Category Archives: Textiles

Fireside Industries: Handwovens in Berea, Kentucky

I had been meaning to visit Berea for some time now. I knew it was a weaving center dating back to the early days of the crafts revival in the US, which started in the late nineteenth century. And had I known how much of the weaving heritage still exists, I’d have visited sooner.

First, you need to know that Berea started as a grammar school in the mid 1800s. Founder John Fee started first the school, and then an academy and college with a radical idea – that the school was open to all, regardless of sex or race. This was unheard of in a state where people were enslaved, and it did not go over well with some of his neighbors. After the Civil War, the school grew, still an anomaly in the former slave states.

That all ended in 1904 when the state of Kentucky passed a law forbidding the education of Blacks and White together. Reluctantly Berea became a school for Whites only, with a separate school founded to serve their Black students. At this time the focus of Berea changed to one that served the children of Appalachia who could not afford to pay for most colleges.

They instituted a work-for-tuition program that exists to this day. A few hours work a day in the school’s Boone Tavern or the Berea farm covered tuition, with extra work granted to those who needed to cover room and board. Even as late as the 1970s when I was applying for college, Berea was known as a school where kids from the greater Appalachian region could attend college in exchange for work.  I know that at least one girl from my high school attended Berea,

In the 1890s the Arts and Crafts Revival was spreading across Europe and North America. At Berea the idea came about to capitalize on the interest in handicrafts by seeing if any of the women in the surrounding area could produce handwoven articles for the college to sell in order to raise additional funds for the school.

By this time, even in Appalachia, cheap mass-produced textiles had all but replaced handwoven goods. Many women still spun wool and flax, but the yarn was used primarily for knitting. But many families still had old looms stored in their barns, and many of the older women still retained the skills needed for weaving.

So a program, called the Fireside Industries, was started where the school paid local women to bring in handwoven goods in exchange for either cash or money applied toward the tuition of a child or grandchild. Berea College resold the goods through a network of women’s clubs. Eventually it was decided to let students learn to weave, with the sale of the finished goods being applied to tuition. A weaving master, Anna Ernberg, was hired, and eventually a log house was built to house the looms and a store for the crafts sales. The Log House, built in 1917, is still used as an outlet for student and local crafts today.

A few years later the looms were relocated to a smaller log building behind the large Log House. Today it still houses the Berea weaving program. The students use modern looms, with some of the original ones that had been developed by Ms. Ernberg on display in another building.

The weavers of Fireside Industries were girls who made smaller woven goods such as napkins, placemats, scarves, and handbags. In the mid 1920s a program was started in which boys were set to weaving on the larger looms that would produce fabric yardage. This program ended in the 1940s, but Fireside Industries continues, making scarves, throws, pillows, and other finely woven items. The proceeds still go to support the college.

We got lucky because even though classes at Berea were still two weeks away, there was a woman working in the weaving cabin, and we were treated to a small tour. There were several different types of looms set up waiting for projects to be finished.

One thing that makes the program at Berea so important was that it was so influential in the development of other weaving programs across the Southern Appalachians. Many of the developers of other weaving centers such as the Penland School of Crafts and Crossnore School trained at and obtained looms from Berea.

A scarf in progress…

and a throw.

And yes, I did my bit to help fund the education of a Berea weaver. With each item you get a card with the name of the maker, along with a little booklet explaining the crafts program.

At one time the town of Berea was home to four thriving weaving concerns – Fireside Industries and the Mountain Weaver Boys which were associated with the college, and Matheny Weavers and Churchill Weavers which were independently owned. Matheny closed in the 1940s, but Churchill remained in operation until 2007. There is a small display of Churchill artifacts in the town’s historic depot.

Churchill Weavers was a large business, at one time running their own stores across the US. I was lucky enough to run across this lovely shawl at my Goodwill bins!

The story of the weaving revival in the Southern Appalachians is a fascinating story. If you are interested in learning more, the best book I know of on the subject is Weavers of the Southern Highlands by Phillis Alvic.

 

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Filed under Made in the USA, Textiles

How Not to Waste a Scrap

I recently found a set of twelve unfinished patchwork pieces in the Dresden Plate pattern. I scooped these up from the bottom of a bin at the Goodwill Dig, knowing I had absolutely no use for them. But the thought of these Depression Era fabrics ending up in a ragger’s bundle made me so sad I had to rescue them.

All the fabrics are 1930s dress fabrics or feedsack fabrics. Some of the fabrics are the same but in different colors, like the blue and green examples above. Maybe a mother made matching dresses for her little girls – blue for one girl and green for the other. And since that same design is also present in red and in purple, maybe there were four daughters.

What really impressed me the most is that some of the pieces are actually pieced from even smaller scraps. The center piece above is made from five tiny scraps, some of them much smaller than an inch in width and length. The maker really knew how to use up every tiny bit of the precious material.

