Category Archives: Southern Textiles

Textile Classification and Weave Analysis Cards, 1915

I had an interesting estate sale find recently.  The card above was only one of about one hundred cards with fabric samples.  What makes these so interesting is that these were part of the coursework at George Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville, Tennessee.  The cards were completed in 1915 by student Mamie Newman.

The cards were designed by Blanche E. Hyde.  The only information I’ve been able to gather about Ms. Hyde is that she was a teacher at Peabody.  My guess is that she was in the department of home economics.

In addition to Miss Newman’s notes, some of the cards have corrections written in by the instructor.  Ms. Hyde, perhaps?  Miss Newman misidentified the chambray, and noted that it was of average quality.  The teacher’s opinion was that this fabric was below average in quality.  I just know I’d love to find a chambray of this quality today.

The cards with their little textile swatches are delightful, and give a great view of the types of fabrics available in 1915.  Is cotton crepe even manufactured today?

Some of the card describe weave patterns, like this plaid.  Today we think of gingham as a two color, or most often white with a color, check.  Once upon a time gingham was a stripe, but gradually plaids were woven, and today, the fabric is primarily made as a check.

I wish I could say that I brought home all the cards, but that was not meant to be.  The estate company had priced these individually, and to have bought them all would have been around $300!  Still, I did think it was worth purchasing a few as great examples of the type of work  young women in home economics were required to do.  I can just picture the girls in the local dry goods store, driving the proprietor crazy with their swatch collecting.

 

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Filed under Collecting, Curiosities, Southern Textiles

The Swirl Wrap Dress

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”.

This 1940s Swirl is in the vintage-voyager.com collection.

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.

Photo courtesy of Cur.io Vintage, dress is now in my collection.

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.

A Park East by Swirl dress

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.

A Swirl Girl Wrap dress

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.

Swirl with Maxime Caftan

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.

Geoffrey Beene for Swirl dress

Next: Some hints on dating Swirl dresses.

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Filed under Southern Textiles, Vintage Clothing

Late 1950s Poodle Print

While shopping recently I spotted this 1950s poodle novelty print apron.  I’d seen the print several times before, mainly on a facebook page that is devoted to vintage novelty prints.  I snapped a shot for Instagram, and then forgot about it.

Then a couple of days later, Susan at NorthStar Vintage found the same print but in pink.  It got me to thinking about how common a practice it was for companies to offer prints in different colorways.

So I took to the internet in search of more poodles on different colored backgrounds.  The brown and tan version above is for sale at Heartbreaking.  What made her listing so great was that a shot of the selvage was included in the description.

John Wolf Textiles was registered for business in 1946 as a maker of home decorating fabrics.  The prints were perfect for curtains in a child’s room or kitchen, and were also intended for use as aprons.  But they were also used in clothing, and today gathered and pleated skirts are highly prized by collectors.

As was often the case, the fabrics were available to home sewers and to commercial clothing manufacturers.  The prints were not exclusive to any one maker.

This dress (for trade on Facebook by Leslie Coward) with the poodles on blue and black was a manufactured item.  Note how a bit of the stripe accents the bodice.  Also note there is a band of black at the hem that was added.

This dress was sold at Sears, Roebuck.  I also spotted the identical dress in an early 1960s Lana Lobell catalog.  You will have to click to see the catalog page because I found it on Pinterest and there was no way to establish who the originator of the photo was. (This is why I hate Pinterest…)

And here is the identical dress in green, which has been sold, but was in the FrocksnFrills shop.  This dress was sold by JC Penney, under their Brentwood label.  The poodles have buttons for eyes, and you can just barely tell that the black and blue version sold by Sears also have buttons for eyes, as does the one sold at Lana Lobell.

According to the Lana Lobell catalog copy, they sold the dress in black/blue, brown/tan, and mint/dark green.  I just find it interesting that the identical dress with different labels could be purchased in at least three places.

 

Although this print is not an exact match, I think it is close enough to be included here. The poses of the dogs are identical in both prints, but the dogs playing dress-up are a bit less poodley. Still, I think it shows how ideas evolved and changed, or perhaps, how ideas were “borrowed”.  This skirt was sold by Cheshire Vintage.

The facebook group I referred to, Novelty And Border Print B/S/T, is a great one to be involved in if you like novelty prints, or if you just want to learn more about them.  People in the group are very knowledgeable, and someone is always posting a new find  from a catalog to help document a print.

If anyone reading has this print in a different colorway, I’d love to show it off along with the others.

Edited for addition of photo.

