I’d never thought of the 16th century as a time of mechanical breakthroughs for the textile industry…wow, I was wrong about this! The earliest knitting machine, a stocking frame knitting machine was invented in England in 1589. It could ACTUALLY knit stockings! Although I believe that the back seam still needed to be sewn by hand. Not bad for the late 16th century!
I’ve moved to Pittsburgh this week! I’m the new curatorial assistant of decorative arts and design at the Carnegie Museum of Art. There won’t be many textile or costume related duties in this new position, although one of our upcoming exhibits will show the work of Iris Van Herpen and I’ll be sure to cover the exhibit here later this winter! Pittsburgh is very different from the eastern part of the state and the old factories (in various states of reuse now) are one thing that really stick out to a new resident.
With that in mind, I thought it would be fun to take a look at some of the women who worked in the textile industry in central and western PA, and this website, created by Lycoming college, has a few wonderful rabbit holes to fall into. This page is especially interesting because it features interviews with former textile workers.
The Nonotuck Silk Company holds a fascinating place in textile history. The company began in the 1830s with a failed attempt to breed silkworms in Massachusetts. Silkworms only eat mulberry leaves, and when the health of the imported mulberry trees declined, silkworms had nothing to eat and efforts to raise them for their cocoons failed.
The remnants of the failed silk thread business were later operated by the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, an abolitionist commune in Northampton, Massachusetts. The group imported silk cocoons and used the mill to spin thread. They funded their abolitionist work with income generated from this business. Curiously, you may recognize one of their members:
The association’s community operated like a commune, with shared meals, group housing, education for their children and assigned work duties for every member in the mill or farm. The community fell apart by 1846, but one member, Samuel L. Hill, retained the silk mill and continued to operate the silk thread business. They were operating under the Nonotuck name again, and in 1852, Corticelli silk was their signature product. They developed a high quality silk thread (known as machine twist) strong enough for use in sewing machines. Elijah Singer (the sewing machine manufacturer) placed a large order for this new product. Sewing machines were just becoming the rage at the time, and machine twist thread business boomed for Nonotuck.
In 1922, this company merged with another and operated the new business under the Corticelli name. The business records of the association are held by the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Mass. I had the chance to take a look at a few of their financial books and membership logs when I was in graduate school.
Before I was introduced to Ann Lowe, I was hoping to create a thesis from this story. A lot has been written about the New England Silk Industry though, and the amount of information available about the Northampton Association’s work (in direct relation to their textile production—I was a Decorative Arts student and needed to have a solid textile history focus) was pretty light.
Getting an informative and innovative thesis out of this would have been quite a process. Looking back, I think things worked out in the best way for my thesis—although I wish I could find time (and a few incredible sources) to pull together an interesting paper about the Northampton Association someday.
Archive.org has some related documents: A Color Card, And a fantastic needlework instruction book from 1898. And the youtube video below will show you the location of the Association’s silk mill in Northampton, Mass. I’m visiting Northampton at the end of the month and one of these days, maybe during this trip if the weather is nice, I’m going to hunt for old spools at the banks of the little Mill river!
The fashion publications of the late 19th century featured colorful and highly detailed illustrations of the latest looks. The details needed to be crisp: affluent women were sharing these pictures with their seamstresses to recreate European designs.
Archive.org is an amazing resource for early fashion illustration and this search will get you started down a fun historical fashion rabbit hole. The website also has the added benefit of being easy to navigate. Perfect viewing for a lazy summer day when you aren’t feeling particularly academic! I’ve spent most of this sunny holiday weekend drinking lemonade on our deck while hiding from academic projects.