Amazingly, these designs were all pieced by hand. Do you see why I just had to rescue these?

In my own sewing, one of the things I hate facing is the large amount of unusable scrap fabric left over from the cutting. I’m not a quilter, and for the most part, don’t indulge in fiddly crafts that use tiny scraps of fabric. I do make lots of pillows, and all my scraps are cut even smaller to make filling. After reading about how much textile waste ends up in the trash dumps of the world, I can’t bear to add to the problem.

I know that in some areas there is textile recycling. And if worst comes to worst, scraps can be donated to Goodwill where they end up in the ragger’s bundles.  Are there any other ideas?

So now I have twelve pieces of Dresden plate, which I don’t need. I’d love to pass them on to someone who will actually use them, and that person has been located. Thanks, Joni, for taking these off my hands!

A few of the pieces have stains. This is the worst one I have noted.

 

 

 

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A Tour of Textile Town – Spartanburg, SC

It began with a brochure. I’m not sure who the Spartanburg Convention and Visitors Bureau thought they were targeting with this brochure, but as it turns out, it was me and friend Liza. She had picked it up on a recent trip through the area, and then asked if I were interested in joining her on the tour. And of course I was.

We met at stop nine, which really should be stop Number One, the Spartanburg Regional History Museum. I have written about regional museums many times, sometimes flatteringly, sometimes not. This time we got lucky.

As expected, the museum was heavy on the textile industry. That was a good thing. This huge cotton bale was sitting there for visitors to feel and marvel at the softness of it. In the background you can see the steam whistle that governed the lives at the Beaumont Mill, which was located just down the street.

After Reconstruction, Spartanburg promoted itself as the Lowell (Massachusetts) of the South. The combination of cheap labor, no labor unions, and the proximity of the cotton crop led to the rapid spread of textile factories across the region.

By the 1920 there were dozens of textile mills across Spartanburg, today most, if not all, closed.

One of the fun features of the museum was this wall of doors, which could be opened to reveal facts and artifacts.

Many were on the textile theme, as this door that told us just how poorly textile workers were paid.

Others touched on other topics such as education and sports. In the first college football game played in South Carolina, Spartanburg’s Wofford College beat nearby Greenville’s Furman.

In a refreshing change from what is often seen in local museums, the discussion of war focused on the homefront and local involvement in the various conflicts. A Revolutionary War battle, Cowpens, was fought in Spartanburg County, so there was a small display on the battle. There were several WWII era training camps in the area, and they too were featured. The homefront was remembered, as in this wallet for ration coupons and tokens.

Along with the display doors, artifacts are also stored in flat drawers with can be pulled out and studied. Unfortunately, there was usually little to no explanation about the contents.

However, where else could one get such a great look at a nineteenth century slipper?

There were few clothes on display, and this circa 1895 dress was labeled as Edwardian, and was displayed backward.

From the museum we headed to an actual mill, the Beaumont. The building was recently repurposed as part of the local hospital system. They have included a good display showing artifacts and photos from the history of the building.

As mills closed across the Carolinas in the 1990s, much of the machinery was sold to factories around the world. This is a survivor, a C & K shuttle loom.

This was probably used to make plaid cotton.

Beaumont was visited by photographer Lewis Hine in 1912, when he was documenting the child labor so prevalent at the time.

During WWII, Beaumont devoted their entire output to cotton duck.  Above is an advertisement to try and encourage workers to apply for war work at Beaumont.

It’s really interesting how old, empty mills, considered to be a blight on the landscape less than twenty years ago, are now being converted to all sorts of uses. The work at Beaumont is very well dome, and I loved how the history of the building is remembered.

The mill village at Beaumont is still there, and most of the houses are in good shape.

Click to enlarge

Next on the list was the village of Pacolet. This town is a bit outside Spartanburg, but we were enticed by the promise of an intact mill village and the presence of a museum. Unfortunately the museum was closed (on a Friday, no less) and we could not convince the people at the town hall to drop by and unlock the door, even though a sign on the door hinted that that might be a possibility.

I see Pacolet as a real lost opportunity to show all the aspects of the mill complex. There is a great map painted on the wall next to the museum, but orientation is difficult, and some of the building no longer exist. But the village is remarkably intact, and so are some of the ancillary structures.

Best of all is this 1915 school, which was built for the children of black mill employees. It’s a remarkable survivor of the era, when few black people were employed by the mills. This structure is in bad need of preservation. And yes, there are windows, all on the other side of the building.

As the day was drawing to a close, we had time for just one more stop. We picked the facility of German manufacturer Menzel which has two sections of the Berlin Wall installed on their grounds. This has nothing at all to do with textile history, but who could resist seeing part of this symbol of the Cold War?