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Filed under Made in the USA, Novelty Prints, Southern Textiles, Uncategorized

A Night in the Cotton Mill

On a recent roadtrip, we decided to spend a night in the Brookstown Inn in Winston-Salem, NC.  What made this choice easy to make was that the Brookstown was once the home of the Salem Cotton Manufacturing Company and the Arista Cotton Mill.

The Salem part of Winston-Salem was established in the eighteenth century by the Moravians, a Protestant group  that had settled in Pennsylvania, but then expanded  into North Carolina.  The group prospered and became involved in a number of money-making enterprises, including establishing a cotton mill in 1836.  The primary name in this and the later mill, the Arista, was that of Fries.  One of the thirty investors in Salem Cotton Manufacturing Company was Francis Fries, who became the superintendent of the mill.

It’s interesting that even though much cotton was being grown in the South in the early nineteenth century, the finished products of yarn and cloth were made elsewhere.  Most Southern cotton was sold to manufacturing companies in the Northeast and in Great Britain.  Until the development of the steam engine, it was not viable to try manufacturing in the South because the fall line, which was needed for water power, was far from the centers of population.  Even with steam power, cotton manufacturing was slow to come to the South.  It seems that most people were just satisfied with the system that was in place.

But the Moravians were entrepreneurs, and were willing to take a risk on cotton production.  Unfortunately, the enterprise was not successful.  Francis Fries left the company to form the Salem Woolen Mill, and in 1850, the cotton mill was sold.  It went through a succession of owners, but eventually  the building was converted into a flour mill.

Click to enlarge

In 1880, the son of Francis Fries, also named Francis, decided to take another go at cotton manufacturing.  By that time, cotton mills were springing up all over the South.  The Arista Cotton Mill was a typical vertical operation, with one floor for cleaning and carding the wool, another floor for spinning it into thread, and finally, the last floor was for weaving.  It was built next to the old Salem Cotton Manufacturing building, which was still producing flour.

After the turn of the twentieth century, the two companies merged, with cotton chambray, also known as Salem Jeans, being the primary product.  I couldn’t find a firm date for when cotton production ended, but one source said the 1920s.  By the 1940s the buildings were being used as a tobacco warehouse, and in 1970 the complex was bought by the Lentz Transfer and Storage Company.

In 1976 Lentz was in need of more space, and so a wrecking company was contracted to tear down the old buildings.  Instead, the owner of the wrecking company recognized the historical significance of the buildings and  through a series of negotiations, the buildings were saved.  Adaptive restoration began, and in 1984, the Brookstown Inn opened in the buildings.

The inn has a very nice historical display in the lobby, with old photos and reproductions of newspaper clippings and documents.  You can see a very small part of it above, and for a better look, the inn’s website has posted some pictures of the exhibit.

I, of course, loved the Fries family photos.  This one was taken at Watkins Glen, New York.

You can sort of see how the Salem Mill building has changed over the years, even though my photo was taken from the west, and the old photo shows the building from the east.  Note the lean-to addition in both photos.  I could not take my photo from the east because the Arista building now stands in the way.

There are abandoned textile mills all over the south.  More and more people are seeing the value in these old buildings, and they are being made into shopping spaces, apartments, and inns like the Brookstown.   What I really love about the Brookstown Inn is how they continue to tell the story of the Salem and Arista Mills.

 

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Filed under Curiosities, North Carolina, Road Trip, Southern Textiles

Burlington Industries Employee Magazine, June, 1950

As exciting as it is to find a piece of clothing for my collection, I am just as thrilled when a bit of printed matter concerning the textile industry comes my way.  The Bur-Mil Review was the employee magazine published by Burlington Mills.  It’s a great mixture of official company news and spotlights on the accomplishments of employees.

It was not unusual for companies to publish a magazine that was given out to all employees.  The paper mill in the town where I grew up released a monthly journal called The Log.  I’m sure that most of the attics or basements around here would produce a copy or two, mainly because so many of the employees got their picture in it over the years.  And I bet the same is true in towns that had a Burlington Mills facility.

And there were quite a few towns and cities that had Burlington plants.  It all started in 1923 when Spencer Love re-located some mill equipment he’d inherited to Burlington, NC.  There he opened up a cotton weaving facility, but he had not counted on the competition and the changing times.  But before going bust, Love did some research, and decided that rayon was the wave of the future.  He was right, and Burlington Mills prospered.

The company grew, mainly by buying up other businesses that produced other products.  By 1950 the company was quite diverse, making everything from cotton yarn to rayon ribbon.  They made Galey & Lord printed textiles, and high grade rayon for lingerie and blouses.  They had plants that produced nylon stockings, and in 1950 they were beginning production of a new fiber, Orlon.

