The hillside community known as Chicken Hill — a grouping of homes, a clubhouse, a church — lodged the workers (and their families) employed at the C. E. Graham Manufacturing Company’s cotton mill (later known as The Asheville Cotton Mill). In the century-plus since, most of N.C.’s textile mills have shuttered. The Asheville Cotton Mill shut down in 1953.
If that sounds like an unhappy ending, here’s the thing: The textile industry is undergoing a small but mighty resurgence on a grass-roots level. It starts with sheep on area farms, whose wool is being spun into thread at Weaverville’s Echoview Fibermill. That thread is finding its way into projects by designers like Barbara Zaretsky, whose BZDesign business is located in the River Arts District Cotton Mill Studios (the revitalized building that first housed Graham’s manufacturing company).
This is slow fashion. Zaretsky also collaborates with The Oriole Mill in Hendersonville. That company, housed in a renovated frozen food packaging plant (apt, since the slow fashion movement takes cues from slow food), weaves fabrics on Jacquard looms. Also based within the walls of the Oriole Mill is Western Carolina Sewing Company (or Sew Co.), founded by Libby O’Bryan to provide sewn product development, cutting and sewing services. Sew Co. is doing all the finishing on a line of high-performance T-shirts made of Rambouillet wool, the first item in a soon-to-be-expanded collection by just-launched Asheville-based company Appalatch.
Wool T-shirts? you ask. But, as Appalatch’s co-founders Grace Gouin and Mariano deGuzman point out, that T-shirt took a full year to conceive. “We’re the definition of slow fashion,” jokes deGuzman. “We’re looking at every single part of this T-shirt to make it not only durable, but sustainable. It’s taken us a really long time to figure this out, because we wanted to take a different approach to this.”
That approach means keeping the source materials and construction in the U.S., and creating a product that’s not only long-lasting — so consumers won’t need to dispose of the shirt and buy a new one every three months — but has a smaller carbon footprint. Rambouillet is a performance fiber: “The wool fibers can transport water vapor,” says Gouin. “When you sweat, it evaporates.” And it resists bacteria. It looks nice — drapey, with a pale shimmer. And, although it’s as soft and itch-free as Australian Merino wool, Rambouillet comes from Montana.
But Appalatch not only wants to produce high-quality garments, they want to do so at an affordable price. Their shirts sell for $60; other similar products run $75. “Because we’re selling direct to consumers, we’re able to create what we think are the most durable products, made here in America, at prices at or below what our competitors are making overseas,” says deGuzman.
Saving American jobs from the lemming-like trend of outsourcing seems simple enough: Just hire American manufacturers, right? But when Bethanne Knudson and Stephan Michelson started the Oriole Mill, they learned that as jobs had gone overseas, so had equipment. The Oriole Mill was originally opened “to streamline accessibility to working looms for The Jacquard Center students,” according to the company’s website. The Jacquard Center trains students on an automated weaving loom of the same name. “Twenty years ago, a textile mill would regularly discard old equipment to buy new equipment. Looms would come for sale, six at a time or fewer,” explains Michelson. In more recent years, whole mills have been sold to China, India and other countries, which meant that everything other than the building itself was packed into freight containers and shipped abroad. “So there’s no more used market. There’s not a flow of equipment that a small mill can pick up.”
That, and many laid-off mill workers have been out of jobs for more than a decade, which means some have lost carefully developed skills while others have lost interest in an industry that let them down. And, where large mills often employed people to run a single piece of machinery, a small business like Oriole requires all of its employees to multitask and make critical decisions every day. “There are still people in the area who are knowledgeable,” says Knudson. “But we’re really only one generation away from losing all of that expertise.”
The overhauler is the mill’s highest position in the weave room: a person who can take apart the Jacquard head or the weaving machine and refurbish it. Knudson and Michelson recently hired a young person, who will be trained from the ground up, to work as the overhauler’s apprentice. “We’re trying to build on the expertise that exists here and, in our modest, small way, bring in younger people,” says Knudson. “It’s a tough sell. It’s not an industry that most people see much future in — you can no longer walk across the street and get a job at another mill. The person has to be excited about what it is to make cloth and work with those machines.”
Someone who is excited about the future of the textile industry is Julie Jensen, the proprietor of Echoview Fiber Mill. From a farming background originally, Jensen moved to WNC from D.C. and bought a small farm. It had a tobacco allotment on which she attempted to grow hops. Then, when that crop was unsuccessful, she raised Angora goats. “I learned about a thing called a community mill, and it took off from there,” she says. “Mills weren’t all terrible, like in Norma Rae. Often they were community centers. We hope to highlight the good things about mills.”
Echoview boasts panels on its roof, geothermal wells, and the green building award form the N.C. Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. The modern building was designed by an architect from Clearscapes, and was inspired by three traditional N.C. barn styles as well as the three coats of an Alpaca.
Currently, Echoview just makes yarn. “You have to have yarn or thread to make cloth,” says Jensen. That’s a critical part of slow fashion.
“If somebody raises an animal and brings [the wool] to us and has it made into yarn, and then makes a sweater or a blanket, they’re not going to want to give that up. They have a lot invested in that piece,” says Jensen. “There are 500 fiber farms, most of which are small, that we know about within a 100-mile radius of Asheville. So we have an interesting cross-section of clients.”
The mill also offers classes and tours, works with community college students interested in sustainability and hosts a library. “I think revitalizing is too strong a word for what we’re doing, but we are looking at the past to help us envision a future,” says Jensen. “Everybody wears clothes, and textiles are part of the ethos of North Carolina.”