When I was in college, some of the bound Vogue magazines in the collection of the UMass Library were originally from (nearby) Smith College and it was THRILLING to be a little English major, flipping through the actual copies of 1950s fashion magazines, with their covers stamped with a Smith College date stamp and think that maybe Sylvia Plath held this, if she ever took a breather in the Nielsen Library and let herself zone out to Vogue for a few minutes…
Browsing through the bound volumes of old magazines is one of my favorite historian hobbies. Life, Look, Time, Ladies Home Journal and of course—–fashion magazines. There’s just something about flipping through the original hardbound copies that gets you closer to the period. I’d like to think that most historians are dorky like that. 😉
And writing about a time period–even if you are just working on a piece of fiction— is a lot easier when you have primary source material in front of you. Microfilm isn’t the same AT ALL.
As one of the leading debutante and wedding gown designers in New York, it’s very possible that Ann Lowe’s work appeared uncredited in Vogue many times between the 1930s and 1960s. It’s also very possible that her designs appeared in the magazine under the name of the designers she worked for, such as Hattie Carnegie.
I’ve seen some uncredited examples of dresses that are definitely Lowe’s work and dresses that are possibly Lowe’s work, once you get familiar with her preferred necklines and sleeve designs, her work starts standing out to your eye!
But here is one of the only credited examples of Lowe’s work that I’ve been able to find in Vogue from that period—this one from August 1, 1955, in an editorial about the year’s leading debutantes. Nina Auchincloss was Jacqueline Kennedy’s stepsister. My own scanned copy of this photo is a bit too blurry to post, so I pulled this copy (if you noticed the tell-tale highlighting around Lowe’s name, this is clearly a Google Books scan) from an article I wrote a few years ago for the National Archives.
In the mail this week? Textile industry trade journals! Maybe that doesn’t sound terribly exciting at first glance, but trade journals are always a great resource if you are looking for period information about industry and manufacturing. Fashion magazines featured full page advertisements for fabric companies and their latest and greatest fabrics until the 1970s or so (the cotton industry was probably the longest holdout, their Cotton advertisements showed up in fashion magazines into the 1990s.)
But industry journals were geared toward garment and automobile manufactures, so their ads are more technical (and for me, that makes them more interesting!)
As a textile historian, the most helpful trade journal I’ve found so far is American Fabrics. This week, I was excited to find some issues in great condition on Ebay.
American Fabrics began publication in the mid 1940s, and they quickly became leaders in the industry because of a new method they developed to add fabric swatches to their pages. While manufacturers regularly added swatches to their production catalogs for use as salesman samples, this was the first time a journal with a significant circulation could do the same. There are around 50 fabric sample swatches in each issue—although that number declines significantly in the 1970s issues I’ve seen. Adding so many swatches was an expensive process. They are SUCH fun to handle though. Vintage clothing (if it isn’t Dead Stock) and household textiles have often lost their crisp original finishes and can be a bit dull in color from years of washing. These swatches are crisp and bright….they’ve been shut away from light for 60 years!
These issues give such interesting play by play coverage of the growth of the synthetic fiber revolution taking place during the middle of the 20th century.
And….because somedays I feel like I run into Ann Lowe information everywhere, this advertisement for the Stehli fabric company (formerly Stehli Silks and they also expanded into synthetics) is from a period when Mrs. Stehli was a partner in one of Ann’s early Madison Avenue dress shops. I’ve tried to figure out if Ann was able to get a better price on silks with this connection, but it was a brief partnership, and I keep running into dead ends. The Stelhi family member I was able to contact a few years ago didn’t know very much about the supply side of Ann Lowe’s business. This advertisement ALSO has me wondering if an Ann Lowe wedding gown ever appeared in a Stehli silk trade ad…more research rabbit holes to explore!
I’m working on an article about Fiberglas (One “S” is the original trade spelling) fabrics for HFH, and there’s some fantastic and in-depth coverage about the topic in one of these issues of American Fabrics, showing the production process and its “exciting new” use in household textiles. I was thrilled to see Fiberglas fabric swatches and filament samples also—-that I am NOT handling of course…want to avoid getting these samples to shed glass splinters into my fingers!!
I was surprised to hear that of the 3,200 children’s books published in the US in 2015, just 240 were about African American characters. 102 (of the 3,200) books were created by African American authors or illustrators. That figure is actually a deep improvement from previous years.
