Category Archives: Textiles

Fashion and Technology at the Cincinnati Art Museum

Because the topic of the symposium was Fashion and Technology, and the Cincinnati Art Museum was a sponsor of the symposium, I’d guess that it’s not a coincidence that the museum had an exhibition also titled Fashion and Technology. I think that we most often think of LED lighting and 3-D printing and smart chips embedded in clothing when confronted with the idea of technology in fashion, but we need to remember that technological advances in clothing date back to the fig leaf.

This small but well-curated exhibition covers roughly one hundred years, starting in 1780. The dress above shows a very old method of making printed fabrics – that of using hand-carved blocks that were used to hand print the design. It was effective, and made beautiful designs, but the process was very slow. Multiple blocks had to be used, one for each color in the design.

A big step forward came around 1800 in the form of roller printing, in which mechanized rollers were used to print onto the fabric. There was a similar process, using cylinders to mechanically apply the dye. The fabric used to make this circa 1830 dress was most likely printed using a combination of the two processes.

This circa 1850 dress helps illustrate the advances made in dye production. Synthetic dyes were developed in the late 1850s, and before that time, dyes were made from natural materials with a mordant added to help set the color. The plaid in this dress was produced by dyeing the threads different colors, and then setting up the loom to produce the pattern.

The creation of mauveine, the first practical synthetic dye, in 1856 brought spectacular colors to fashion. This circa 1863 dress has synthetic purple trimming, and the little flowers in the print are mauveine.

Another technological advance seen in this dress is the use of machine-made lace.

As a side note, like many dresses of this period, this one has two bodices. The second bodice is in storage, and we were able to see it on our tour of the storage area.

Here we have two dresses of roughly the same era, The dress on the left is by Paris couturier Jacques Doucet and dates to around 1888. Even though machine made lace was common by that date, this dress is embellished with handmade lace. Maybe the woman for whom this dress was made wanted to incorporate a piece of heirloom lace, or may she just wanted to show off her wealth.

The dress on the right is from a few years earlier, but here the couturiers, Moret et Moncuit, used machine made lace. Because machine made lace was less expensive than the handmade variety, more of it could be used to embellish a gown.

I’m guilty of looking at a pre-twentieth century garment and only seeing the design. Fashion and Technology shows us there is so much more to see.

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Filed under Museums, Textiles

Thoughts on a Return to USA Production of Textiles

With all the talk about Made in America and bringing jobs back to the US, it is easy to look at the textile and clothing industries through rose-colored glasses.  I was reminded of this yesterday while visiting the Upcountry History Museum in Greenville, SC.  Like many cities in the Carolinas, Greenville was built on the textile industry, and the city really suffered when fabric and clothing makers began closing due to foreign competition starting in the 1970s.

Today, however, the city seems to be doing alright.  There is a downtown that is returning from the brink of emptiness, and they have an arts center, Heritage Green, that is simply amazing.

Are the textile jobs missed?  Yes, I’m sure they are.  Would it be possible to return textile jobs to Greenville?  I have my doubts.  Would people even be willing to work in a textile mill like the ones that closed?  My guess is no.

Along with this weaving machine, the museum had audio to simulate the conditions inside a cotton mill.  The background photo shows the rows and rows of machines, all noisily running to produce the cloth.  People had to yell in order to be hear above the din.

And look closely at the vertical belt that connects the machine to the source of power.  See the wisps of cotton?  Cotton was everywhere in the mill, and workers inhaled a lot of it.  Many became sick with “brown lung.”  My father’s youngest sister died from it.

As time progressed, textile technology improved, something that did not stop when textile jobs first began moving to Mexico and Central America in the 1970s.  My guess is that a textile worker who lost his job in 1985 would not recognize a modern textile plant, with so many of the jobs once done by humans now being done by computers and machines.

And that is the first major obstacle to returning textile production to the US.  Technology has progressed to the point where we don’t have the trained workers in the US who could run a modern textile mill.  We don’t have the machinery, except for these examples found in museums and in rare factories like the White Oak denim plant in Greensboro, NC.  Some sewing factories have even had a hard time finding enough workers who can run an industrial sewing machine.

The museum has this great display on the “stretch-out”.  The stretch-out began in the 1920s, when in an effort to increase profits, doffers, the workers who tended machines and removed ( or “doffed”) bobbins holding the cotton yarn from a spinning frame and replaced them with empty ones, were given more machines to tend.  Slower workers were fired, and the ones remaining had to pick up the slack by tending more machines.

The museum let visitors time themselves at a doffing task, and then see if the time could be improved upon.  If not, then I guess you would be history at that mill.

The president-elect has said that tariffs will be imposed on products imported into the USA as a punitive measure toward those who do not produce in the USA.  I’ve said in the past that this is not such a bad idea, but the truth is, whether tariffs are imposed, or whether firms move to US production, people had better get used to paying more for their clothes and other textile products.

Unfortunately, even in the USA, we have garment workers who make less than the pitiful minimum wage.  Jen recently posted this link to a Department of Labor investigation, and it is eye-opening.  As much as we would like to think that Made in USA insures an ethically-made product, I’m afraid that is just not the reality.

And even if minimum wage is paid, this paragraph from The Fashion Law, tells the story:

The current federal minimum wage, the lowest amount a worker can legally be paid, is $7.25 an hour or about $15,080 per year, before taxes, for an average full time worker. To put that in perspective: The current poverty threshold for a household of one is $11,880.

The bottom line is that there are no easy answers, no easy solutions.  The textile and clothing manufacturing industries have a very long histories of abuses and of circumventing law and human rights.  And when things improve for workers, this industry has a long history of packing up and moving where workers are more desperate for jobs and thus will tolerate less pay and dangerous working conditions.

It gets worse.  I recently posted a link to a company currently making camping clothing in the USA.  As it turns out, that company has ties to a White supremacy group.  Thanks to a reader who looked a bit closer at the company, I was alerted to the problem and quickly took down the link.

Do I want textile production to return to the US?  Of course I do, but I could do without the abuses of the past, and of the industry as it exists today in Asia.  This is just not a simple issue.

I’ll conclude with photos of company store tokens and coupons.

Remember that old Tennessee Ernie Ford song, “Sixteen Tons,” in which he sang, “I owe my soul to the company store”?  It was a common practice for workers to need a cash advance on their meager wages, and the payback was in tokens that could only be spent in the company-owned store.  With a system like this it was impossible to ever rise above the debt.

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Filed under Museums, 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, 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 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, Textiles

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, 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 Advertisements, North Carolina, Textiles