FABRIC AND FICTION
The Clinch Valley Blanket Mills, 1890-1950
The following excerpt was edited from, “Fabric and Fiction,” Journal of the Appalachian Studies Association, ed. Elizabeth C. Fine, Volume 7, 1995, 50-56.
Using local labor and materials to weave on looms powered by water, steam, and electricity, small textile mills peppered the Appalachian Mountains of East Tennessee, southwest Virginia, and western North Carolina throughout the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries.
The Clinch Valley Blanket Mills, owned and operated by C. E. Goodwin and his four sons, was a model of clever marketing, crafts revival and quality workmanship for six decades. The mill influenced how people outside the southern Appalachians would perceive mountain crafts and mountain craftsmen for nearly 100 years. In order to understand the reason for this influence and its impact, we must look at the marketing techniques used to sell their products and what was happening to the handweaver’s market during the same period.
Much has been published to expand public awareness of the 1895 Arts & Crafts Movement and subsequent revivals in southern Appalachia. The Clinch Valley Blanket Mills was never allowed to join the Southern Handicrafts Guild because they used power looms, but they affiliated themselves so closely with this movement that they were perceived to be a part of it. With innate marketing skills, the Goodwin family successfully sold their products in distinctly different markets. They influenced the public’s attitude toward Virginia’s mountain weaving from 1890 to 1950 and for many years beyond. At the same time, The Clinch Valley Blanket Mills played an important role in the social and economic life of Cedar Bluff and the surrounding counties.
Over a twenty-five year period, Goodwin either leased or managed two mills in Cedar Bluff, the Cedar Bluff Woolen Mill, owned by the McGuire family, and the Klondyke Cotton and Woolen Mill, founded by Thomas Scott and later purchased by members of the Mcguire family. Goodwin finally purchased both mill buildings about 1916. When the smaller mill burned in 1924, Goodwin moved all his equipment to the larger facility up the river and expanded his operation.
The blanket mill, as it was locally called, was an important industry in the small town of Cedar Bluff and Tazewell County. Nearly every citizen had a family member who, either worked at the mill, did the hand-finish work at home, traded or sold wool to the mill, or supplied coal to keep the furnaces going. Local women used side cut scraps from blankets to weave throw rugs on hand looms in their homes. Wool was gathered by horse or ox drawn wagon in the early days. Later, a truck pulled the wool wagon to farms in Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky.
Elderly men and women still recall the disagreeable job of shearing the dead sheep in the field or the excitement of riding on the farm wagon to the mill with a load of wool. Frequently, they recall their own employment running the mule, quillers, weaving, inspecting army blankets or shipping finished goods. The mule was a mechanism mounted on a frame that traversed back and forth, keeping proper tension on carded wool when wound onto bobbins. What color the mill was dyeing wool was easily ascertained by the color of the river that day.
When prices were low, farmers traded all their wool for coverlets and blankets to furnish bedding to the extended family or put away for the next generation. Even in good times, many families used a little wool in trade. The woven goods were not only functional and warm, but beautiful as well. Without the “trade,” most families could not have afforded such luxurious items. Mill-woven items became prized wedding gifts and baby presents, especially desirable since the giver usually had some association with the weaver or worker involved in its production. These coverlets and blankets still remain in families as treasured keepsakes passed from generation to generation.
Under government contract during both world wars, The Clinch Valley Blanket Mills wove thousands of all wool army blankets to ship overseas. They also wove the lining for army sleeping bags, puttees (gaiters) for World War I soldiers, and blankets for the British Royal Navy. The mill employed many wives and daughters of servicemen stationed away from home. In a region that offered little employment opportunity for women, this money made farm payments and put food on the table. The mill ran three shifts a day to meet government demands and employed additional women from outside the community.
In peacetime, the mill wove colonial bed coverlets, lap robes for horse drawn buggies and automobiles, table linens, and baby blankets. According to their advertising, Goodwin produced the first seamless coverlets, appealing to northern buyers who didn’t like what was considered an unsightly seam down the middle. The end result was a product of quality and durability.