This is one reason why I am so excited to tell you about something I’ve been working on since December.
I’ve been floating on air with a secret under my hat for a few weeks now, but official announcements have been made, happy dances have been completed and I’m able to spill the beans 🙂
I co-wrote a picture book biography about Ann Lowe, named ONLY THE BEST with Kate Messner, a children’s book author, and it will be published by Chronicle Books in 2018 .
My first book!! 🙂
Ann Lowe’s story will be in good company! Chronicle’s children’s books are absolutely gorgeous. Each title features sophisticated and emotionally charged artwork, and such careful and detailed design. Gorgeous!! Our editor has edited two other picture book biographies recently, and they both prove that Ann Lowe’s story could not be in better company.(this one, SWAN, by Laurel Snyder and illustrated by Julie Morstad– about the ballerina Anna Pavlova is so enchanting!)
And Josephine, by Patricia Hruby Powell (no relation), illustrated by Christian Robinson takes a look at Josephine Baker’s life with bold, colorful graphics and a unique long form poetic style.
As you can probably imagine, Chronicle is just the right publisher to work with Lowe’s dresses! Such a beautiful way to present her story accurately and honor Ann Lowe’s gorgeous designs!
For your local decorative arts historian— who has wanted to be an author since she was eight years old (it was either Ellen Tebbits, By the Shores of Silver Lake, or From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler that gave me the ‘want to grow up and be a writer’ bug)—this is also a wonderful way to learn the ins and outs of the publishing world while I work on bringing my other Ann Lowe project—the adult biography to fruition.
It’s all just so exciting!
I’ll look forward to sharing what I can about ONLY THE BEST as we reach the publishing finish line, although I’m pretty sure most of the details will remain under wraps until the release date… it’s more fun that way, anyway!
Historian’s note: Being able to find a professional home for the story of a designer I have researched and admired for five years is so rewarding! A picture book is especially exciting and special for me, because it will share the nearly electric beauty of Ann Lowe’s work in a way that a stuffy and somewhat cerebral “grown up” biography cannot.
When my Ann Lowe research led me to a hunt for very detailed recaps of Paris fashion shows she attended, my usual sources covered the topics in a frustrating and broad way. American newspapers gave the shows drive-by coverage.
American Vogue was OKAY, but their focus was more on the styles that were being translated into Paris copies. British Vogue was MUCH better—although a bit hard to get your hands on—and French Vogue would have been an outstanding source, if I understood French.
I’m not quite sure why an Australian Newspaper Archive is such a fabulous source for detailed recaps of couture fashion shows in London, Paris and New York. But a newspaper search on the TROVE website brings back amazing results–mostly from “Australian Women’s Weekly.”Play with the date ranges and the keywords, and you’ll have hours worth of browsing ahead of you! Along with the amazing search functions, it is very easy to download pdfs and jpgs. I’m sure this would be helpful for topics outside of fashion too, so TROVE might be worth checking out whenever you are on a source hunt!
Just a quick note to provide a link to the Google News Archive . I thought this was dead—-but it’s just not an active project for Google and it looks like they’ve stopped adding to it. They’ve also stopped actively promoting it and the only way I could find a link was through a Google search 🙂
What is the Google News Archive? And why am I so excited about it? It is an easy way—and one of the only FREE ways to search newspapers from the late 19th and early 20th century. The results turn up as scans from the actual pages.
While a digital subscription to the New York Times will also give you access to scans of their original issues, Google News Archive does a MUCH better job at providing content from hundreds of small, regional papers. The New York Times won’t give you many (or any!)descriptions of the gowns worn at an inaugural ball for a southern governor in 1914, for instance—but a patient search on the Google News Archive WILL and sometimes that’s the kind of stuff I need to find!
Just searching Google under the “News” heading won’t take you to this resource, you need to be a cool kid (which you are!) and know the link:
Here’s the full link again https://news.google.com/newspapers