Category Archives: Museums

Derrick Adams: Patrick Kelly, The Journey at SCADFASH

Sometimes a reminder cames to us to not put things off. With the majority of the world in self survival mode, there won’t be any museum going for a while. That makes my recent trip to Atlanta, taken just as the coronavirus was reaching the US, even more special. It may be the last museum jaunt for a long while.

If you were around in the 1980s, you probably remember Patrick Kelly, a young Black designer from Mississippi who took Paris by storm in 1985. His clothes were body-hugging, often in black accented with bright colors. He was known for his joyous approach to life and his loyalty to his friends. Unfortunately, Kelly died of AIDS in 1990.

Since his death, not much has been written about Kelly, though a book is now in the works. He did leave a large archive which is housed at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York. Artist Derrick Adams took a deep dive into the archive, which inspired a body of work celebrating Kelly’s legacy.

The exhibition at SCADFASH incorporates these works from Adams, surrounded by clothing designed by Kelly, and memorabilia from his life. Many of these items were loaned to the museum by friends in Atlanta, where Kelly lived during the 1970s.

In my top photo you can see one of Adams’s works. It incorporates pattern pieces from designs Kelly licensed to Vogue Patterns, along with the brights + black scheme that so typifies many of Kelly’s dresses.

This Patrick Kelly dress seems to be to be a collage in dress form.

And here is a work by Adams using the same theme.

This Kelly dress was one that was made into a commercial pattern. The large dots of color are actually buttons.

And here is the pattern. Finding buttons that large must have been a real task for anyone not living in a place like New York with all its fashion resources. The large buttons in the photograph were specially-made buttons for Kelly’s line. He would keep a supply of them in his pocket to hand out to visitors to his boutique and workshop.

This work by Adams incorporates the button theme.

Here’s one of Kelly’s trademark caps. They often just spelled out Paris in sequins.  And there’s another of his pattern designs in the background.

One thing I neglected to photograph was a couple of little plastic baby dolls. About two inches long, each was made of molded brown plastic, representing Black babies. I remember these from my 1960s childhood, and was quite surprised that he had them in the 1980s. They were another of the little gifts Kelly passed out to friends and visitors. The Black babies were just one of the ways that Kelly stressed his Blackness, as he also appropriated Black images that were meant to be racist and demeaning. He even used a Golliwog as a motif in some of his collections.

There have been two major retrospectives of Kelly’s work, one at the Brooklyn Museum in 2004, and one at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2014 after they received eighty garments from his estate. There have been two podcasts about Kelly in recent months, both featuring interviews with Dr. Eric Darnell Pritchard, who has been researching Kelly’s story for an upcoming book. Listen to them at Dressed and at the FIT Podcast.

Derrick Adams: Patrick Kelly, The Journey will be on exhibit at SCADFASH in Atlanta until July 19, 2020, Hopefully the museum will reopen with plenty of time for people to see this thought provoking exhibition.

And to show how Patrick Kelly influenced fashion, here’s a dress from Better Dresses Vintage. No, it’s not a Patrick Kelly, but you sure can see the influence.

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Alaïa – Adrian: Masters of Cut at SCAD FASH – Part 2

When I went to Atlanta to see Alaïa – Adrian: Masters of Cut at SCAD FASH, I made the trip primarily to see the Adrian suits. I did not expect to be so enchanted with the work of Azzedine Alaïa, so I was so happy to see what I’d been missing.

As I pointed out before, don’t expect a history lesson from SCAD FASH. The docents do a good job of showing additional photos and answering questions, but the truth is, you need to do your own research before visiting.  I knew Alaïa as a designer of formfitting dresses and gowns for the rich and famous, but I’d never really thought of him as a tailor. Was I wrong!

I did know of Alaïa as a collector, having had the experience of bidding against him at auction. I didn’t know it at the time, but in an auction of clothing and textiles held just before his death in 2017, Alaïa outbid me on several items of sportswear. It was not until the auction company sent out a notice explaining that because Alaïa had died, the items he had bid on were to be for sale to the first claimant. Seems like there were some Claire McCardell items in the list.

