Category Archives: 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

1930s Chenille Bathing Suit Cover-up Cape

During a recent lucky streak, I ran across this fantastic cape, which is a bathing suit cover-up.  It is made from machine-made chenille, a fabric that started out as the product of a cottage industry in northern Georgia.  Based around the town of Dalton, Georgia, home workers began making hand tufted bedspreads to sell to travelers going south on the newly finished Dixie Highway.  A local textile mill, Crown Cotton, provided the base material, which is a heavy muslin-type fabric.  By 1910 the homeworkers were setting up stands along the highway to sell to the growing tourist travelers.

In 1917 a manufacturing process was set up. and some of the tufting was done by machine.  Hand tufting was still being done, but it was increasingly mechanized.  At first the product was just bedcovers, but by the 1920s some garments, such as bathrobes and beach wear, were also being made.

I can remember seeing the bedspread stands as a child traveling to visit relatives in the far western reaches of North Carolina and on the road to Atlanta.  Some of the designs were quite bizarre – wildly colored peacocks spring to mind.  And occasionally a stand can be spotted even today, but for the most part, the chenille factories converted to carpets years ago.

I can’t say a lot about the origin of the cape.  There is a small, handwritten label, that looks more like a collections number than anything else.  Could this cape have been in a collection before becoming a part of mine?  It is possible.

I do have two more chenille garments, one a bedjacket and the other a shorter cape.  None of them have  makers labels of any kind.

The neckline is gathered with a cotton robe tie.  There is an extra row of red chenille for decoration.

The back of the gathering.

I don’t have any photos showing a chenille cape, but I did find this jacket.  It is dated July 1939, Mountain Lake, New Jersey.

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Filed under Collecting, Curiosities, Proper Clothing, Southern Textiles, Sportswear, Summer Sports, Vintage Clothing

Currently Reading: A Fabric of Defeat

One of the things that makes fashion history so interesting to me is that there are hundreds of ways to approach it, and hundreds of subtopics to grab my attention.  Growing up in the South in a town that was dominated by its relationship with the local factory (paper, not textiles) and having relatives who worked in cotton mills from the 1930s through the 90s  has made me quite interested in the textile and garment industries of the Carolinas.

People often make the mistake of confusing the two states. The piedmont (the area between the coastal plain and the Appalachian Mountains) of both was textile country, but having different governing bodies meant that what applied in one state did not always apply to the other.  Being from North Carolina I am quite familiar with the labor movement here, and the struggles workers went through in order to have safe working conditions and a fair wage.  I knew about the deadly battles fought between unionizers and law enforcement in my state, but was ignorant of similar situations that happened just south of me.

I found A Fabric of Defeat: The Politics of South Carolina Millhands, 1910 – 1948 at my favorite Goodwill.  I’ve been reading it over the past month, interspersed with other, lighter reading.  It’s not that the reading is hard, but that it is difficult to digest.

There were quite a few truisms that I was exposed to in my days as a history student, and one of them was that it is rarely fair to judge the actions of people in the past by the mores of today.  Still, it is hard to come to grips with the way people were treated in factories, and also with the racism that kept Blacks out of the mills and in the worst kind of poverty.  It is especially true knowing that mill conditions have not really changed, they have just moved to Pakistan and Bangladesh.

There is no way I can summarize the story this book tells, as it is too complicated to go into the sort of detail that would lead to a real understanding of the situation.  But simply put, the situation in the mills was good through World War I because of the increased demand for textiles.  We tend to think of the 1920s as boom years, but for many Southern textile companies, this was not so.  The loss of army contracts combined with fashions that required much less fabric led to over-production, which led to the collapse of prices.  Many millhands lost their jobs even before the stock market crash of 1929.

The Great Depression just served to make the situation worse.  And in another of those great history truisms, it was not until the war machine cranked back up in the late 1930s that recovery came to the mills of South Carolina.  By that time the mill workers had tried, and failed, to influence the politics of South Carolina in a way that would better their lives.

There are no heroes in this story.  Most of the state’s leaders were not from the area where the mills were located, and saw no reason to pass laws to help the workers. The few politicians who did fight to improve the lives of the mill workers also worked to keep the vote from Black people.  The mill workers themselves refused to work in factories where Black people worked, thereby keeping their one claim of status – that they were at least better off than the Black man.

Several years ago I visited the South Carolina State Museum.  There were several great exhibits on the textile industry and the lives of mill workers.  I can’t recall reading a word about the political strife of the 1920s and 30s, even though workers were killed.  In all, it now seems like a sanitized version of the past, with a model of a cute mill village viewed through a rosy lens.  To be fair, I may have missed that part of the history, and will be revisiting the museum in the near future.

Bryant Simon managed to take a difficult subject and report on it objectively and without judgement.  Even though I found A Fabric of Defeat to be very enlightening, I can’t really recommend it to readers who are just wanting to read about fashion.  What I do suggest is that you explore the historical roots of your own state or region, whether it be on the subject of fashion or any other topic.

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Filed under Currently Reading, Southern Textiles, Uncategorized

Cruso Quilt Show, 2015

One of the things I have to do every summer is attend the Cruso Quilt Show.  Even though I’m not a quilter, I’m enough of a textile lover and appreciator to love spending an hour or so examining the quilts, both modern and vintage.  I always learn something and I always see something that is new to me.

