could not afford their regular designs.  In 1969, a Pucci for Formfit half slip was priced at $9, or about $55 today.  Years ago I bought a bra and matching slip from a woman in Asheville.  She told me that she was living in New York City in 1969, working at her first job.  When she got that first paycheck she wanted to go out and splurge, and she ended up buying the Pucci set.

The line was quite successful, and lasted into the 1970s.  Still, the pieces are relatively hard to find, probably because people recognize them for what they are and snap them up.

In the early days of ebay, these Pucci Formfit pieces were very inexpensive.  I once bought a lot of six pieces for around $30.  Then the fabrics in modern ready-to-wear got thinner and thinner, and people started buying the lingerie to wear as outerwear.  They are no longer a bargain.


Filed under Designers, Made in the USA, Southern Textiles

Vintage Christmas Fabric

If you haven’t been into a fabric store recently, especially one that carries mainly printed cottons, you might be really surprised at the huge selection of prints.  There are novelty prints for every hobby and cartoon character and animal.  There are prints for baby, for John Deere drivers, and football fans.  There are hundreds of “retro” prints, some that could easily pass for real vintage.

I actually have a few pieces in my fabric stash that I honestly can’t say what the ages of them are.  Sometimes the width is a clue.  The above pink and red (and awesome) print is 35 inches wide.  The width is a hint, but not a guarantee that the fabric is older than last week.  I do know that this piece is vintage because it came with an original label.

Isn’t the detailing something?

This piece is also vintage.  It is a border print, and it may look like one side of a tablecloth, but it is cotton broadcloth, and was perfect for aprons, gathered skirts, and dresses for little girls.

This is a piece of cotton flannel that I bought from etsy several years ago.  It was sold as vintage, and the fabric is 35 inches wide, but I’ve never been 100% sure that it is vintage.  I’d like to think it is from 1960 or so.  I adore that script font.

I’d like to add that none of these fabrics have information printed on the selvage.  Most modern prints that I’ve looked at in the past five years or so do have a printed selvage.  “Designer” fabrics are a very big deal in the quilting and crafting world, and many have the designer’s name and even the name of the print.

Don’t miss the enlarged version.

And finally, here’s another mystery fabric to ponder.  I have two eighteen inch squares of this print that I bought at my not so secret shopping place about five years ago.  They are edged by an overlock stitch, which might lead one to think they were meant to be napkins.  However, the thread is an ugly grey.

If this is a contemporary print, then the designer got a lot of things right.  The font looks vintage, as do the colors.  The use of the harlequin type diamond print on the packages looks vintage.  The stylized Christmas trees with the atomic shapes look vintage.  I could go on, but you get the point.  It’s almost like every vintage Christmas cliche in thrown into one print.  Too good to be true?  It won’t hurt my feelings if you think it is new.




Filed under Holidays, Novelty Prints, Southern Textiles

Novelty Textiles: Nautical

It would be hard to tell the story of American sportswear without using the term nautical.  Some of the very first sportswear garments for women borrowed heavily from the traditional sailor’s uniform.  In the 1800s when more and more women took to sea bathing, their bathing suits often had a sailor collar and middy braid.  Gymnasium attire followed suit, with the middy blouse, modeled after a midshipman’s shirt, becoming the favored top for girls and women’s sports attire.

Through the years a nautical theme has been favored in prints for sports clothing, especially for that made to be worn for a seaside vacation.  I’m always happy to run across novelty print fabric that has a nautical motif.

My latest is this cotton duck from the 1950s or early 60s.  I love the turquoise and yellow colors, but I especially love that Sailmakers font.

Though nautical prints are generally in a red, white, and blue colorway, this print shows that there is no need to be stuck in that design rut.

I found this print several years ago, and it remains a favorite.  There is something especially crisp about blue and green on white.

How about some green and lavender gulls?

In a more traditional vein is this terry cloth.  I’ve got plans to make this into a beach robe.

And finally, not fabric yardage, but a super nautical hankie that has all the bells and whistles.


Filed under Collecting, Southern Textiles, Sportswear, Summer Sports

Tanner of North Carolina

I’ve been wanting to write about Tanner of North Carolina for the longest time, but I didn’t have a dress from the company to show off.  You would think that I’d be stumbling over them in thrift stores seeing as how I am in North Carolina, but that just is not the case.  The company is located in Rutherfordton, which is only about seventy-five miles from me.  Actually, I did not find this one.  It was sent to me by April of NeatbikVintage, who is in South Carolina.

Tanner has an interesting history.  It was started as the Doncaster Collar and Shirt Company in 1931.  The founders were Bobo Tanner, and his wife Millie who had visited the town of Doncaster, England on their honeymoon.  They must have really liked the place to have named their company after it.

For several years they made shirts at Doncaster, but in 1935 the Junior League of Charlotte went looking for a factory that could make some shirtdresses for them to sell as a fundraiser.  This led to a change in product, as there was a good market for the dresses and the Junior League was successful at selling them.  Millie then came up with the idea of having women do direct sales, sort of like Avon and Tupperware.  Doncaster worked with women who became their Wardrobe Consultants, a business model that continues to this day.

In 1954 Doncaster added another label, Tanner of North Carolina.  Tanner was a casual line, made up primarily of cotton and silk prints.  Unlike Doncaster, it was sold in department stores and boutiques.

