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.

26 Comments

Filed under North Carolina, Textiles

26 responses to “Lily Mills of Shelby, North Carolina

  1. Lizzie…enjoyed your Lily Mills info. Thanks for adding probably the little known fact about Earl Scruggs working at Llily years ago. I will pass that info on to my son who is a Scruggs fan.

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  2. Glad to hear that people are still learning to weave at Penland. It’s not an easy craft to learn or pursue because you need access to a big loom!

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  3. It was interesting to read about the connection to the Penland school and weaving. I have done weaving in the past and appreciate the patience, skill and creativity involved.

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  4. Micha'el Dans

    we have a lily 6 cord thread box and a lily thread box showing sewing threads.. boil-proof colors some threads included, looks to be 50years old plus . are these items worth anything found them in an attic

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  6. Wonderful! I have some Lily reels (well, a Lily reel) in my haberdashery collection but didn’t know exactly where they were based. Good to know, Lizzie.

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  7. my grand father worked there many years ago ruffin self

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  8. PATT HEFFEL

    My aunt worked here much of her life. I loved seeing the whole operation.

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  9. Carlos Felipe-Ortega

    Hello, I have gotten a Lily’s Speed-o-wave frame, but the frame did not have any instructions about how to use it. I’m interesting in waving. This frame is marked as: Art. 717 made by Lili Mills company, shelby , N.C.
    Does any one can have any idea how and where to get the instructions to use this Handi craft Weaving frame? Please let me know if you have it.

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  11. Annie Grubb

    Going through the attic, I found my mothers Lilly table loom. Is there a manual to help me set up the loom
    Thanks
    Annie

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  12. Donna Gramling

    My grandmother, Aileen Blanton, (& other relatives) worked at the Lily Mill. She also played on their basketball team. I have a corner whatnot that has the spindles made from the wooden spools stacked and glued. We used thread from Lily Mills for a long time. I probably still have a few spools tucked away.

    Liked by 1 person

    • charles fred Young

      My Grandmother Glynn Panther worked there for years. I remember when she was a supervisor and used to take us kids and show us how things worked. Ive looked for pictures of the old place and cant fi d any. Does any body know what is in that spot now a days?

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      • Donna Gramling

        Charles, I asked your question to my cousin, Buddy Carter, who lives in Shelby. His response is below:
        “All of the mill has been torn down except the Distribution Center, which is now a mailing facility for flyers, the old Shipping House and the back part of the office building which was new.
        I have a Facebook group for the mill at “Lily Mill, Shelby, NC”.
        Also, I knew Glynn real well. Also, she was Irene Panther Blanton’s sister-in-law.”

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  14. Nanette

    Does anyone know when Lily Mills stopped producing yarns?

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  15. Heather

    I recently found a “Pom & Tuft Form” made by Lily Mills Company out of Shelby North Carolina! It was in my grandmas sewing things! I would love to visit the company! Thanks for sharing the pictures of the things you have! Very interesting!!

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  16. Sharon Daghir

    I would like to learn how to use a Lilly Table Top Loom and wonder if there are places that might offer a class on how to use them. Thanks if anyone has a suggestion. sharondaghir@gmail.com

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    • Frank King

      have what I thought was a salesman’s sample loom but I now believe it must be a table top loom. I would like to sell it but don’t know the value. I probably paid too much for it. I bought it in Amana Iowa and they have a large woolen mill they are famous for.The lady I bought it from told me it was a salesman’s sample form the 40’s. Any info would be appreciated. Thanks

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  17. Parrish Todd

    I enjoyed this article so much! My father, Scott Todd, was Marketing Director at Lily for many years and seeing his handwriting on one of the pictures in your article brought a tear. I would sometimes go to the area of the mill where all the large looms were located and it was always a magical experience. My father would bring home kits for me to work up for him and to this day I love knitting and crocheting. My first job was tying yarn onto the color cards! A few years before he passed, I took him to Penland for a visit, it was a wonderful trip for both of us. Thank you for bringing so many beautiful memories to mind.

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  18. Parrish, Thanks so much for posting your memories of Lily Mills. Such a great family story!

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  19. Peggy Craig

    Really enjoyed the article. While in college in Atlanta studying fiber, my friends and I went several times to Shelby where you could get tons of mill ends from the Lily company. They were housed in old boxcars. We would get large roves of mercerized cotton, and such. It was the same stuff sold in small skeins of embroidery thread. It was quite a find for college students!

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  20. shirley

    do you still have for purchase the thread refill for my ladyfingers sewing compact. How old is the compact.

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