Tag Archives: Biltmore Industries

Homespun Museum at Grovewood Village

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carded wool, ready for the spinner.

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

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

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

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

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

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

machines that still contain bits of fleece…

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

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

 

 

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Filed under Museums, Textiles

Biltmore Industries, Asheville, NC

1919 ad from Vogue magazine

For years I’ve been looking for an item from Biltmore Industries, and last week it finally happened.  A little background about this enterprise:

Biltmore Industries got its start in Asheville when two women from New York moved there to start a craft school.  In 1901, they met the Vanderbilts – Edith and George – who funded the school, and who changed the name of the school to Biltmore Estate Industries.  Over the next few years Edith Vanderbilt worked hard to develop the weaving and woodworking aspects of the school, creating a  program known for the excellent weavers it produced.  A shop was opened in Biltmore Village where the finished cloth was sold.

In 1917 Mrs. Vanderbilt sold Biltmore Estate Industries to Fred Seely, son-in-law of the owner of the Grove Park Inn, a luxurious Craftsman style inn.  The name was shortened to Biltmore Industries, and the entire operation was moved to the Grove Park grounds.

In its heyday, Biltmore Industries ran ads in magazines such as Vogue, and its quality was renowned.  Asheville was a destination for rich tourists, who would buy the fabric and take it to the many local tailors to be made into fashions appropriate for “country wear.”  The business ran 45 hand operated looms in order to fill the demand for the cloth.

The Great Depression severely hurt Biltmore Industries, and the death of Fred Seely in 1942 almost did the business in.  But it was revived in 1953 by a new owner, who ran it until 1981 when production of the cloth ended.  Today, the buildings have been restored and are used as  a craft shop and small museum.  I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never visited the museum, but that will be remedied very soon.

So what did I find?  A jacket made in the late 60s or early 70s from a medium blue homespun.  The jacket itself is rather boring, but its not the garment that is important to me, it is the fabric.  The fabric would have been bought in the Homespun Shop at Grove Park, and then the buyer would either sew it into a garment, or have a tailor make it.  Interestingly, this has a lining of Oleg Cassini print acetate, which was available in fabric shops at the time.

And it answered a question that I’ve had:  Was there a Biltmore Industries label?

An ad from 1948.  Ads were no longer in Vogue, but rather, in tourist publications.

Comments:

Posted by patti shreeve:

I worked there, in the gift shop,about 26 years ago.The owner at the time also owned the Cadillac dealership. There were still weavers, though most of the equipment was in sad disrepair. But the place was great, encouraging quotes in craftsman lettering on the walls, beautiful brass coffee urns for the workers. I don’t know about a craft school, what I heard was that Mrs. Vanderbuilt was employing Scotch-Irish immigrants who came with a knowledge of making tweeds from their previous life in Great Britain. 

Saturday, December 5th 2009 @ 4:31 AM

Posted by Lizzie:

Patti, that is so interesting. The building is still open and there is a museum. I’ve GOT to fit it into my schedule! 

There is some information on the Grovewood Galleries website: http://grovewood.com/history.php According to it, Mrs. Vanderbilt actually sent the founders of the school to Scotland to learn more about wearing from the experts there.

Sunday, December 6th 2009 @ 5:02 AM

Posted by Mod Betty / Retro Roadmap:

I knew my pal Patti would have some interesting info to share on this post, glad I forwarded it to her – I told her I always learn something reading The Vintage Traveler!:) 

Sunday, December 6th 2009 @ 6:23 PM

Posted by patti shreeve:

I told Mod Betty about the day the weavers unloaded a bunch of old raw wool and camel’s hair in my garage. I lived in Fairview at the time. The owner told the weavers to take it all to the dump and I thought I could do something with it(they didn’t want to just toss it out). I made some felt and used it for doll’s hair, I was making funky clay dolls while studying ceramics at UNC-A. Some was already spun and I could knit it.
Some was just too far gone. But I still have some. They were still taking orders for there famous tweeds. I’m sure you’ll enjoy the museum ‘tho they’ve kinda messed up the wonderful old Grove Park. 

Monday, December 7th 2009 @ 2:04 PM

Posted by Lizzie:

Oh my gosh! That is just unbelievable about the wool. I glad you were able to save it. I agree about the Grove Park. Looking at old photos of it makes me really sad. 