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Rocky Mount Mills and Mill Village

When it comes to travel, I’m a big believer in planning. So it came as a surprise to me to run across this cotton mill complex in Rocky Mount, NC. We were just passing through, but the sign made me slow down and take a small detour. What it led to was a textbook example of a 19th and early 20th century cotton textile mill and village.

The mill was first constructed in 1818 on the bank of the Tar River. The mill that is there today is not that old, as the original building was burned in 1863 by Union troops under the command of General Ferris Jacobs.

In pre-steam and pre-electrical power days, mills were powered by falling water. The earliest mills had to be built on a river with falls, or the falls could be made by damming the river as you see here. Part of the rushing water would be channeled into a mill race, which cannot be seen but still exists.

On the side of the Tar River across from the mill is a nice city park with good vistas of the complex, or they would have been good before the leaves leafed.

The mill complex had become run down, as production there stopped in 1996. The buildings sat empty and decaying until the site was bought by Capital Broadcasting Company. The part of the mill you see above now houses loft apartments.

This building in front of the mill was the power house, but today it serves as an event center. The little structure behind the water tower was the canteen. Other buildings in the complex are being used as restaurants and breweries.

It’s no surprise that this was the mill owner’s home. One of the founders of the mill was Joel Battle, and this was the home of his son, Benjamin Battle. Battle house was built in 1835.

Like most mill villages, low rent housing was available for rent to the workers in the mill.  The village at Rocky Mount seems to have been quite large, and much of it survives. There was also a beautiful old school that is no longer in the village.

When the site was bought by CBC, most of the houses in the village were ramshackle and vacant.

But today, the restored village looks like this. The houses are owned by CBC and are rented to tenants. The original tenants in the early to mid twentieth century could have only dreamed of the modern living spaces within.

Rocky Mount Mills had such a long history that it witnessed many changes in the making of cotton yarn and the people who made it. The first workers in 1818 were enslaved people, along with a few free Blacks. After the mill was rebuilt after the Civil War, the jobs within were for Whites only, though some Black men held jobs outside the mill as loaders of materials going in and out of the mill. The mill was finally integrated in the 1960s after the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

Along with the restoration, the owners have begun an initiative to collect and preserve the history of the mill, which included the memories of people who worked in the mill and lived in the village. Some of these videos can be seen on the Rocky Mount Mills website. The research is being conducted through UNC Chapel Hill’s Community Histories Workshop.

Some people have complained that the project is just more gentrification by and for rich white people. Having just been to Rocky Mount and having seen its downtown that is almost completely deserted, I have to hope that people will see the possibilities in Rocky Mount, and that even more old buildings can be re-purposed as living and working spaces.

 

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Catalina Culottes Plus Associated American Artist Print

I know I’ve said this already, but Catalina is my new vintage favorite. Much of their early work as a swimsuit maker was very inventive, using Hollywood designers in the 1930s and  incorporating hand block prints in the 1940s. In the 1950s Catalina used art designs from the Associated American Artists (AAA), as part of the general trend to incorporate art into textile design.

There are many things that made me want this garment. Though it looks like a skirt, it is actually culottes. I’m thinking that these “pants” could have passed as a skirt, and therefore entered spaces where the presence of women in pants – even culottes – was frowned upon. Each leg is almost a complete circle, and so the bifurcation is very well hidden in the draping of the fabric. I wonder if any high school girls were able to fool the dress code police with these culottes.

I was also interested because the seller, Cheshire Vintage, mentioned that this is a Soap ‘n Water print from AAA.  A quick look through my sources confirmed that this print dates from 1957. I was happy to find this print pictured in a paper by Karen Herbaugh of the sadly now closed American Textile History Museum.

All the AAA fabrics I’ve seen are well-documented on the selvage. Often included is the name of the artist, the year of manufacture, and the AAA identification. Even though my culotte legs are very wide, the selvages were cut off. Still, it is the same fabric that Herbaugh identified as AAA.

I was drawn to this piece also by the label. Catalina was known for making multiple garments out of the fabrics they used, so I’m hoping to find a few matching pieces.

The designer did a beautiful job of showing off this fabric to best advantage. I love how the stripes drape across the hips. Also, notice how the front placement of the stripes make it look as if this were actually a pleated skirt. The center back has the same treatment, with the zipper partly concealed under one of the pleats.

In case you are skeptical that these really are pants, here’s the proof.

 

The culottes are in new condition, never having been worn. There’s even a paper tag that is a bit of a puzzle. The fabric is obviously cotton, not a modern rayon blend. Somehow the wrong tag became pinned to the garment at some point.

 

 

 

 

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1950s Visit to the Art Museum Skirt

I really do love fabrics that pay homage to the arts, and I have wanted to add a garment in this print to my collection ever since I first saw it ages ago.  It dates to the 1950s, that great post-war period when there was a movement to involve art in textile design.

