Tag Archives: textile history

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.



Filed under 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.


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.



Filed under Collecting, Curiosities, Textiles

South Carolina State Museum

Click to enlarge.

Last week I drove to Columbia, SC to visit the South Carolina State Museum.  This museum is a multi-purpose institution, with exhibits ranging from art to history to science and technology.   One of the most interesting things about the museum is the 1894 building in which it is housed.  It is a former textile mill, Columbia Mills,which was a large producer of cotton duck.  The building was given to the state in 1981 after the mill closed.

Some of the original textile-making equipment was saved, and is now installed as an exhibit.  Above are spinning machines.  The museum cleverly produced the look of many rows of machines by the use of mirrors.  There are actually only two machines.

This is a dobby loom from around 1940.  It came from a textile factory in Aiken, SC.  The cloth you see on the loom is what was being made when the factory closed in the early 1980s.

The product of the Columbia Mill was cotton duck, which is a heavy canvas used for tents and conveyor belts and such.  This is one of the last bolts produced before the “Duck Plant” closed.

A lot of the museum is concerned with cotton mill village and rural life in the past.  There was a great interactive model of a large mill village which showed how the village was pretty much an extension of the factory.  And they had a “country store” set up, with all kinds of products that made me want to go shopping.

It’s my guess that most states have a museum of this sort – a mini Smithsonian that is concerned with the history and industry and natural history of the state.  (Though North Carolina has an art museum, a history museum and a natural history museum.)  All the ones I’ve ever visited are well worth the time if only for the wonderful randomness that is often encountered.

I actually had a reason for my visit.  The museum had a special exhibition of items from Springs Mills in Fort Mill, South Carolina.  The company is best known for their production of Springmaid sheets and fabrics, but beginning in 1948 the company was also known for their racy ad campaigns.   I’ve written about this in the past, and tomorrow I’ll share a few things from the exhibition.


Filed under Museums, Road Trip

Sew It Yourself with Cannon Towels and Sheets

I know that half the crafters on etsy think they invented DIY (do it yourself) but here’s proof that we Seventies hippie girls were the actual inventors of repurposing.

I’m joking, of course.  Remaking textile items has been going on as long as there have been textiles.  What changed were attitudes toward remodeling old textile items.  Whereas our grandmother and mothers during the Great Depression and WWII were well acquainted with making things last, the prosperity of the 1950s made remodeling old clothing unnecessary for many.

But then, in the late Sixties, we discovered the delights of old textiles.  To get in on the action companies that made new textiles pushed using their products as crafting materials.  This poster from Cannon Mills is a great example.


There’s no date on the poster, but all the Simplicity and McCall’s patterns featured are dated 1970.  That seems right to me.  I was in the ninth grade, and I was really into these type of  Peter Max-ish graphics.  

Cannon Mills was located in Kannapolis, NC.  The town was a mill town, but was the largest of its type with around 1600 homes, a hospital and YMCA.  By 1918 the factory had become the largest producer of towels in the world.  Other Cannon factories produced sheets and kitchen linens.  At the height of the company’s prosperity, there were 30,000 employees.  Starting in the 1980s there were a series of company mergers and sell-offs, and on one dark day in 2003, the Kannapolis mill closed, putting 4340 at that mill and 3310 others out of their jobs.  The Cannon name was sold, and products with the name are now produced in Asia.


Filed under Curiosities, North Carolina, Textiles

An Old Cotton Mill and Village, Reused

One of the aspects of textile history that many people (especially if you are not from the textile producing areas of the US) don’t know about, is the mill village.  Mill villages were constructed by the mill owner as housing for the workers.  Because the mills were often constructed miles from the nearest town, or on the outskirts of a city where there was no pool of workers nearby, the mill owners often provided modest, low cost housing to attract workers.  They sometimes even provided a church and a company store.

As our textile industry began its decline in the 1970s, many textile mills were closed, and in many cases, the mill village connected with a closed mill would be abandoned or even demolished.  The South was in danger of losing this part of our historical record.  Fortunately, preservationists and former residents of the villages began seeing the possibilities in these old structures.

The video at the top shows how the  Edenton Cotton Mill has been converted to condos and the surrounding village has been revitalized as a viable community.  The mill closed in 1995, and the owner gave the entire complex to Preservation North Carolina.  The houses were sold and renovated for modern living.  As one woman points out, this is not a museum.  There is however, a small museum in the former cotton mill office building.

To contrast with the community in Edenton, the next video shows an unrestored village, Henry River Mill Village.  You may have seen this village, as it was used in The Hunger Games as the setting of the coal mining region, District 12.  If you are interested in restoring this  little ghost village, it is for sale for $1.4 million.

I have a few villages and village museums on my radar, and will be paying them visits in the not too distant future, so stay tuned for more textile history.

On a bit of a personal note, I grew up in Canton, NC, which was home to Champion Pulp and Paper.  Before the mill was built in 1906, Canton was a small settlement of 230 people.  The building of the mill brought more jobs than there were workers, and soon the influx of new residents led to a housing shortage.  The owners of Champion began construction of a village, modeled on the textile mill villages of the region.  In all, about 60 mill houses were built in a new area of town which was named Fiberville.  On the hill above the company built thirteen larger houses which were to be provided to the mill’s management.

In 1949 many of the smaller houses were destroyed when the Pigeon River flooded.  The company sold the remaining houses, some of which were moved to higher ground.  What was left of the original village was destroyed in 2004 when Hurricanes Frances and Ivan caused more flooding.  Interestingly, all the management houses are still high and dry on the hill above.


