The Beautiful Colors and Hues of American Textile Mills
Posted on July 19 2020
THE BEAUTY IN US TEXTILE MILLS
There is something particularly American about factories from the golden age of manufacturing, factories we drape in idyllic visions of efficiency, industry and ingenuity. Still, in this era of offices and service jobs, most of us have never seen a factory. Christopher Payne takes us inside with him with his ongoing series Textiles, providing a fascinating glimpse of the whirring machinery and brilliant colors that define 25 of the last textile mills in New England.
Payne began his project five years ago after coming across Bartlettyarns, a mill in Harmony, Maine that calls itself "oldest operating mule-spun woolen mill." It's been in operation since 1820. Despite the age of their equipment, these factories have kept humming even with the constant tide of cheap products from abroad. The fact they're using vintage machinery and old-school techniques is what's made them so successful.
“The mills that continue to use anachronistic equipment do so on purpose,” says Payne, “precisely because the older machines produce a fabric that is ‘the genuine article,’ valued for its high quality, unique imperfections, and retro look.”
Payne documented mills that use the latest technology as well as those still using machinery more than a century old—one of the oldest mills he photographed is G. J. Littlewood Dyers in Philadelphia, a family-run business that's been operating since the Civil War. He visited some of these mills so often that he was given free rein to photograph as he wished. “It’s an incredible, exhilarating sensation walking into a space filled with spinning frames, looms, or knitting machines," he said. "It’s like being in an engine room of a large ship. They can be incredibly loud—the modern ones especially because they’re running at very high speed. The floor vibrates so it’s difficult to take pictures.”
“What I find most exhilarating, beyond the obvious visceral sensations—the noise, the rumbling, the heat, the particles of wool or denim, etc. floating in the air—is the awareness that something physical is being created, something of real value," he says.
Asia is, of course, the biggest ongoing threat to the continued existence of US mills, because of both cheap labor and skewed trade policies. Domestic mills compete by offering quality and appealing to people willing to pay for it. Mills also collaborate, each performing one step in the process: one will dye, another will spin, still another weaves, and so on. These tasks are performed by workers of all ages, experience, and citizenship status. Some are new in the industry, learning from old hands eager to pass on their skills. Payne plans on continuing to document New England’s mills, while also expanding the project to the mills of the Carolinas, where newer factories concentrate on higher volume output.
"In this post-industrial age, we’ve become too dependent on imports and have no idea where goods come from, or how things are made—right down to the shirt on our back," Payne says. "If there is a basic message I’m trying to get across in my pictures, this is it: manufacturing still matters in the US.”
Photos and words courtesy of Christopher Payne. You can see his brilliant photos at http://www.chrispaynephoto.com/