Tag Archives: textile manufacturing

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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Henry River Mill Village

Some time ago I posted about the Henry River Mill Village and the fact that the entire village was for sale.  The village was used in the filming of the Hunger Games as the poor District 12 home of the heroine, Katniss.  I was traveling through the area last week, and took the short detour off the Interstate to see Henry River for myself.

The entire tract is privately owned (and still for sale) and due to on-going problems with sightseers, trespassing is forbidden, but the state road runs through the village so it is possible to get a good look from one’s car.  There are about twenty houses still standing, with more outhouses than I’ve seen in a very long time.

Henry River Mill was opened in 1905 as a producer of cotton yarn.  Originally it was water powered, and a dam that was built to concentrate the falling water is still standing.  The mill closed in the 1960s, and the mill building burned in 1977.  Like many mill villages, Henry River was fairly self-sufficient, with a company store, a school and a church.  The mill was even able to produce electricity for the village.

The setting is quite beautiful.  The site starts on the top of a hill and the village winds down the hill to the river.  I just hope that any buyers of the site plan to preserve the village as mill villages are now few and far between.

This building is the old company store.  In the Hunger Games it was a bakery, and you can see the word “cakes” painted beneath the windows.  Note the very white board to the left of the door, under the windows.  The word “Pastries” was painted there, but one day the owner arrived to find that someone had ripped out the boards and taken them as a souvenir.  He replaced the boards and placed the site off limits to the public.  Can’t say that I blame him.

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Ideas Tailored on a Moment’s Notice

I suppose I ought to have a category titled, “Things I didn’t know,”  because that is where this entry would have to be placed.   Or it could go under “Things I learned while looking for something else,”  or even, “Things I should have noticed before but did not.”

While looking through my collection of American Fabrics magazines, the above ad caught my eye.  It tells how fabric maker Cohama maintained the Cohama Hand-Looming Workshop,  a place where the fabric designers could experiment with their ideas before committing to large runs on the mechanized looms.  I thought that this was a pretty neat idea, and gave Cohama some silent brownie points for such a practical solution to what can be a costly problem.

But it turns out that Cohana was not the only wool manufacturer who relied on the hand loom to try out the new ideas of the designers.

In the Fall 1949 issue of American Fabrics there is a small article, “Ideas Tailored on a Moment’s Notice”, in which they show the hand weaving operation at Forstmann Woolen Company.   Called the Provincial Designing Room, it was under the direction of Miss Margaret Swanson, and employed two hand looms on which weavers would interpret the ideas of designers working for clothing manufacturers.  The designer could watch the fabric develop, and make changes if necessary.  After the designer was satisfied with the sample, it would be processed by the mechanized looms.

I love the quaintness of the Provincial Designing Room!   In the photo above Miss Swanson is working with Ellen Brooke of Glenhunt (A suit and coat maker) and a hand weaver to develop the fabric to Miss Brooke’s satisfaction.

Brooke and Swanson, looking at how the newly developed fabric cuts and drapes.

The hand weaver, Alice Berman, making the sample worked out by Swanson and Brooke.

A swatch of the handwoven sample

And where the run of fabric will eventually be made, on the fully automated looms at Forestmann.

All illustrations are from the Fall 1949 issue of American  Fabrics and are copyright Reporter Publications, Inc.

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Acme-McCrary, Over 100 Years in Hosiery

Several weeks ago I found this booklet, which was a 50th anniversary brochure published by the Acme-McCrary company of Asheboro, NC.  Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of Acme-McCrary, as I had not either.  But this booklet is the type of thing I love to find, as it illustrates the history of one of the many hosiery mills that dotted the South in the 20th century.

What I did not realize when I bought the book is that Acme-McCrary is still in business, and still making hosiery in North Carolina.  It’s an interesting story, with some familiar names.

The company was founded in 1909 as the Acme Hosiery Mill in Asheboro, the creation of brothers-in-law D.B. McCrary and T.H. Redding.  The product was cotton stockings, which were made in two colors, cordovan and black.  A few years later the company bought a spinning mill, which supplied the cotton yarn for their stockings.  Throughout the 1920s and 30s Acme-McCrary grew, changing over to silk and rayon stockings.

In 1939, Acme-McCrary was chosen by the DuPont Corporation as one of the first makers of nylon stockings.  Of course, with WWII that came to a temporary end, with the company producing nylon for military fabrics and  stockings of cotton and rayon.   After the war they went back to full time production of nylon stockings, becoming one of the country’s largest producer of them.  Most of their products were sold to and marketed by department stores.  In other words, they made the stores’ brands.

The company managed to survive, when so many others were failing around them.  One thing they had going for them was that the company continued to be managed by the McCrary-Redding family.  One thing you notice when reading the histories of so many textile and clothing manufacturing companies is that the first step in the company failing is often when it is sold by the original owners.