Today you can buy Doncaster clothing through their website, through a Wardrobe Consultant, or at one of the factory outlet stores that are sprinkled around the Southeast.  I’m almost ashamed to admit that I’ve never been to the big warehouse sale that is in Rutherfordton, but I’ve heard that it is quite an experience.

Unfortunately, the clothing is no longer made in North Carolina.  The company moved its factory operation to China in the 1990s.  I’ve read that they still maintain their own factory, and that gives them more control over safety and other human rights issues.  I hope that is the case.  Even with overseas manufacturing, Doncaster still employees about 250 people in Rutherfordton, and there are around 1700 Wardrobe Consultants around the country.

I’m curious if Doncaster items are common in different areas of the country.  The thrift stores here have lots of it, but that is because the outlets are here.  I also see quite a bit of Tanner and TannerSport labels clothing from the 1980s and 90s.

My dress is pretty typical of what was made under the Tanner label in the 1960s.  It’s a cotton novelty print, with accents of the blue.  Most of the shift dresses and shirt dresses from the 1960s and 70s had a matching belt.  Mine has the belt carriers, but the belt is missing.

Many thanks to April for this lovely gift.



Filed under Collecting, Designers, North Carolina, Novelty Prints, Southern Textiles

Sew It Yourself with Cannon Towels and Sheets

I know that half the crafters on etsy think they invented DIY (do it yourself) but here’s proof that we Seventies hippie girls were the actual inventors of repurposing.

I’m joking, of course.  Remaking textile items has been going on as long as there have been textiles.  What changed were attitudes toward remodeling old textile items.  Whereas our grandmother and mothers during the Great Depression and WWII were well acquainted with making things last, the prosperity of the 1950s made remodeling old clothing unnecessary for many.

But then, in the late Sixties, we discovered the delights of old textiles.  To get in on the action companies that made new textiles pushed using their products as crafting materials.  This poster from Cannon Mills is a great example.


There’s no date on the poster, but all the Simplicity and McCall’s patterns featured are dated 1970.  That seems right to me.  I was in the ninth grade, and I was really into these type of  Peter Max-ish graphics.  

Cannon Mills was located in Kannapolis, NC.  The town was a mill town, but was the largest of its type with around 1600 homes, a hospital and YMCA.  By 1918 the factory had become the largest producer of towels in the world.  Other Cannon factories produced sheets and kitchen linens.  At the height of the company’s prosperity, there were 30,000 employees.  Starting in the 1980s there were a series of company mergers and sell-offs, and on one dark day in 2003, the Kannapolis mill closed, putting 4340 at that mill and 3310 others out of their jobs.  The Cannon name was sold, and products with the name are now produced in Asia.


Filed under Curiosities, North Carolina, Southern Textiles

The Vanderbilt Shirt Company, Part II

The slightly fuzzy girl in the photo is me, circa 1974.  It was taken by my boyfriend (now husband!)  at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville.  I chose this particular photo not to show off how short I was wearing my skirts in 1974, but because I made the top from fabric I bought at the Vanderbilt factory outlet.  At the outlet one could buy the finished products of the factory, and they also had a big bin of fabric pieces that were left over from their products.

I remember this fabric well because it was such a bear to sew.  It was a two way stretch knit that had a mind of its own.  The top is actually a bodysuit, and there is a zipper down the front.   And you can’t tell, but what looks like dots are actually ladybugs.  I loved that outfit.

Today my plea on my last post about Vanderbilt paid off.  My post was seen by Pat Purvis whose mother Helen Watts had worked for the company.  I was able to talk with Helen on the phone and got some great information about the company.

The Vanderbilt Shirt Company was started in 1946, and had no connection to the Vanderbilt family who built the Biltmore House.  As Mrs. Watts put it, people in Asheville just like to name things for Biltmore and the Vanderbilts.  The factory was located in downtown Asheville, on the corner of Walnut and Lexington in the building I showed last week.    In the late 1960s there was a fire, started by a homeless man who had gone into the building to stay warm.  Because of that, the owners built a new factory  where they relocated in 1969.

My biggest question was how was Vanderbilt shirt connected to Langtry, Ltd.  As it turns out, Langtry was a label that was actually started by the Vanderbilt Shirt Company.   Previous to this label they did contract sewing for other companies like Levis and they made shirts and jackets for the US military.  Most of the output of Langtry was women’s blouses, but they also made other women’s garments like dresses and jackets.  Mrs. Watts was not sure about where the name Langtry came from, but thinks that it probably was named for actress Lillie Langtry.

As American companies began to outsource part of the manufacturing process, Vanderbilt Shirt Company turned to Haiti.  For a while much of  their product was made in Haiti, and this led to the ultimate undoing of the company.  During the political unrest of the late 1980s following the ouster of the Duvalier dictators, the Vanderbilt factory in Port-au-Prince was destroyed along with all the machinery, the fabric and inventory.  It was a hard blow from which the company never truly recovered.

The company limped along in a smaller facility on French Broad Avenue, until the early 1990s when they finally declared bankruptcy.  

Before talking to Mrs, Watts, I just assumed that Langtry was just another victim of the flood of cheaper imported goods that was making it harder and harder for American manufacturers to compete.  How much more interesting the story turned out to be.

Many thanks to Pat and Helen.


Filed under North Carolina, Southern Textiles