Farm to wardrobe
What Echoview does not do, at this point, is use organic cotton, although there is some being produced in our state. Cotton fibers are shorter than animal fibers, and the mill is not yet set up for spinning them. Oriole Mill is also not able to use regional organic cotton: “That yarn tends to be perfectly well-suited for knitting, but it’s not well suited to weaving,” says Knudson. “With organic fibers in general, the staple fibers are short and brittle, so they don’t make the finest yarn. Because our focus is entirely on quality, we have to make difficult choices.”
That focus on quality has led to a soon-to-be-announced contract producing upholstery for an important furniture manufacturer (they’ve suspended mill classes to focus on production commitments). And inclusion on a spring, 2014 episode of the PBS series “Craft in America.” That, and Knudson does remain hopeful that the Oriole Mill will be able to source local fibers in the future.
One organization working to connect producers with manufactures is Local Cloth, a nonprofit that “encourages and supports collaboration among textile artists, designers, fiber farmers, suppliers and small businesses to sustain a thriving local textile economy and bring locally grown and made fiber products to consumers within and beyond the Blue Ridge,” according to its Facebook page. Both Zaretsky and O’Bryan are members. The two collaborated on a dress for last fall’s Project Handmade fashion show, a collaboration between Local Cloth: Farm/Fiber/Fashion Network and the Asheville Art Museum.
“The story about this dress is that the Oriole Mill wove a cotton fabric for it,” says Zaretsky. “Libby designed the dress. I washed it, mordanted it, dyed it and gave it to Libby. She cut out the pattern and sewed it, and gave it back to me.” Zaretsky removed color, according to the design, and embellished the dress.
Nearly every part of the process was locally sourced. “The plants for the dye weren’t grown here, but they could be,” says Zaretsky. “We’re communicating with some farmers to plant a dye garden so that those of us who are using natural dyes can do that, too.”
She adds, “The more that becomes available in terms of resources in the area, the more we can incorporate in our work.” Which is how slow fashion works — a concept that shares much in common with the farm-to-table slow food movement
“The textile community really is an agricultural industry, when you’re talking about sustainable fibers,” says O’Bryan. “There’s this nice mass-education that’s already happened for food. I think textiles are the next thing that can easily step into that environment.”
An influx of talent
Materials and local sourcing are important part of slow fashion and of revitalizing N.C.’s textile industry; so are knowledge and skills. Zaretsky’s studio is also home to Cloth Fiber Workshop, whose 2013 class schedule includes screen printing, plant dyes, embroidery and couture sewing techniques, among other offerings. The one- and two-day classes are taught by instructors from all over the country, for people of all different skill levels. “I love being able to provide that for people,” says Zaretsky. “Sometimes there will be young people in their 20s, and then people in their 80s, too.”
That generational range speaks to the N.C. relationship with textile and craft: “In the past, people had to make things, they had to provide warmth by making quilts or winter clothing,” says Zaretsky. “Now we don’t have to do that, but those skills have been passed along and can be used to support creativity.”
Traditional and contemporary craft often rub elbows in WNC. “Things that are handmade cost more, because of the work that goes into them, but last much longer,” says Zaretsky. The next step in the slow fashion movement, she surmises, is educating consumers to buy hand-crafted items rather than cheaper Big Box merchandise of lesser quality. And providing courses to hone the skills of up-and-coming makers.
O’Bryan offers her Sew Biz course at Penland this August. The collaborative workshop covers pattern and sewing construction evaluation and fabric and trim resourcing, along with sales and marketing strategies. “The idea of education is really important in the resurgence of the textile industry and in making in general. In craftsmanship and manufacturing,” says O’Bryan. She’d also like to make sewing classes part of her business.
Sew Co. employs across generations, pulling from recently closed manufacturing facilities like Asheville’s Just Ducky and Hendersonville’s Bon Worth. “For me, starting new, there’s been this influx of talent. But it’s an older generation that has the industrial skills,” says O’Bryan. “Then I have people on my staff who are more from the craftsman point of view. It’s interesting to have those two communities collide.”
She continues, “I can’t compete with a really big factory; I can’t compete with overseas pricing. So I decided to focus on quality. When talking about slow fashion and sustainability, for me, quality is where it’s at.” For O’Bryan, durability trumps ecological fabrics, too, if those supposedly earth-friendly products don’t last as long.
She came into the business with a fashion background — she studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Then she went to business school and worked in that profession before returning to art school. “The best thing I could do, as an artist-activist, was to start a sewing company that did things differently, and foster young, independent designers who want to work domestically,” says O’Bryan. She loved the model of the Oriole Mill and when she visited, several years ago, Knudson and Michelson invited her to open Sew Co. at the mill. She does sewing work for Oriole as well as taking on her own clients, like Appalatch.
What’s been hard for the mill to find, says OBryan, is ancillary services. “We can’t find spinners to do custom-spun yarn, and we can’t find finishers to finish our fabrics.” Seeing those types of companies (like Echoview) returning gives O’Bryan hope for North Carolina’s textile industry. “I think it will come back, but on an artisanal, smaller-scale, higher-end way. I think we can compete in quality.”
— Alli Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
what: Learn more about the companies in this story at http://appalatch.com, http://bzdesign.biz, http://mill.echoviewnc.com, http://www.theoriolemill.com and http://www.westerncarolinasewingcompany.com.