Today I’d like to spotlight a part of Our American Textile heritage that I was lucky to be a part of in my early career. Sadly, Churchill Weavers is no longer in business but what I share here illustrates an overview of their generous contribution to the historic roots of textiles and manufacturing in America.
I’ve had the fortunate opportunity to work for some US textile manufacturing facilities my career, some of which are no longer in existence and some that no longer manufacture in the US. Starting right out of college I landed a job at one of the oldest and finest Hand weaving mills in the US. I’m speaking of the late Churchill Weavers of Berea, KY. Once so valued for their products that the US military spared wool rations so they could weave woolen undergarments for our military men. It greatly depresses me to see their beautifully woven products now being sold as “rare” on Ebay! There were a number of factors that went into the final outcome of Churchill’s doors being closed forever but they didn’t go down without a long battle. Historical textiles from their archives were salvaged and donated to the Kentucky Historical Society. They have compiled quite an amazing online Archive, accessible to anyone!
One of the valuable lessons I learned working at Churchill is that there is no substitution for learning about business and technical data at a facility that manufactures rather than being miles and oceans away from the products you design. If you’d like more information on the fascinating history of Churchill, please check out this blog. A limited selection of baby blankets with original Churchill designs are available here. I’m proud to share below a few of the items I had a part in designing!
I knew when I graduated from college in 1998 with a degree in Fibers (textile design) that it would not be an easy career choice. I headed ambitiously into the profession knowing that the beginning of the end (as I had come to understand it) was already in sight. Shortly after graduating I started seeing the full effects of the “global” market’s influence (and NAFTA) on the textile industry. First, the mills began to run shorter shifts, sell off machinery and start to outsource manufacturing to foreign mills. Within the first 5 years of my career, I had gone from designing for high-end luxury goods manufactured in the USA to designing mass produced goods being imported. I had a hard time with the ethics of this but I needed to stay employed and by then I was beginning to see my friends design jobs being eliminated as their companies not only shut down manufacturing facilities but started to hire
First, the mills began to run shorter shifts, sell off machinery and start to outsource manufacturing to foreign mills. Within the first 5 years of my career, I had gone from designing for high-end luxury goods manufactured in the USA to designing mass produced goods being imported. I had a hard time with the ethics of this but I needed to stay employed and by then I was beginning to see my friends design jobs being eliminated as their companies not only shut down manufacturing facilities but started to hire off-site designers and design studios in other countries. I started to see another trend that was quite maddening. Before I say more this observation is not singularly in regards to the textile industry.
I started to see another trend that was quite maddening. Before I say more, this observation is not singularly in regards to the textile industry. It is the misinformed “American way” to throw something way when it’s broken (or just worn out)! So often we don’t bother trying to fix it because it seems far easier and cheaper to just start all over. This is maddening! Can’t we honor those who have invested so much time and energy to make something beautiful and special?
I am speaking directly about both historic companies and industries disappearing as well as individual makers. We often loose the wisdom of the old ways completely and then find a renewed interest once the individuals who carry this wisdom are all but gone. I will say that the first part of my career in textiles was dedicated to spending as much time around manufacturing and these “wisdom keepers” as possible. I also agree that sometimes new life needs to be blown in but there is often so much we can learn from these establishments.
It was about this time (early 21st cent-Y2K-current) I really became aware of the “Indy craft”-now also called the Makers movement. I started seeing all sorts of crafters, makers and designers pop up on the www. In response to this, I also saw a few new kinds of manufacturing facilities in the US who were responding to the needs of these independent makers. I’m speaking of textile print on demand (such as Spoonflower and others) and weaving mills in particular but I’m sure there are lots of other examples by now. This is encouraging to me on the one hand but also frustrating because we have already lost many older manufacturers. I often think that if the generation gap had found a way to communicate with one another some very unique solutions could have come about and kept some companies afloat.
There are some companies in the industry who did respond in this manner and I see them now as established and valued but also aware of new and upcoming trends. My request to you is this; if you are a maker, manufacturer, lover of all things handmade and you are working in the US please consider the source of your purchase and support our US heritage of manufacturing. We can’t bring back these historic and iconic facilities but we can learn so much from them by informing ourselves and making the most of our purchases now and in the future.