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.