In 2002, a young entrepreneur approached Acme-McCrary.  She had an idea for a seamless, footless pantyhose or tights, but she needed a manufacturing partner.  All the ones she had approached turned her down, and so did the people at Acme-McCrary , but Sara Blakely was called back to the company where they agreed to help develop her ideas and to manufacture the product.  Thus, Spanx® was born.  For some time Acme-McCrary was the sole maker of Spanx®, but today  Blakely manufactures in about fifteen different countries.  It appears that at least some of the products, in particular the original footless pantyhose are still made in the USA.

Today, Acme-McCrary continues to do what they have done for a very long time – they make private brand hosiery for retailers.  Their number one client?  Wal-Mart.

And now for some tidbits from the brochure, and a bit about the factory system as it existed in the early and mid 20th century:

This composite view shows all the Acme-McCrary operation as it was in 1959, but all these buildings were not actually in this small of an area!

The company kept up-to-date with the latest in machinery and technology, which likely contributed to its survival.

One of the qualifications for some of the jobs was good eyesight.  No, seriously; they had to take a vision test!

Throughout the South, small towns were built around a large factory, and it was hard to separate the factory from the community.  The company often supplied the only shopping that was to be found, and it also supplied organized recreational opportunities for the community.  Asheboro was more than just a “company town” as it was larger and had other employers, but still, Acme-McCrary provided more than just jobs.   Early on, they built the Recreation Center which had a swimming pool, bowling alley, soda shop and gym.  It is still in operation.

Like many other manufacturing plants across the South, Acme-McCrary had a semi-professional baseball team, the Eagles.  They played not only other company teams (like my hometown Champions of Canton), but also college teams in the area.   According to a man I met whose father worked at Acme-McCrary, your job application was moved to the top of the hiring stack if you were known to be a good baseball player!

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A Visit to The Oriole Mill

It’s hard to believe that I grew up in North Carolina, and have lived here all my 56 years, and had never been inside a textile manufacturing mill.  Well that all changed yesterday, when I had the pleasure of visiting the Oriole Mill in Hendersonville, NC.

The Oriole Mill is not a survivor of the mass exodus of the textile industry to Asia.  It is an ever rarer bird – a new textile enterprise, established in 2006.  One of the founders of the mill, Bethanne Knudson, spent years traveling in her work as a trainer in Jacquard design software.  In 2000, she  opened the Jacquard Center in Hendersonville, a training center where weavers could visit to study industrial Jacquard weaving design.

In the mid 2000s, Knudson began to see that before long the opportunity to acquire industrial Jacquard equipment would be lost, due to so many factories being dismantled and shipped overseas.  She and Stephan Michaelson co-founded the Oriole Mill, purchasing an old rug factory and then finding and assembling the necessary machinery.  Their first cloth was produced in 2007.

Today they weave fabrics for their own line of home decorator products, and they also do special orders.  Students at the Jacquard Center get to see their creations come alive from the looms of the Oriole Mill.

Lets’ take the tour…

The building was originally a frozen food distributor, and later was a factory that made woven rugs.

This is Phyllis Bonham, who works primarily as the warper.

In a length of woven cloth, the warp are the very long yarns across which the weft if woven.  In order to organize all these yearn properly, they have to be threaded individually onto a machine called a creel.  From the creel, each thread or year goes through a large reed, then a small reed, and then the yerns are wound onto a big cylinder.  From the cylinder, they are loaded onto a big spool, which is them moved onto the loom itself.

Yarns going from the creel and through the big reed.

The reed is the comb-like structure on the left.

After going through the small reed, they are wound on that big black cylinder.  That’s Kelly Hopkin, the director of education, and expert tour guide.

The yarn ends up on one of the giant spools, which is then attached to the loom.

In this full shot of the loom set-up, the spool is in front with the yarns going up to the loom to be woven.  From this distance it looks like a solid piece of white fabric!  The orange V-shaped thing is actually a set of cords that are attached to the yellow machine that sits on top of the green gantry.  That yellow thing is the Jacquard head.  It is the brain that controls the design.  Each little orange cord hooks onto and controls a yarn of the warp.  The Jacquard head is programmed to either raise or lower each yarn as the weft yarns are passed through the warp.

Here are the threads, all lined up as they come off the spool and go through another set of reeds.  Those are the orange cords, with silvery hooks on the ends.

And here is a closeup that shows the hooks with the yarns they manipulate.

This photo is from the other side of the loom.  The yarns are all in place, and the design has been programmed into the Jacquard head.

When I think of weaving, I think of a shuttle that goes back and forth from one side to the other, over and over.  But in this loom the yarn is pulled across half way by one of the two clips, or rapiers, you see. When it reaches the halfway point, the yarn is grabbed by the other clip and is pulled straight to the other edge.  This is a much faster process than the shuttle-type loom.

We were shown this process in slow motion, and it looked so simple.  Then Barry Connor, the loom overhauler, showed us another piece being woven at the regular speed.  I could not even see the clips!

And here is a close-up of the finished product.  It was commissioned by Keep, a shoe company in California.

Barry, who keeps the machines in tip-top shape!