I thought it was interesting that there were fashion pages in the magazine, but that was, after all, their business.  I’m sure that many of the employees went to the department stores mentioned in the articles and bought the fruits of their own labor.

This article on Orlon was very interesting.  It talked about all the advantages of the new fiber, and mentioned that it would not go into production until later in the year.  And while Orlon was developed at du Pont, Burlington’s research labs had helped solve the problems associated with dying the fiber.

Click to enlarge.

You might think that anyone working in the textile industry would know all about the day of a weaver, but even in 1950 Burlington was a huge, multi-faceted company.  I’m sure many of the employees were never even near a loom.

Many mills did sponsor special activities like baseball teams and bowling leagues.  Especially interesting were the bits about recent high school graduates in the mill community.  Many had received scholarships and were headed off to college in the fall. Only a generation before there was no hope of a mill worker’s child gaining a higher education.

The Burlington Mills Bur-Mil logo is a familiar one to collectors of vintage lingerie.  On many rayon items from the 1940s and early fifties, you will have the Bur-Mil logo along side the brand name.

Companies that used Bur-Mil fabrics often included this fact in their advertising.  The suit ad above is from May 1950.

Note:  It was a common practice, even through the 1970s, for a clothing manufacturer to collaborate with the fabric maker in their ads.  Contrast that with common practice today, when clothing companies often don’t know a thing about the fabrics they use.

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Filed under Ad Campaign, North Carolina, Southern Textiles

Currently Reading – The Cotton Mills of South Carolina, 1907

Over the past several years I’ve read quite a few well-researched books about the conditions in Southern textile mills in the twentieth century, but nothing really compares to a good old book written during the period of study.  It gives you a feel for the attitudes of the period, at least through the writer’s eyes.  As such, this book gives only the thoughts of August Kohn, but it helps to know a bit about the author, and the times in which he lived.  We need to also realize that the situation in textile mills was constantly changing, so what was true in 1907, was no longer true in 1918.

Kohn was the son of immigrants; his father was German and his mother was Austrian.  He was born in South Carolina a few years after the Civil War, in which his father had fought for the Confederacy.  His father was a banker, and August Kohn had the advantages that can only be bought – a private school education and a university degree from South Carolina College, now the University of South Carolina.  He went to work as a newspaper reporter, for the Charleston News and Courier, and became the head of the paper’s Columbia bureau.  He left the paper in 1906 to go into real estate, but he continued to write special articles for it.  This book is made up of a series of articles he wrote about the textile business in South Carolina.

The readers of the Charleston paper were far removed from textile production, which was clustered in the piedmont region.  Originally, this was due to the location of the water fall line, but even after steam power was developed, the mills still were located in the area northwest of Charleston.  This area was sparsely settled, and it was due to the cotton mills that the cities of Greenville and Spartanburg were developed.  Recruiters for the mills traveled through the countryside of the western Carolinas, promising good jobs that were easier than life on an Appalachian farm.

Many of the Southern mills existed because many Northern mills moved south in order to escape the growing labor movement.  People in the South would work for less money than Northern workers, and the mills were closer to the supply of the raw material – cotton.

In 1907 there were few child labor laws, but there was a growing movement calling for reform.  In the Southern textile mills, children were often forced into the mill by economic necessity.  The parents simply did not make enough money for the family to survive.  And the mill owners used child labor because they did not have to pay them the wages of an adult.

Of course, this meant that built into the system was the fact that many mill children had little chance of getting an education.  There were no mandatory education laws in South Carolina at the time, and even if there had been, there were many loopholes in the child labor law that allowed children as young as ten to legally work in the mills.

So, how does Kohn’s book fit in with the issue?  Much of the book is simply a justification of the actions of mill owners and operators. He knew there were many problems within the mill system, but he tended to put the blame on the mill workers themselves and on outside interests.

Many of those who have undertaken to present the conditions that exist here have been unfair, chiefly because they have not gotton facts but have used the distorted data of sensationalists.

His overall view was that the people who worked in the cotton mills were much better off than they had been on the farm.  Working in the cotton mill had actually improved the character of the former Appalachian farmer.

Descended from the early English, Scotch and Germans, they have been sleeping, as it were, while the procession of progress has been passing by.  Serious, independent, as all hill and mountain people are; sensitive, because of that independent spirit; for the most part sober, they are a people of untold possibilities, now that they are beginning to arouse themselves from the drowsiness of generations and to grapple earnestly with the duties of this active, work-a-day world.

