A Visit to The Oriole Mill

It’s hard to believe that I grew up in North Carolina, and have lived here all my 56 years, and had never been inside a textile manufacturing mill.  Well that all changed yesterday, when I had the pleasure of visiting the Oriole Mill in Hendersonville, NC.

The Oriole Mill is not a survivor of the mass exodus of the textile industry to Asia.  It is an ever rarer bird – a new textile enterprise, established in 2006.  One of the founders of the mill, Bethanne Knudson, spent years traveling in her work as a trainer in Jacquard design software.  In 2000, she  opened the Jacquard Center in Hendersonville, a training center where weavers could visit to study industrial Jacquard weaving design.

In the mid 2000s, Knudson began to see that before long the opportunity to acquire industrial Jacquard equipment would be lost, due to so many factories being dismantled and shipped overseas.  She and Stephan Michaelson co-founded the Oriole Mill, purchasing an old rug factory and then finding and assembling the necessary machinery.  Their first cloth was produced in 2007.

Today they weave fabrics for their own line of home decorator products, and they also do special orders.  Students at the Jacquard Center get to see their creations come alive from the looms of the Oriole Mill.

Lets’ take the tour…

The building was originally a frozen food distributor, and later was a factory that made woven rugs.

This is Phyllis Bonham, who works primarily as the warper.

In a length of woven cloth, the warp are the very long yarns across which the weft if woven.  In order to organize all these yearn properly, they have to be threaded individually onto a machine called a creel.  From the creel, each thread or year goes through a large reed, then a small reed, and then the yerns are wound onto a big cylinder.  From the cylinder, they are loaded onto a big spool, which is them moved onto the loom itself.

Yarns going from the creel and through the big reed.

The reed is the comb-like structure on the left.

After going through the small reed, they are wound on that big black cylinder.  That’s Kelly Hopkin, the director of education, and expert tour guide.

The yarn ends up on one of the giant spools, which is then attached to the loom.

In this full shot of the loom set-up, the spool is in front with the yarns going up to the loom to be woven.  From this distance it looks like a solid piece of white fabric!  The orange V-shaped thing is actually a set of cords that are attached to the yellow machine that sits on top of the green gantry.  That yellow thing is the Jacquard head.  It is the brain that controls the design.  Each little orange cord hooks onto and controls a yarn of the warp.  The Jacquard head is programmed to either raise or lower each yarn as the weft yarns are passed through the warp.

Here are the threads, all lined up as they come off the spool and go through another set of reeds.  Those are the orange cords, with silvery hooks on the ends.

And here is a closeup that shows the hooks with the yarns they manipulate.

This photo is from the other side of the loom.  The yarns are all in place, and the design has been programmed into the Jacquard head.

When I think of weaving, I think of a shuttle that goes back and forth from one side to the other, over and over.  But in this loom the yarn is pulled across half way by one of the two clips, or rapiers, you see. When it reaches the halfway point, the yarn is grabbed by the other clip and is pulled straight to the other edge.  This is a much faster process than the shuttle-type loom.

We were shown this process in slow motion, and it looked so simple.  Then Barry Connor, the loom overhauler, showed us another piece being woven at the regular speed.  I could not even see the clips!

And here is a close-up of the finished product.  It was commissioned by Keep, a shoe company in California.

Barry, who keeps the machines in tip-top shape!

Finally, we talked with Bethanne Knudson, who not only is the co-owner of the mill, but is also the textile designer.  It was apparent from listening to her that fibers and textiles are her passion.  She works almost exclusively in natural fibers, and she scours the globe looking for only the best yarns.

She talked about how when she is working on a design, she keeps the nature of each textile in mind.  You have to let the fibers do what comes naturally to them.  Here are two examples.

In this fabric, the black is made from cotton and the orange is wool.  The section on the left is straight from the loom, and the right hand section has been washed and dried.  After washing, the wool shrinks and makes the cotton pucker.

Can you tell which side has been washed?

I can’t tell you how much I learned from this visit.  I thought I knew a thing or two about textiles, but there is nothing like seeing the process in action.  I also appreciated the skill of all the workers at Oriole.  Unlike textile mills of the past, at the Oriole, workers are not limited in knowledge to their own tiny little corner of operation.  I got the feeling that Phyllis could run the entire place single handedly, if necessary.Knudson and Michaelson are building a business that puts the emphasis on quality, not quantity.

These are luxury fabrics, carefully designed and crafted. They are working on an online store, and I’ll let you know when it has opened.


Filed under Textiles

11 responses to “A Visit to The Oriole Mill

  1. I studied textiles at college 30 years ago. Then my city had lots of factories and mills that we visited as students. Now they are all gone; students today would have to travel to China to see the things I had the chance to see.

    This is a fantastic project, and I wish them every success in the future!


  2. Amazing and awesome that factories like this still exist in America.
    And I’m going to venture a guess about the washed side photo and say the left side?


  3. Thanks so much for sharing all this information Lizzie. It’s been really interesting to share your visit and see an industry like this starting off again. It’s incredibly sad that so many had to shut down in the past, due to cheaper manufacturing in Asia. 😦

    The whole process looks so complicated, but utterly fascinating! And those GIANT spools are awesome to say the least!

    It will be really interesting to compare your visit to my own proposed visit to Adamley Fabric in Macclesfield at the end of this month. Can’t wait! 🙂


  4. Just amazing! The process is so intricate, as is the finished product. This reminds me of the tours I took of book production facilities when I was an editor–another disappearing industry. I love that this is happening here in the US, even on a small scale, and I hope they can thrive. I recently re-watched one of my favorite BBC productions, North and South (based on Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1855 novel). It’s set against the cotton weaving industry of northern England, and the contrast between the millwork then and what you show in your post is fascinating. The novel is well worth reading, and the BBC production is equally worth seeing (even if you aren’t Richard Armitage-obsessed like me).

    Your post is probably the closest I’ll get to a mill tour here in the US, so I thank you!


  5. seaside

    So fascinating. Your photos and explanation are excellent. It’s an amazing process, isn’t it?


  6. That’s amazing! I love these kind of visits! Great article.


  7. Bijoux

    Just amazing. In the 60s I visited a textile mill in the UK and in Bulgaria. Both were filled with people either running around or routed to the spot managing their a loom for the shift. It was so eerie to see that factory, devoid of personnel! Suppose that’s computerization for you. But thanks for the post. Much appreciated.


  8. Pingback: Photos, Paintings, Pottery, Pillows, Throws and Wood Turned Bowls… | ZAAR Design Center

  9. Susan Laramee

    I just saw your mill on my local PBS station. Create. It was outstanding! I, myself make “hooked” rugs. ( Not latch hook). I’m making a wedding rug, now for a military couple. So I appreciate the concept of quality, not quantity. Teaching my grandchildren as they grow. My husband is a paper mill worker. So keep up the Beautiful work that you do.


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