This movement actually has its roots in the days of World War One, when the American Museum of Natural History became involved in a project aimed at getting textile designers to use the museum’s artifacts as inspiration for prints. This movement died down in the 1920s, but it was not forgotten by one of the main proponents of the project, M.D.C. Crawford. Crawford was a collector of South American textiles, and was a reporter for Women’s Wear Daily.  As World War Two spread across the world, he again suggested turning to museums as a way to help designers cope with being deprived of inspiration from Paris.

After the war ended, the art as fabric torch was raised up by a new publication for the textile industry, American Fabrics. According to this magazine there was $780,000,000 Worth of Design Ideas…Free just waiting for textile designers in the works of art in America’s museums.

As a result there are many art-based textile print projects from the late 1940s and the 1950s. Probably the most famous one is Fuller Fabrics’ line called Modern Masters. This line was so important that Life magazine did a large photo essay on it.

I have never discovered what textile company made the print on my new skirt, and the selvage ends are missing. In a way it takes the advice of American Fabrics a bit too literally. However, the black background and the colorful renditions of the works make for a lovely design.

There are several things about the print that I found to be really interesting. First was the inclusion of ceramics. Like textiles, ceramics are sometimes placed in the category of applied arts, rather than fine arts, where most paintings and sculptures are placed.

(If anyone can help identify this piece, I’d be most grateful.)

Also interesting is the inclusion of an Asian work, The Great Wave by Japanese artist Hokusai. While most of the works used are European, it was nice having this famous Japanese work.

Vincent van Gogh is well represented…

… as are the Impressionists.

The 17th century Dutch painters are represented by Johannes Vermeer…

…and Pieter de Hooch.

And any good art course includes a little Goya.

 

 

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Beacon Blankets Make Warm Friends

Those of you who have been reading this blog a while know I’m interested in more than just old clothes. I also love reading about the Southern textile industry, and especially in how it operated in my state of North Carolina. Like much of the rest of the South, cotton grows in NC, though not where I live in the a bit too cool for the crop mountains. As a kid I had cousins who lived in the textile town of Gastonia, and even then I was fascinated in the difference in their way of life as cotton mill kids, and that of mine, whose father worked making paper.

Even though the Asheville area does not grow cotton, textile industries developed in the mountains after the arrival of the railroad made getting the cotton here very easy. Most of the businesses made hosiery, but there were sewing plants as well. The denim-weaving center was a few hours east by rail, and so small jeans and overall factories were scattered across the mountains.

But most of the actual spinning of cotton and production of cotton took place in the cotton growing area of the lowlands. A major exception to this was Beacon Blankets, which were made in Swannanoa, ten miles or so east of Asheville. The company actually started in the textile center of Massachusetts, but in the 1920s, the owner, Charles D. Owen, looked to the South in order to cut costs. He chose the Swannanoa River Valley, as it was undeveloped, and there was a ready and eager work force nearby. I’ve written quite a bit about the history of Beacon, and the motivations of Northern companies in their quest for cheaper production. part 1 part 2 part 3

I recently found a little brochure published by Beacon, telling consumers (and retailers) why they needed to use cotton, rather than wool, blankets. At the top is a drawing of the massive factory at New Bedford, MA. Beacon was a vertical factory, meaning that the entire process of blanket-making happened under the same roof. They collected cotton waste from other industries, reprocessed the fiber, spun the yarn, dyed it, and loomed it all in the same facility.

There’s no date on my brochure, but because it shows the facility in Massachusetts, I can assume that it was before the 1925 move to North Carolina. Another clue is the cover picture of the Indian, and the use of “Indian Blankets” in their product line listing. In 1930 Beacon was sued by the Navajo Nation because Beacon’s use of  images of Native Americans and the term “Indian Blankets” seemed to imply that the blankets were Indian-made. After 1932, Beacon had to drop the phrase “Indian Blanket” and limit the use of images that implied the blankets were Native-made.

But the best indicators of age are the lovely illustrations of people using Beacon Blankets.

Skirts (and nightgowns) are several inches off the floor, and most of the women still have long hair.

The illustrations show the loose waistline of around 1919 to 1921.

It’s very slightly raised in some of the pictures, as you see in garments just before the waistline dropped to the hips in the later 1920s.

Beacon not only made blankets, they also manufactured what they called robe cloth. It was a bit lighter weight than the blankets, and was sold to both robe manufacturers and to home sewers. If you look in a vintage mail order catalog, it is likely you find both the finished robe and the robe cloth yardage for sale.

If you watch old movies and television shows, it’s quite likely that you’ve seen Beacon robes in action. Last night an early 1960s episode of The Andy Griffith Show was playing, and Floyd the Barber was wearing one of the best Beacon robes I’ve ever seen. Of course, by 1960s, his robe was terribly old-fashioned, which was the point.

 

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