He was quite the collector. I read somewhere that the Association Azzedine Alaïa now manages over 20,000 objects that he had collected.

But today I’ll be talking about his work. This dress and jacket are from 2007. I have always been a fan of pleats, and so this one was a favorite. The pleats are not just in the skirt, but also on the back of the jacket.

It’s hard to tell on such a thick, black fabric, but it looks to be that the pleats are one long piece of fabric, pleated and then attached like godets. Amazing construction!

And yes, all these suits are black. I have them looking like charcoal gray, but that’s so you can appreciate the details.

This superb suit is from 2010, but the dates of these suits really are not the point. Alaïa did not conform to a fashion calendar, and he was more interested in his own sense of style than he was of fashion. Sounds just like Adrian.

This was another favorite, and the reality of this suit is much better than my sorry photo of it. Taking his cues from the traditional man’s cut away coat (and how about that velvet collar?), Alaïa mixes it up by combining it with that hyper-feminine lace skirt. This suit was made in 1989. Do you see what I mean by his own vision of style?

I have no idea how the lace was made, but it could not have been easy.

Alaïa, like Adrian, was fond of fringe. This jacket from 1986 is paired with his leggings. I love my American Giant leggings, but I could sure use a pair of these.

There are no boring backs on an Alaïa jacket.

Same collar, same 1986 collection. This also came in a rich dark blue, but it was not on display here.

That motif is embroidered. There in the background are the Adrian suits.

Okay, I’ll admit the jury is still out on this 2007 dress and capelet. I love the skirt so much, and wanted to just remove the capelet to see if the dress met with my satisfaction.  You can see the back of this one in the previous photo.

I’ll finish up the suits with this one from 2012 because it is pretty much perfect.

There was also a stunning selection of Alaïa’s gowns and dresses in the exhibition. As pretty as they are, I just did not find them to be as interesting as the suits. He used a lot of knits, as in both of the dresses above.

Here’s Oscar night along with a refugee from the Grammys. The Grammy worthy leather gown was mind blowing in its construction.

If you have ever sewn leather, you know there are no second chances, that every stitch leaves a hole in the leather. Remarkable!

The long industrial strength zipper circles the body three times. 1981.

Yes, you can get this close, but do not touch.

This gown is actually a beautiful blue that I simply could not capture with my camera. It’s also knit.  Alaïa also was a great admirer and collector of Charles James garments, and the influence of James’s “La Sirène” in this gown is unmistakable.

The exhibition also shows how Alaïa referenced the 1930s. If you didn’t know better, you could mistake this confection for a 1930s gown…

right down to the snap closures. Take a moment to notice how this (and all the others) dress was mounted. A clear plastic form was molded to custom fit each dress.

There were also some celebrity worn dresses. Here one of the docents is showing me photos of Tina Turner wearing her Alaïa performance dresses.

Again, this exhibition is well worth a trip to Atlanta, and to make it even better, there was another smaller show featuring designer Patrick Kelly. And thanks so much to Liza at Better Dresses Vintage for sharing the day and her photographs.

 

 

 

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Alaïa – Adrian: Masters of Cut at SCAD FASH

Having SCAD FASH in Atlanta makes me happy. I mean, really, really, happy. Who wouldn’t be happy standing in front of a line of suits by Gilbert Adrian? And this new exhibition, Alaïa – Adrian: Masters of Cut, gave me a chance to actually wear the jacket from my Adrian suit and to spend time with my friend Liza.

Because I’m such a chronologically minded person, I’ll show off the Adrian garments first.  After years of designing costumes at M-G-M Studios in Hollywood, in 1942 Adrian went into business for himself, making the types of clothes he had been designing for the stars – glamorous gowns and structured suits. Because of poor health, Adrian was in business for only ten years.