To sell these household goods, Goodwin avoided revealing his factory production capacity and focused on selling a concept of tradition. While using modern equipment of the day, Goodwin marketed the nostalgic idea of old women spinning and weaving in remote mountain cabins. He put together a story of his silk weaving background in England, simple mountain people, and faithful adherence to the handwoven coverlets of a bygone era. Coverlets, blankets, and table linens were sold by traveling sales agents and the company published a catalog for direct mail order sales. Goodwin watched home decorating trends outside the region and dyed some goods fashionable colors of mint green, pink, gold, aqua, and lavender when they were popular.
By 1890, many of handcraft skills had been put aside and forgotten, as factory items were available and more desirable. About 1893 the stirrings of a handicraft revival began in Berea, Kentucky and Asheville, North Carolina when the newly elected president of Berea College, Dr. William Goodell Frost noticed interesting woven bed coverings used in many cabins. He determined that the college could preserve the handwork of an earlier period and find new markets for idle mountain looms. In 1896, homespun fairs were started, where competition and comparison to the old coverlets inspired young students to try weaving. More than thirty years after the first revival of Southern Highlands handicrafts, crafts centers in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky united to improve their crafts and use the marketing advantage of a cooperative effort.
The Southern Highland Handicraft Guild, founded in 1929 established a market for unique handmade mountain products that were inexpensive and reminiscent of pioneer times. These crafts appealed to the city dwellers who knew little about rural mountain life and Northern housewives were anxious to purchase coverlets similar to the ones woven in New England fifty years earlier.
In 1930 Mrs. Riley Fox, Mrs. Finley (Josie) Mast, and Mrs. Owenby traveled by train to Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Cincinnati, and Chicago on a tour of major department stores. Sponsored by Frank E. Rudd of Louisville, Kentucky, manufacturer of rayon and cotton coverlets, the purpose of the trip was to acquaint northern women with southern Appalachian coverlet weaving and purchase a the modern equivalent woven at Rudd’s facility. All three were native mountain women with long family weaving traditions. The women traveled with an ancient hand loom, spinning wheels, handmade furniture and coverlets to illustrate various patterns. In the stores, they set up a display representing a typical mountain cabin. Dressed in homespun and weaving in their stocking feet, the women gave the impression that handwoven coverlets were still abundantly available throughout southern Appalachia. Onlookers perceived that mountain life was still as simple and backward has it had been a hundred years before and they determined to furnish their homes with this quaint handmade weaving.
During this same time period, The Clinch Valley Blanket Mills was weaving approximately 50 coverlets and blankets per day. One of the mill’s more lucrative accounts was Rosemont, an early cottage industry of handmade mountain crafts in Marion, Virginia. Rosemont was widely known for its hand-hooked rugs, hand-tied bed canopies and woven coverlets. Everything sold under the Rosemont label was purchased or commissioned in the surrounding communities; and their weaving was purchased from the Clinch Valley Blanket Mills. Rosemont’s mail order booklet did not say the coverlets were woven on hand looms, instead they addressed the issue of hand weaving versus factory weaving as follows:
They [coverlets] are not made in a modern factory but in the original old mill in the mountains to which the farmers still bring their wool for exchange and from which the mountain women take the coverlets home for hemming and fringe-making. Our looms are not the ordinary jacquard looms of the textile mills but are specially adapted to our process.
Another Rosemont booklet states:
The spinning, dyeing, and weaving are all done in a primitive mountain community where living conditions are simple. Every purchaser of one of our Colonial Coverlets may be sure, not only of having an exact and exquisite reproduction of early American weaving, but also of helping the mountain people to help themselves.
The Southern Highland Handicraft Guild only allowed hand weavers to join the organization but the public’s demand for mountain weaving greatly surpassed the capabilities of Guild members. The Clinch Valley Blanket Mills’ vast production capacity, coupled with their quality and authentic nineteenth-century designs, allowed them to sell thousands of coverlets and blankets to customers who thought they were buying handwoven goods. While this marketing sold the product, it influenced the outside world’s perception of the people in southwest Virginia.
At a time when industries nationwide were using the latest equipment and inventions to speed production, it was thought that Virginia mountain craftsmen were using old-fashioned methods. The myth of simple mountain people, living simple lives, making simple crafts with simple mountain tools was a successful marketing technique that resulted in a negative stereotype, which southwest Virginians argue against to this day.
The old production mill is long silent. The records are scattered and only a skeleton of the original mill remains to photograph; but across the country, families still possess the woven fabrics the weave the story of an early mountain industry that used clever marketing innuendos to sale high quality woven goods.