Filed under North Carolina, Textiles

Labor Day Special –

When I was a kid I was really confused about Labor Day.  Why have a holiday where nobody goes to work and then call it “Labor” Day?  It wasn’t until I learned about the Labor Movement that I began to see the connection.

In honor of Labor Day, today’s post is a greatly simplified history of the Labor Movement and how it influenced the textile industry, especially in the South.  I’ll go ahead and state straight out that I was reared by a man who was a strong supporter of Labor, and that while I try to keep an open mind and realize there are always at least two sides to any story, I am strongly sympathetic to the cause of organized labor.

I hope all of you (in the US anyway) learned in school that after Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793 the growth of cotton fairly exploded across the South.  What might seem a bit odd today is that even though the cotton was grown in the South, it was shipped to textile factories in the North and in England where it was spun into thread which was woven into cloth.  There were very few textile factories in the South until the 1880s.

There was a  good geographical reason for there being few factories in the South.  It had to do with power, or the lack of it.  Until the steam engine came along, factories depended on water power, so factories had to be located along a stream or river where water was falling.  In the South, there is a wide coastal plain where there are no water falls, but in the North the fall line is close to the coast, where most of the people were living.   The fall line in the South was located far inland, away from the centers of population and the source of workers.  It makes sense that the factories were located where there was a close supply of workers.

There were other factors, of course.  The machinery was being manufactured in the North, and the industrial leaders were not eager to sell the machinery to a region that could use slave labor to compete with them.

After the end of the Civil War the development of the railroad and of the steam engine led to factories being built in the South.  The war had greatly disrupted the infrastructure of the region, so this development was slow.  But by the turn of the 20th century, there were textile factories being built all over the piedmont South.  Many of the early textile companies were formed by local men, like Franklin Mebane, who started what became Fieldcrest, and James Cannon, the founder of Cannon Mills.

As time went on, many textile and sewing companies in the North decided to relocate to the South.  A good example of this is the Beacon Blanket Company, which began its move south in 1923.  The reason often given for the relocation was that they wanted the factories to be closer to the source of the raw material, cotton.  And while this was true, there was also the fact that labor costs were cheaper in the South.

The long established textile mills in the North had begun to be regulated by the state governments.  More and more there were laws that limited child labor, and that set limits on the work day of adult workers.  In the South, which traditionally had few factories, these laws were slow in coming.  This pushed the cost of labor in the South below what it was in the North.

The lack of manufacturing in the South meant that jobs were hard to come by and highly prized.  When a factory was being built, the owners often build a surrounding town from scratch.  This would include a church, a company store and low cost housing for the workers.  Pretty soon the workers’ lives were firmly intertwined with that of the mill.

Add to this the fact there was a growing suspicion of labor unions in the South.  In the 1920s there was a series of doomed attempts to unionize textile mills which led to the deaths of workers.  The promises of the unions to support striking workers fell through, and the strikes were unsuccessful.  It all left a bad taste in workers’ mouths.  And it did not help that most of the union organizers were from outside the region.  It was easy for the factory management to characterize them as outside agitators.

Throughout the mid 20th century, most Southern textile and sewing factories remained non-union.  But big changes were occurring in the way the mills were being run.  Many of the original founding families were selling the textile companies and ownership became absentee, with many of the owners living in other areas, leaving the day to day running of the mills to management teams.

Still, old loyalties to the company and the families that “took care of” the workers remained.   I grew up in a paper mill town that had been established and owned by the same family for 60 years.  When there was an attempt to unionize the factory, many workers refused to vote for the union out of a sense of loyalty to the Robertson family, even though they had sold the majority of the company to a New York firm.   It was the same in many textile companies across the South.

But there was another concern, and that was of job security.  Workers feared that voting for and joining a union would jeopardize their jobs.   And this was a valid concern.  In 1956, when the workers at the Deering Milliken plant in Darlington, SC voted to join the Textile Workers Union of America,  the company promptly closed the factory, putting 500 people out of work.  Even though the move was illegal, it took 24 years before the fired workers were compensated with back pay.

But there were successes.  After years of having their products boycotted by union workers across the country, JP Stevens finally was unionized in the mid 1970s.  In 1974 JP Stevens worker Crystal Lee Sutton was fired for her involvement with union organization, but as she was being escorted from the factory, she took action:

 “I took a piece of cardboard and wrote the word UNION on it in big letters, got up on my work table, and slowly turned it around. The workers started cutting their machines off and giving me the victory sign. All of a sudden the plant was very quiet…”  

If Sutton’s story sounds familiar it is because the film Norma Rae, starring Sally Field was a fictionalized version of the story.   I’ll have more to say about the movie later this week.

I’d like to say that this story has a happy ending, but we all know what happened to the textile jobs across the South.  As soon as people started making a living wage, the importation of cheaper foreign-made goods began the downfall of the Southern textile industry.  Some companies, like Hanes, took a “if you can’t beat them, join them,” attitude and began producing elsewhere.  Some companies, like Milliken, have survived by switching from home textiles to industrial textiles and chemicals.  Others, like Cannon, simply went out of business.

There are of course those who blame the unions for the inability of American textile companies to compete in the global marketplace.   If insisting that workers be paid a living wage, have safe working conditions and humane conditions and hours is what caused the American industry to fail, then I say sure, blame the union.  Unfortunately, all that has really happened is the the poor conditions are still with us, but half a world away.


Filed under Made in the USA, Textiles, Viewpoint