The bowtie quilt above is a vintage quilt top that has been newly finished using machine stitches.

This is a new quilt made from vintage fabrics and feedsacks.  The fabrics had belonged to the quilter’s mother-in-law.

Quilts are meant to be seen from a distance, but also close up.  I love the visual impact of a beautiful quilt, but the little squares are sometimes design marvels by themselves.

In the quilting world, things are not always as they seem.  This quilt is made from modern reproductions of vintage fabrics.  The maker could have gone one step further into vintageland by using a natural muslin for the background fabric.

This one is vintage, and after looking at a lot of vintage and reproductions, the background fabrics are usually a big hint as to which is which.

This quilt that uses reproduction fabrics really caught my eye, and not only because it is so bold.  Some of the fabrics in this quilt are reproductions of the “neons” of 1892 through 1900 that I learned about back in April when I found some old swatches.

I have the originals on which the leaf prints are patterned.  Even the colors are the same.

Crazy quilts are associated with the Victorians, but women were still making them in the mid twentieth century.  The fabrics in this quilt date from the 1930s through the 1960s.  This method of making crazy squares is more obvious without all the Victorian embellishment.

This vintage quilt had the best dancing elephant fabric.

This vintage quilt is interesting for several reasons.  First, I need to point out that the squares are very small, about one and a half inches across.  This was obviously made by someone who saved even the smallest scraps.  Second, note the way the fabrics are positioned, with no attempt to cut the triangles on the grain of the fabric.  And finally, there was not much effort put into matching the corners.  We tend to thing that old equals quality, but in many cases that is just not true. Today quilting is a craft, something that people do for fun, but for many women in the past, it was just work that had to be done.

And I’ll end with a new quilt, this one made by my sister-in-law for my niece’s soon to be born baby boy.  I love the bold colors!

Correction:  I changed the word foundation to background in the paragraph following the fourth photo.  Thanks to my more-knowledgeable-than-me readers for keeping me straight.

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Filed under Southern Textiles, Vintage Sewing

Antique Fabric Swatches Need a Date

One of the reasons I keep returning to my local Goodwill Outlet bins is because I never know what will be found there.  It truly is a giant treasure hunt, with some people hunting for gold in the book bins and others hunting for silver in the toy bins.  Like me, there are those who are looking for textile treasures, so I have to really keep my eyes open and ready to spot something interesting.  On a recent trip I found a plastic baggie full of what looked to be at first glance, swatches of reproductions of antique fabrics.  I threw the bag in my buggy anyway to give it a closer look.

A closer examination showed that every swatch was different and they were all the same size.  A previous owner had written “$5” on the baggie, and so these were left over from a sale of some sort.

While examining the pieces I noticed that on the backs were remnants of glue and even little scraps of paper.  These swatches had been torn out of a sample book, was my guess.

And one was still clinging to this piece of very old paper. At this point I was convinced that these swatches were actually antique fabrics.  My guess is that they were attached to a sample book or cards, and that someone removed them to use as quilt or crafting pieces.  That’s the sort of act that just breaks my heart, as it removes the object from some very vital information.  Who made these fabrics?  When were they marketed?  Are they American in origin?

It’s likely I’ll never know the answers to all my questions, but I’m sure there are some of you who can help me narrow down a date for them.  Using the information and photos in Eileen Jahnke Trestain’s book, Dating Fabrics: A Color Guide 1800 -1960 I’ve placed them in her category of 1880 through 1910.  I’d like something a bit more precise.

I was amazed at the sharpness of the colors…

And the modern look to some of the designs.

There was even an early novelty print, in the form of card suits.

There were several prints that were made in different colorways.

About half of the swatches have a black background, but there are also some pretty, light prints in pink and white.

And then, as now, black and white prints were a favored combination.

So please, if you can shed some light on the age of these lovely little pieces, post and enlighten this mid-century girl.  I’d also like suggestions on what to do with them.  Should I put them back in a book where they belong?  Pactchwork is out of the question!

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Filed under Curiosities, Novelty Prints, Southern Textiles

Cotton Fields

I was on the road yesterday in the North Carolina piedmont which is cotton country.  As I passed by one of the large fields it occurred to me that it was likely that many of you have never seen a cotton field.  So I decided to stop and take a few photos.

Cotton is the second most valuable crop in  North Carolina, behind tobacco.  It is too cold to grow it here in the mountains, but the southern piedmont and the coastal plain are ideal for growing the crop.  It isn’t an easy crop to grow, as weeds and insects can be major problems.  It requires a lot of water and so must often be irrigated.

When the cotton is ripe, the fields are often described as snowy.  Actually, snow in this region does look like a cotton field, as the snow often falls on ground that is not entirely frozen and so patches of the ground show through.

Cotton forms in a pod (boll) which pops open when it is ripe.  What you can’t see are the seeds, which are stuck to the fibers and are hard to remove by hand.

And speaking of snowy, this is what we woke up to this morning.  The snow had been forecast, but somehow I don’t think we really believed it until confronted with three inches of the fluffy white stuff.

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Filed under North Carolina, Southern Textiles