And while fashion changed dramatically after 1947, Adrian pretty much kept making the clothes he knew made women look beautiful, softening the strong shoulder of the 1940s only slightly. Because of this, unless a garment was pictured in period advertising or magazine copy, Adrian’s clothes can be difficult to date.  The exhibition side-stepped this problem by dating all the Adrian garments 1942 – 1952.

All the clothes in this exhibition come from Association Azzedine Alaïa, the organization that holds Alaïa’s archive.  Not only does the archive have many of Alaïa’s garments, but also thousands of items that Alaïa collected, including vintage clothing. The Association holds more than three hundred Adrian garments that had been collected by Alaïa.

An interesting side note to the story comes from California Couture, by Maureen Reilly. In writing about Adrian for her book, Reilly interviewed former high school teacher Joe Simms. In his teaching job in Philadelphia in the 1970s, Simms used the example of Adrian (and his unwillingness to conform to the New Look) to illustrate to the kids how fashion was always a subject of debate. The class took the topic a step further, and soon the school had a collection of donated Adrian garments, sketches, and fabrics. When Simms retired he had to find homes for the garments, and they ended up in various museums. In 1988 Simms was approached by Alaïa who purchased most of the Simms collection. I can’t help but wonder how many of the suits on display at SCAD FASH were once studied by Simm’s students.

The Adrian suits illustrated perfectly the title of the exhibition, as Adrian was truly a master of cut and tailoring.

These two jackets show one of the techniques for which Adrian was known – the making and shaping of jackets though piecework.

One indication of the era of manufacture was that Adrian had to stick to the wartime L-85 regulations. This includes that there could be no patch pockets, no sleeve cuffs, and the jackets could not be longer than 25″ long. I’ve read that during the war years Adrian used a lot of tie closures because metal findings were scarce.

Another collection has this same suit, but I can’t recall where. I do, however, remember the suit. Who could forget it?

Adrian also made coats, though they are not as common as his suits. At first glance this coat looks new, but the worn condition of the velvet collar shows it was well-loved by a former owner.

Adrian did make some concessions to fashion, as can be seen in the slightly softer shoulders and longer skirt length of this postwar jacket.

I had never realized that Adrian was such a user of buttons until seeing all these examples together. These are little money bags. Was he influenced by Schiaparelli’s use of whimsical buttons?

This suit is a good example of a postwar design. Both the jacket and skirt are longer, and the drape on the shoulder extends into a flowing scarf on the back. There are metal buttons and a patch pocket.

And speaking of buttons, these are little mice!

I found the suit on the right to be interesting because my friends at Style and Salvage have a coat with a red slash across the top of the bodice in the manner of the white slash on this jacket. Could they be from the same collection?

I can imagine that working in the tailoring department of Adrian was a bit like working jigsaw puzzles all day long.

Notice how the diagonal slash on the sleeve is repeated on the body of the coat. You see this repetition a lot in Adrian’s designs.

Adrian also liked self fringe, and he was fond of textiles from designer Pola Stout.  There was no indication this is a Stout fabric, but my guess is that it is.

You may have noticed the lack of bright colors. Even on his evening gowns, Adrian preferred to use muted colors.

Even when the buttons were plain plastic, Adrian made them important to the design.

I actually found this jacket  in a 1950 The Californian magazine. The curve of the collar is repeated on the pocket, the sleeve trim, and the bottom of the jacket.

As sort of an afterthought, three Adrian gowns were also on display in the gift shop.

I especially liked the print example, as it shows the other side of Adrian. He was known for designing his own fabrics, though I don’t think this is one of them. He went in for big, graphic motifs.

It was a real treat seeing so much of Adrian’s work together, and especially in conjunction with the work of Azzedine Alaïa, which I’ll show and talk about in my next post. As always, I have a few other words to say about the exhibition.

First, most of the Azzedine Alaïa pieces were positioned so that one could get a look at the back of each garment, but the Adrian pieces were lined up in a row against the wall. There was no way to see the backs of the suits. Mirrors would have been nice, but even better, the garments could be pulled away from the wall so visitors could walk behind them. The SCAD FASH exhibition area had plenty of room to do this, so it’s puzzling why they chose to limit the view of the backs of the suits.

