Today I have another of the articles I wrote several years ago for my website. I hope you enjoy it.
The Swirl wrap dress story starts in Philadelphia with the L. Nachman and Son Company, which was located at 10th and Berks Streets. This company had produced clothing since the early days of the 20th century. By 1940 they were making a product called the Neat ‘N Tidy, which was a pinafore apron. In 1944 the Swirl dress and label were born. Actually, the Swirl was originally conceived as an apron. When Lawrence Nachman registered the Swirl name with the US Patent and Trade mark office, the product was listed as “WOMEN’S AND GIRLS’ WRAP-AROUND APRONS”. The wrap around apron was a common garment of the day.
How the concept of an apron evolved into a dress is not known (by me, at any rate!) but at some point, the Swirl became a dress – not really a housedress, but one step above. It was a quick and easy way for a busy housewife to get dressed in a hurry for a trip to the market, or for a casual supper on the patio. As their slogan at the time put it, Swirl was…”YOUR WRAP “N” TIE FASHION”.
According to the 1951 ad below, the Swirl pictured came in three patterns and cost about $9. Vivian Vance’s character on the TV classic, I Love Lucy, Ethel Mertz, frequently wore this style Swirl in the early days of the program.
By 1953, Jack Nachman, president of the company, was looking to relocate the Swirl operation to the South. First, they would to be closer to where the cotton fabrics they were using were being produced. This would save transportation costs. Secondly, it’s very likely that they wanted a cheaper source of labor, which was easily found in the non-unionized South.
So Mr. Nachman went south, to Greenville, South Carolina. Through business contacts there he settled on the little town of Easley, about fifteen miles from Greenville. The location was ideal. The town was in the middle of the cotton belt – the area where cotton was grown and then made into cloth. The textile industry was booming. In fact, there were sixty-seven factories producing cotton fabric in the Greenville area, factories eager to supply their product to a new clothing production plant.
And labor costs were very cheap. Most of the people eventually employed at Swirl were women, and that combined with the absence of unions worked to keep wages low.
The Nachman Company started construction on the Easley Textile Company (as the new subsidiary was known) in October, 1953, and in January 1954 the new plant opened. The plant was state of the art, with all new machines from Singer. This is interesting, because when a plant relocated in this fashion, it was usual for all the old machinery and equipment to be moved to the new location.
By 1955, the company was known as Swirl, Inc., with the corporate headquarters in Easley. According to the local Chamber of Commerce, the money generated by the plant (along with that from another new factory in town) enriched the town coffers to the point where a long-delayed hospital project was finally finished. Soon, a second Swirl factory was built in nearby Ware Place, South Carolina.
At the same time, the product line was expanded widely. A wide variety of cotton print fabrics were readily available, and Swirl took full advantage of this. Swirls were made in hundreds of different fabrics, and were decorated with embroidery, applique, lace, piping, rick-rack, and a wide variety of trims. The basic shape of the dress was always the same, with a bodice and sleeves cut in one piece and a full, usually gathered, skirt. They used a signature “Swirl” button at the back of the neck.
This one dress, the wrap model, was the sole product of the plant until 1962. At that time a second product, the Models Coat, was trademarked and produced by Swirl. The Models Coat, which sounds glamorous, was just a straight cotton robe that snapped up the front.
The Swirl wrap dresses were also made, but they were getting shorter, as the age of the miniskirt was looming. By 1964, the company could see that fashions were changing radically, and their product was quickly becoming out-moded. Plans were made to update the image of the company.
As lifestyles changed, so did Swirl. In the 1960s Swirl began making women’s loungewear and developed different lines for a more diverse consumer base. The first addition was the Park East label in 1964. Park East was used mainly on shift dresses, sort of in the Lilly Pulitzer mode. In 1965 came Swirl Girl, a younger, trendier line of casual dresses and loungewear.
I’m not really sure when the last Swirl wrap dress was made, but I’ve seen them that were knee length and had care labels, so it is my guess that the wrap Swirl was still being made in the early 1970s. They also started making them floor length, as the fashion for floor lenght dresses re-emerged in the 1960s.
By the end of the 1980s, the main product at Swirl was the Models Coat. In 1990, the first real signs of trouble for the company came when sewers were laid off and production curtailed. The decline of the company occurred slowly through the 1990s, and in 1998, Swirl announced that it would be closing its main facility. The remaining jobs were phased out, and the company closed the Easley factory for good in 1999.
They did continue operations in Ware Place, South Carolina, making the Models Coat. Today, that house coat, or duster, as my grandmother called it, is still being made in New York by Swirl II Ltd, using mainly imported fabrics. The factory is located in Brooklyn, New York.
Next: Some hints on dating Swirl dresses.