As for the lack of jobs open to black people in the mills, he gave a very simple reason.

Experiment has been made on several occasions, notable in Charleston and in Columbia, with colored help, but it has proven a failure, largely because of the lack of ambition on the part on the part of the colored people as a race to accumulate money, and because of the disposition of the people to work two or three days in the week and rest for the remainder of that period.

In writing about the health of mill workers, Kohn acknowledged that many workers suffered ill health.

There are still to-day a great many… pallid people in the cotton mills.  I want to write in GREAT BIG LETTERS that the pallor found among cotton mill operatives is not due to the fact that they work in cotton mills.  

He goes on to say that the workers brought the pallor with them, in the form of hookworms.  There were, no doubt, many cases of hookworms in the mill population, but I found it odd that nothing was said of the dangerous dust and cotton lint that was ever-present in a cotton mill, and which caused breathing problems and even death in many of the workers.

As for child labor, he was at his most defensive.  The mill owners did not want child labor, but they were not able to fight it due to parents wanting their kids to work, and the state legislature not passing sufficient laws.  In some respects, Kohn is right.  In 1907 there was no legal system in South Carolina to record births, and so families often lied about a child’s age in order to put it in a mill.  The factory superintendent would just take the parent’s or even the child’s word for it.

Kohn insisted that the work was not hard, and that it was what the children wanted.

I want to say here in a great many instances the children themselves want to go into the cotton mill.  They seem to like the idea of working and of earning their own livelihood.

Today we can easily see the fallacies in Kohn’s writing, and are shocked that people could have been treated in such a manner.  But one thing I’ve learned from reading so much about the textile and clothing industry is that the abuses have never stopped, they’ve just been moved off-shore.  We now have child labor laws and minimum wages in the US, so the manufacturers leave the US and go to where people are more desperate for work and where there are few protections for workers.  It’s really very similar to what happened in the US in the early twentieth century.  Many historians will argue that the first “off-shoring” happened when factories were moved from Pennsylvania to South Carolina.

Today is the third anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh in which over 1100 people were killed.  It is being commemorated as Fashion Revolution Week, with thousands of people on social media asking, “Who made my clothes?”  In doing so, people are placing the responsibility of ensuring safe working conditions where it should be – with company officials.  I’ve found it interesting which companies have responded to people asking the question of them, and which ones chose to ignore it.

Next week I’ll be writing more about what we can do to make companies accountable for the deplorable working conditions in many of the factories around the world.  I’ll also share ideas about making your own closet more socially responsible.

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Filed under Currently Reading, Southern Textiles, Viewpoint

Ad Campaign – Aberfoyle Fabrics, 1928

Susan at Witness2Fashion sent these ads my way because she noticed that the Aberfoyle mill was located in North Carolina.  I had never heard of Aberfoyle, but as it turns out, they had a mill in Belmont, NC, a small mill town just west of Charlotte.  I’ve been to Belmont plenty of times, mainly because there are several antique places there, one in a repurposed textile mill.  By looking at some photos Susan linked to, I at first thought that the mill I like to visit was the Aberfoyle plant, but on further investigation I realized that Aberfoyle was located down the street outside of town.

On that street, there were at least three textile mills, all of which are now closed.  Even after the factory buildings are torn down, you can often tell were they were located by the presence of lots of similar little houses, lined in neat rows.  These are former mill houses, built by the company as housing for the workers.  There are clusters of mill houses all over Belmont.

The wonderful textilehistory.org site appears to have been down for the past few weeks, which makes learning about these old textile companies a bit more difficult than usual.  I have learned that Aberfoyle began in Chester, PA in 1889, and later opened a mill in Belmont, probably because they were doing business with the other mills in that area, and because production costs were less in the South.  The Chester Mill closed in 1950, but the one in Belmont stayed open at least into the 1960s.

From reading the ads, you can see that Aberfoyle produced what many other Southern mills made – cotton dress goods.  I love how in the ad above you can see snippets of the fabric designs, which are arranged in a very Art Deco manner.

The artist of these is Helen Dryden, who is probably most famous for her beautiful magazine covers of Vogue.  She also did covers for Delineator, where these ads were found.  I can’t help but wonder what the workers at Aberfoyle thought of these stylish ads.  The late 1920s were particularly hard times for textile workers, and I suspect they would not have seen the “story behind their gaiety” that is implied in the ad.

I did learn of a history museum in Belmont that has exhibits on the town’s textile heritage.  I know what I’ll be visiting the next time I’m passing through that area.

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Filed under Ad Campaign, North Carolina, Southern Textiles