Second, (and I know that I am bringing my own agenda into play here) I would have liked more historic context. SCAD FASH is a design museum, not a fashion history one, but there was little information about Adrian available except through the student docents and the website. In order to know about the clothes on display, you must use the provided tablets or the website on your cell phone. And the docents are there to show more  and to engage in conversation about the exhibition.

I have found the student docents always to be charming, enthusiastic, and engaged, and this visit was no exception.

This exhibition in on view through September 13, 2020, and I highly recommend it. Just do a little homework first, as they are not going to spoon feed the biography of Adrian nor that of Azzedine Alaïa. But you will get an excellent look at how the designs of Adrian influenced those of Alaïa. It’s a lesson you do not want to miss.

Next post: Azzedine Alaïa.

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Asheville Art Museum – Newly Reopened and Better than Ever.

For years I’d not thought about the Asheville Art Museum.  Years ago when the museum had a great program that paired works from their collection with our US history curriculum, I took my fifth graders. The last time I visited was in 2007 when they had an exhibition of the paper dresses made by Mars of Asheville.

But for the most part, a visit to the Asheville Art Museum was just not that exciting. They were limited to a very small space in what was originally the Pack Library (where I spent many hours during my college years in the Sondley Research Library). But several years ago the museum closed for expansion and renovation. They reopened in November and the difference is amazing.

For such an arts-aware city, the old museum felt like an afterthought, especially after visiting the museums in other comparatively-sized cities. The excellent collections at the Greenville County Museum of Art (SC) and that of the Gibbes in Charleston, SC are just two examples.

Not every museum can be the Met or the Louvre, and so it helps when a small city discovers it has a niche to fill. For instance, the Gibbes has a wonderful collection of art from the Charleston Renaissance of the early twentieth century. The Greenville County Museum of Art focuses on South Carolina artists, as well as the Wyeth family.

So what is Asheville’s niche? When a city is located in the middle of “Appalachia” it might be easy to go full on mountain culture, whatever that is. I’m happy to say that what I saw reflects what Asheville and the surrounding area are today.

One of the most beautiful works is not actually in the museum, but is outside in Pack Plaza. This is Reflections on Unity by Henry Richardson. I have to say it is a great addition to the plaza, and seems to be a counterpoint to the obelisk, the Vance Monument. Zeb Vance was North Carolina’s Civil War era governor. (And don’t get me started on that glass and concrete monstrosity in the background, whose construction in the 1980s meant the destruction of a block of historic storefronts.)

I know you all are here for the textiles and clothing, so that’s what I’ll be showing. The inaugural exhibition in the new museum is Appalachia Now! in which all the artists either are from, or work in the area designated as “Appalachia”. I’ll be honest, I’m not a fan of the designation. The area of the Southern Appalachians is too large and too diverse to be defined by a single word. But it’s the word chosen, and I’ll deal with it.

In an exhibition on Appalachia you would expect quilts, but the art quilts of today are a far cry from the Sunbonnet Sue and Double Wedding Rings associated with the craft. The quilt above was made by Kelly Spell, and is titled Spotted Hawkfish. “This particular work was inspired by a fish of the same name…”

What would an exhibition on Appalachia be without an overshot woven coverlet? But this work by Danielle Burke is much smaller and more finely woven than the traditional coverlet. But the design, Carolina Star, is the same.

It is almost impossible to escape the effect of textiles in art exhibitions. These works by Amanda Brazier use her own oil-based pigments from the earth (seen in the little jars) to make paintings that look like weaving patterns.

It might be hard to tell just how small this embroidered work by Amanda Remmen is, so I’ll tell you it is about six inches across. I-81, Winter 2017, is part of a “map” series. The museum has four of these on display.

 

This dress is made of oak leaves dipped in beeswax.  Garment for Remembering the Earth, 2010 -2017 was made by Jennifer L. Hand from leaves she gathered on walks in the woods. The garment is accompanied by a video showing her process.