Finally, we talked with Bethanne Knudson, who not only is the co-owner of the mill, but is also the textile designer.  It was apparent from listening to her that fibers and textiles are her passion.  She works almost exclusively in natural fibers, and she scours the globe looking for only the best yarns.

She talked about how when she is working on a design, she keeps the nature of each textile in mind.  You have to let the fibers do what comes naturally to them.  Here are two examples.

In this fabric, the black is made from cotton and the orange is wool.  The section on the left is straight from the loom, and the right hand section has been washed and dried.  After washing, the wool shrinks and makes the cotton pucker.

Can you tell which side has been washed?

I can’t tell you how much I learned from this visit.  I thought I knew a thing or two about textiles, but there is nothing like seeing the process in action.  I also appreciated the skill of all the workers at Oriole.  Unlike textile mills of the past, at the Oriole, workers are not limited in knowledge to their own tiny little corner of operation.  I got the feeling that Phyllis could run the entire place single handedly, if necessary.Knudson and Michaelson are building a business that puts the emphasis on quality, not quantity.

These are luxury fabrics, carefully designed and crafted. They are working on an online store, and I’ll let you know when it has opened.

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Beacon Part II

from a 1927 Montgomery Ward catalog

Today it’s more about Beacon Blankets and the lovely robes made from the blanket cloth.   If the original Beacon company were to open today, their big selling point would be that they were “green.”  That’s because the blankets and cloth were made from the waste cotton from other processes.  They were even able to reprocess their own waste.  Because of the nature of blankets – you want a thick, fluffy product – ordinary cotton processing machines were not used.  Beacon ordered special machinery from Europe, and then refit it to suit their purpose.

I’ll write about the history of Beacon tomorrow, but today’s topic is the product – that warm and fuzzy cotton blanket cloth. From the beginning, Beacon used jacquard looms that permitted the weavers to use up to four colors.  They began to develop designs that were influenced by the American Indian blankets of the West.  They even used Indian images in their advertising, a practice that they were forced to stop after being sued by the FTC and the Navajo Indian Nation in the 1930s!

Many of the designs were influenced by the Art Deco movement. Stylized themes and geometric shapes were commonly used.  To increase the richness of the colors, a ombre process was developed that seemed to add shading and dimension to the designs.

The fabric actually had two distinctly different sides, due to the weaving process used.  The strongest side was called the patternization, and the reverse of the cloth was called the colorization.  Here is the robe I showed yesterday.  The patternization is on the right, and the colorization is on the left.

The Beacon factory made the blankets and fabric from start to finish,  and they even had a wholesale division that sold their products directly to department and dry goods stores.  They also made fabric for other companies such as Montgomery Ward and JC Penney.  Beacon did not make the robes; they provided the makers of them with the fabric and labels that read “Genuine Beacon Fabric” or “Made of Beacon Blanket.”  The label from my well-worn robe:

Home sewers could buy the robing fabric, and Beacon even made kits that included everything the sewer would need to make the robe.  The robing fabric was made in the deco prints and also in plaids.  By the 1950s rayon was added to the fabric, and in the early 1960s Beacon stopped making the robing.

The blankets might have a simple “Beacon” label, or they might not be labeled at all.  A removable paper label was sometimes used, so I imagine there are lots of unlabeled Beacons out there.  By using the illustrations in the book I was able to determine that a blanket I bought at a flea market is a Beacon:

And here is one that is labeled “Beacon’:

Tomorrow, the history of Beacon Manufacturing, and thoughts on the Southern mill experience.



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American Enka, Makers of Rayon and Nylon

I do a lot of lamenting about the loss of the textile industry in my area, and in the South in general.   It was reported in the Asheville Citizen last week that the closed American Enka plant is in the process of being demolished, and that the site will be developed for retail use.

Enka may not be familiar to you, but if you’ve dealt much in rayon from the 1930s and 40s, or nylon from the 50s through 80s, chances you’ve touched the product produced by Enka.  They made a high quality rayon that was used by everyone from Maurice Rentner to L’aiglon.  Back in those days, the fibre and fabric manufacturers often teamed with clothing makers to run ads in fashion magazines.  The two Enka examples here are from 1940 Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.

Yes, there was a time when the fabric was just as important as the designer, and in many cases, even more so.  People knew the names of quality fabrics and the major companies advertised to keep their names in front of the buying fashionables.  Some companies, especially wool producers, even put their own label in the garments along with that of the maker.  And many labels have both the designer and the fabric proudly displayed.

I’ve never seen a label with Enka printed on it, but I imagine such a thing might exist.  They did print and distribute hangtags (see the ad below) for the manufacturers to pin onto the finished garments.

The American Enka factory was built in 1928 by a Dutch company.  Jobs there were highly prized – only workers at the local paper mill made more money.   An additional perk was that the workers often got to keep unsold fabrics.  A friend of my mother’s worked there as a fabric tester during the nylon days.  She always had a rainbow of lovely nylon to share with her friends.

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