Handcrafted for Success: The Churchill Weavers Collection

Editor’s Note: The Churchill Weavers collection at the Kentucky Historical Society (KHS) preserves the business and textile history of an iconic Kentucky company. Churchill Weavers, founded in Berea in 1922, produced a variety of luxury consumer items ranging from blankets and throws to suits and neckties until it shuttered in 2007. The collection provides numerous research opportunities for business, textile, Appalachian and labor history projects.

KHS offers research fellowship funding for visiting scholars to use this extensive archival and object collection. This past spring, Maggie Leininger, an assistant professor in the department of fine arts at the University of Louisville, received a Churchill Weavers fellowship from KHS to conduct research for an upcoming exhibit at Berea College. Here, she shares her experiences researching this fascinating collection:

The ability to research the varied objects in the Churchill Weavers collection provided a wonderful opportunity to gain a different perspective on the role of the maker within a product-driven market.

Fascinated by the approach of creating a business that bucked the trends of modern textile industrialization, I wanted to study the Churchill Weavers collection to experience firsthand the variety of fabrics and objects they made. Specific questions that arose included how the Churchills organized production, identified target markets and developed a range of products that were desirable.

As I began to delve into the collection, I realized the breadth and scope of work that was involved in producing significant volumes of product in addition to the business relationships between suppliers needed to be successful. I discovered a connection with a textile mill in Louisville as a yarn supplier for the Churchill Weavers as well as others in Philadelphia and parts of New England. Combing through various samples of labels and notions, I came across typed and handwritten letters between businesses, suppliers and purchasers. Shockingly, I realized how these artifacts highlight the momentous impact of digital communication increasing the speed at which we distribute ideas and goods.

While most of the collection is viewable through digital formats, having the opportunity to interact and physically handle the objects was undeniably indescribable. It is one thing to visually “consume” an object on a screen and another experience altogether to handle a material between one’s fingers. I discovered the luxuriousness of some of the fabrics, especially the silk-wool material Churchill Weavers used for men’s ties and women’s dresses. This material had such an amazing hand and clearly had an amazing drape suitable for its intended use.

Sandwiched in between some of the sample books, I also discovered handwoven linens made from handspun cloth.

While Churchill Weavers may have collected items such as these as a source of inspiration, handling these linens was like having a conversation with an old friend. I immediately conjured up an image of the woman who grew the hemp, spun it and wove it into a decorative, yet functional, item. The cloth exuded natural beauty; parts of seed husks had found their way into the yarn. The handspun yarn is a fingerprint of the maker, documenting the time spent molding and shaping a raw material that moves from a tiny, tightly spun thread to a bulky, loosely spun yarn. Hand-tied knots demonstrate respect of resources as nothing is wasted.

The anonymity of cloth production is particularly compelling, as it requires so much interaction with an individual hand from the procurment of materials, especially if handspun, to the winding of threads onto the loom to the handling of the material after it is woven. While I was unable to procure any specific names or identities of individual weavers employed at Churchill Weavers, I discovered notated weaving patterns of many of the items the company had produced.

Many of the pattern notes, typewritten, detailed the alternating color pattern sequences and measurements of the cloth as well as the number of ends used to make the fabric. Some of these pattern cards demonstrated unique commentary that exhibited the individual presence of the handweaver. One pattern notates, “This is not pretty!!.” Comments and notations such as these are invaluable to me as a weaver. They demonstrate the presence of a cognizant person on the other end of the cloth that most likely is no longer alive, yet the fabric remains as a conduit between the past and the present. The legacy of a material object such as this is one that can connect two people who share the same passion and, most likely, similar struggles of supporting oneself through a professional skill that has little room in the post-industrial economy.

Also, objects that I didn’t anticipate being all that interesting turned out to be an amazing creative catalyst. I was surprised that the patterns used to create the sewn constructions also left a trace of the hand, literally. The tracks of the pencil going off the edge of the pattern and leaving stray marks reveals the most human condition of all: to err. How many times have I done this exact same thing within in my own creative pursuits?

I am eager to see what will transpire as I incorporate the finds that I described here into my studio practice, where I examine my specific relationship to the Southern textile industry of the mill town in which I grew up. Some of this work will be on display at Berea College in September 2018 where I also will speak to the public on the intersection of rural identity, industrialization and the meaning of making.

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