Sculptor Elizabeth Brim uses traditional blacksmithing techniques to produce metal garments reminiscent of the ones made by her seamstress grandmother. From Italy with Love, 2017.

The area of the museum devoted to the permanent collection is a nice mix of works with regional connections, historical works, and contemporary works. To my delight, there is a section of the work of the teachers and students of Black Mountain College. The sculpture is by Ruth Asawa, and is made of wire. Untitled, circa 1954.

Dorothy Cole Ruddick used thread and embroidery to create the illusion of depth. She studied at Black Mountain in 1945. Untitled; undated.

There is a small section of regional works.  I’ve written about Bayard Wootten and her photographs in the past, and it was good seeing her represented in Asheville’s collection.

Getting a decent photo of this Granny Donaldson Cow Blanket was impossible, but I had to show it as another example of her work.  It’s not as spectacular as the one I recently posted from the Folk Art Center’s collection, nor as detailed as the one in the collection of the Mint Museum in Charlotte, but the charm of her work is readily apparent.

Asheville quilt artist Luke Haynes puts a twist on familiar works by other artists, as you can see here in [The American Context] Christina’s World, 2012. Haynes had friends strike the poses of works like Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World.  The background squares are made of fabrics from old clothing, while the figure is made from new fabrics.

I’m really excited for future exhibitions at the Asheville Art Museum. It’s exactly the cultural asset Asheville needed.

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Fashion Queens – Southeastern Region Symposium in Charlotte, NC

I joined the Costume Society of America way back in 2005, and for a person like me who loves all aspects of fashion and social history, it has been a super learning experience. Once a year there’s an organization-wide symposium where members present their research, and on a smaller scale, there are yearly regional meetings as well.

I like the large symposiums, but I love the regional ones. There’s an intimate atmosphere where even if you do not know  a single person when you arrive, when you leave you have lots of new friends and contacts.

So I was pretty excited to learn that the Southeastern Region was holding this fall’s symposium in Charlotte, only about two and a half hours from me. The theme was Fashion Queens, which gives a nod to Charlotte, the Queen City, and Queen Charlotte for whom the city was named.

I know that sitting in a room with a bunch of history fanatics is not everyone’s cup of tea, to to me it’s an exciting opportunity to learn from the best.  The images above are from the research of Linda Baumgarten on designs of eighteenth century quilted petticoats. Linda is a Curator Emerita at Colonial Williamsburg. She’s the author of  books on the subject, including my favorite, What Clothes Reveal.

For attendees not familiar with quilting terminology, Linda provided clear photos to make her study easier to understand.

The presentation above was really interesting. Dr. Dina Smith of VA Tech studied “the design process of reenactors who create Regency gowns.” To do this she conducted interviews with reenactors attending the Jane Austin Festival in Louisville, Kentucky.

One of my favorite presentations was about the pearl button industry of Muscatine, Iowa. This research was conducted by Jade Papa of Thomas Jefferson University.  Anyone who studies clothing that predates the emergence of plastics has seen lots of  mother of pearl buttons, but do you know where they were made? Well, neither did I until I was enlightened by Jade.

Mussel and clam shells were harvested from the Mississippi River at Muscatine starting in 1891. By the 1920s the seven button companies in Muscatine were producing 37% of the world’s pearl buttons. Above you can see how discs were stamped out from the shells. This was just the beginning of the process, as each disc was handled thirty times before it became a button.

The beginning of the end of the Muscatine button industry came in the 1930s when the Great Depression hit. At the same time plastics were being made into buttons cheaper and easier. And the shells had been over-harvested which led to several species becoming extinct or endangered.  I hope Jade writes a book.

Jean Druesedow, who recently retired as director of the Kent State University Museum, talked about how Kent acquired the clothing of actress Katherine Hepburn. This was really interesting, partly because I have seen the exhibition using Hepburn’s clothing twice. Jean talked about the relationships that Katherine Hepburn developed with the designers of her screen and stage clothing.