Mod Betty, thanks for bringing like-minded readers my way!

Monday, December 7th 2009 @ 5:34 PM


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Filed under Advertisements, North Carolina, Textiles

Biltmore Industries Handwoven Homespun

1924 ad for Biltmore Industries in Vogue magazine

In the late 1800s, some of the women who moved into Western North Carolina from outside the area were dismayed to discover that many of the “traditional” crafts, such as weaving, had died out in this area.  It’s rather puzzling that they would have expected people here to still be processing their own fabric when spinning wheels and looms were gathering dust all over the US.  Nevertheless, the prevailing thought at the time was that people in WNC were living in a sort of pioneer timewarp.

That, of course, was not the case, but popular literature had painted a picture of “mountain folk” that included Elizabethan speech, Old World Ballads, moonshine stills and spinning wheels.  Some of the newcomers were so upset by what they did not find, that they set about to make it happen.

In the case of Biltmore Industries, the woman in question was Edith Vanderbilt, wife of George Vanderbilt, multi-millionaire and builder of the Biltmore House.  In 1905 she along with social reformers and teachers Charlotte Yale and Eleanor Vance, formed Biltmore Estate Industries, a school of sorts that was to “reteach” the forgotten skills to area people.  Mrs. Vanderbilt went so far as to send the women running the school to Scotland so they could study Old World weaving techniques.

Wisely, the decision was made not to try and recreate rustic, traditional textiles, but instead to make fine woolens in fashionable colors.  This was, after all, a business, and the product had to be marketable.  So even though they were marketed as a  traditional product, the woolens were made for the modern consumer.

By 1916, there were 8 looms, and the enterprise was highly successful.  The next year, Mrs. Vanderbilt sold the operation to Fred Seely, the son-in-law of the owner of the Grove Park Inn.  The name was shortened to Biltmore Industries, and Mr. Seely built six English cottage style structures on the grounds of the hotel in which to house the operation.

Vintage postcard showing the inside of the weaving shed

Mr. Seely took the operation to a national audience by placing ads in magazines such as Vogue. As demand grew, looms were added.  In 1920 there were 40 looms in operation.  The fabric they produced was of excellent quality.  There was a retail store on the property in which the yard goods were sold, the Homespun Shop.  Visitors to Asheville would often buy the fabric and then take it to one of the many tailors around Pack Square to have it made into a suit or coat.

Seely’s death in 1942 took a toil on Biltmore Industries.  The equipment fell into disrepair, and output dwindled.  But the business was revived in 1953 when it was bought by Asheville car dealer Harry Blomberg.  It remained open until 1981, when the last lengths of cloth were woven.

Today, the Homespun Shop is open as Grovewood Galleries, which sells crafts and art.  The old weaving shed holds Harry’s antique car collection, and one of the smaller buildings is now the excellent little Biltmore Industries Museum.

Biltmore Industries loom

A roll of labels.  The buyer was given a label to sew into the garment made from the handwoven woolen fabric.  The purple and white label below is from the 1940s.

A few samples of Biltmore Handwoven, which shows a large range of colors.

A few samples of Biltmore Handwoven, which shows a large range of colors.

This jacket was made as a sample in the late 1940s.

Antique cars inside the old weaving shed.

A few months ago I was lucky enough to find a 1960s or 70s jacket made from Biltmore Handwoven Homespum.  I posted about it then, and I’ve bumped up that entry and it follows this one. I’m also going to make it my mission to visit some of the other crafts cooperatives and schools that were started about the same time.  Many of them are still in operation, but not in the same manner as they were 100 years ago.

Comments:

Posted by Sarah:

Fascinating piece! I wonder if Edith Vanderbilt was at all influenced by the William Morris/Arts and Crafts ideas about returning to traditional craft skills and venerating the work of the skilled artisan?

Not to mention a strong dose of romanticism and nostalgia for a lost age – in Morris’ case Medieval times (I expect Edith skipped the socialism part!)

Tuesday, April 20th 2010 @ 11:50 PM

Posted by Lizzie:

Sarah, yes, you are correct. Vanderbilt and the other founders of Southern Applachian craft schools were quite familiar with both Morris’s movement and that of American Arts and Crafts leaders like Gustav Stickley and Elbert Hubbert.

Saturday, April 24th 2010 @ 4:36 PM

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Filed under North Carolina, Textiles