After the presentations there’s the chance for the audience to ask questions. What really made this particular symposium so special was the exchange of ideas between professionals like Baumgarten and Druesedow, plus experienced conservators like Colleen Callahan and Margaret Ordonez. And just so you will not think the attendees were just the elders of the profession, there were quite a few college students and masters candidates who attended, and some who even presented. It was a great mix of ideas and experiences.

Another favorite part of CSA symposia are the trips to local museums. In this case we went to the Mint Museum. I’ve visited the Mint numerous times, but there’s always something new to see. Above you have part of a special exhibition from Studio Drift. The piece is Fragile Future 3.5, and it’s made of dandelion fluff attached to tiny lights. There’s a complete circuit of the metal parts.

And here’s my irregularly scheduled reminder that a museum does not have to have actually clothing on display for visitors to see fashion. So much of what we know about fashion history is learned from period art, like this 1857 painting by James Goodlyn Clonney, Offering Baby a Rose.

I would usually be more interested in the mother’s dress, or the hound observer, but in this case, it’s the father’s robe or banyan that caught my eye.

A big thanks to the Department of Theatre at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and especially to Aly Amidei, for hosting the symposium.

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Folk Art Center of the Southern Highlands Craft Guild

Just off the Blue Ridge Parkway as one is traveling south into Asheville, is the Folk Art Center. It’s mainly a crafts store that sells the products of craftspeople who are members of the Southern Highlands Craft Guild, which has been around, officially, since 1930. It was born from the Crafts Revival Movement, which was the rural twin of the Settlement House movement made famous by Jane Addams in Chicago.

I’ve written quite a bit about the Crafts Revival Movement, and I’ll link to some of those articles at the end of this post. For the most part, it was driven by a desire of middle class and wealthy women to help women in poverty through the production of traditional crafts.  Remarkably, some of the efforts of these women still survive, as in the case of the Southern Highlands Craft Guild.

And while I find some of the ideas of one hundred years ago to be more than a bit patronizing toward the people of Appalachia, the efforts were sincere, and did actually lead to women in the Southern Mountains being able to make and market crafts, and thus to bring in badly needed cash to their families. It also helped establish a strong renewal of craft traditions in the Appalachians.

The Southern Highlands Craft Guild is also in possession of a nice collection of crafts and other artifacts from the early days of the Guild. Upstairs at the Folk Arts Center is a small, but interesting museum of some of the items in the collection.

Besides textiles, there are baskets and other woven items, like the late 1930s or early 40s tilt hat seen above. It was made by Alice Pratt of Asheville from braided cornhusks, lined in silk.

This 1930s handbag was also made from cornhusks, backed with burlap. The maker was Isadora Williams of Knoxville, Tennessee.

This is the coverlet that pretty much started the crafts revival. In 1894 it was given to a missionary, Frances Goodrich, who was working in the area north and west of Asheville and she was so taken with it that she thought it might be a way for the local women to make money. Unfortunately the coverlet was around forty years old at the time of the gift, and most women, even deep in the Appalachian Mountains had given up weaving due to the availability of cheap mass-produced textiles.

But Goodrich was persistent, and soon old disassembled looms were located and reassembled. Women who had given up the labor of weaving returned to the loom as Goodrich and others started co-ops in which to sell the coverlets and other crafts.

There are other coverlets on display, like these three from North Carolina, Kentucky, and South Carolina.

Here is a very rare survivor, a dress made for handwoven linsey-woolsey. The museum was a bit short on details, but dated the dress to around 1900. There are a few mended spots, but otherwise the dress seems to be in wonderful condition.

People who follow me on Instagram have already seen this piece, but it is just too special not to share here as well. This is a “cow blanket” though that is most likely a misnomer. It was made by Kate “Granny” Clayton Donaldson. Donaldson lived in Marble, NC, and sometime in the 1920s or early 30s she started crocheting figures and animals from her homespun and dyed wool. The story is a bit sketchy, but through an association with the nearby John C. Campbell Folk School (founded by another woman, Olive Dame Campbell} she began attaching the figures to pieces of fabric to make a decorative blanket or hanging.

Quite a few of Kate Donaldson’s blankets survive. They are in the collections of art and folk museums, and occasionally one comes up for sale.

A personal note – my father was born in Marble in 1927. It’s very likely that his family knew Kate, as Marble is a tiny place, where everybody knows everybody else.

Biltmore Industries

Fireside Industries, Berea

Penland School of Crafts

Crossnore Weavers

 

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Homespun Museum at Grovewood Village

I recently found myself with a free afternoon and a desire to see something interesting. Sometimes we forget to be a tourist in our own towns, so I decided to take in an old favorite, the Homespun Museum, which is tucked behind the Grove Park Inn in Asheville. I’ve written about the museum before, here, and here. 

The Homespun Museum is not actually about homespun fabric. It is built around the artifacts left from Biltmore Industries, which closed in 1981. Biltmore Industries was established in 1905, and for a while was a school of handicraft. The products were sold to the increasing numbers of tourists who visited Asheville. By the 1920s Biltmore Industries had moved from Biltmore Village to the grounds of the famous Grove Park Inn. The focus was on making woolen textiles, though woodcrafters were still employed to build looms and furniture and such for the enterprise.

The woolen fabric production was called Biltmore Homespun, even though the yarn was not handspun at all.  The business was much too large to produce cloth from yarn spun on old fashioned spinning wheels, though Biltmore Industries did give the impression through store displays that spinning wheels were employed.

The yarn was, however, woven by hand on people-powered looms. The looms were based on ones brought back from an information-gathering trip to Sweden. Many of the looms still exist, and one is set up in the museum.

The looms were very large, as you can see, and a special long and narrow loom building was built to accomodate what was eventually forty looms. At peak production, Biltmore Homespun produced 950  yards of cloth a day. It was marketed in magazine ads across the country, and in the museum you can see letters by celebrities like Eleanor Roosevelt praising their purchases.

It’s interesting that so much from Biltmore Industries still exists, When the business closed in 1981, much of the inventory of wool was given to former employees and local crafters, but the machinery, furnishings, displays, and ephemera was just left in the old buildings.

The table above is a cutting table used to cut the yardage. There was a shop in one of the buildings where visitors could shop for the fabric and other items.

There were quite a few of these samples on display, along with many larger samples, and garments made up from the cloth. The man in the photo is Harry Blomberg, who bought the business in the 1950s. His family still owns the property.

I’m telling you, my fingers were itching to feel these samples.

This visit was made even better because the owners have opened up the old dye shed, which has much of the machinery set up with notes about how each was used. Until seeing all these machines and reading about how each was used, I had no idea this was such a huge operation. These barrels are the dye vats where wool that had been cleaned was dyed.

After the dyed wool was dried and mixed, it was sent through a huge carding machine. It in no way resembles the hand cards (they look like brushes on a paddle) used by families who spun their own fiber.

Carded wool, ready for the spinner.

The fiber was then ready to spin into yarn. Above is the spinning machine, a mule spinner. The machine has moveable parts (see the little wheels) that pull out the wool, seen on the left, twisting it and winding the finished yarn on the right. For some reason they used red wool on the bobbins to show the finished product, but the unspun wool is white!

1068 bobbins were needed to set up the loom for weaving. The bobbins on these racks were ready for the warp roller.

After the yarns were organized on the roller, the roller was placed on the loom where each yarn was attached by hand.

This vintage photo shows the looms in the weaving shed. Today the shed contains Harry Blomberg’s antique car collection.

The woven wool was then washed in the machines above using Ivory Soap and pure mountain spring water. The moisture was extracted, and the cloth dried out-of-doors. It was then shaved to smooth it, and was carefully inspected for flaws. A group of women workers repaired any flaws with needle and yarn.

I’m still amazed by all the stuff that remains at Biltmore Industries. Bags and bags of wooden spools…

machines that still contain bits of fleece…

and fabric still on the machines. It’s like a moment in time, frozen.

The tour through the dye house is open April through November, and the museum is open April through December.

 

 

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