Today’s interview is with Heather Powers, a designer who worked for the historic textile company, Churchill Weavers. For over 85 years Churchill Weavers manufactured premium handwoven textiles in Berea, KY. A few years ago Churchill Weavers closed its doors. All images posted above are from the Kentucky Historical Society collection.
Can you give us some background info on yourself and your experiences in the textile industry?
I started out in textiles with a BFA from Savanna College of Art and Design in 1998. Churchill was the first job that I got in the industry working after college. I was really lucky to be able to go there straight out of college and I spent about a year there. I chose to work for them because I knew that they had their manufacturing on site and that really interested me. I had a woven focus in my textile degree and I wanted to be in a facility that gave me the hands-on experience, as well as the design experience. So I spent a year with them as a junior designer and then I decided that I needed some other experience. So I went on to work for Mohawk Industries down in Georgia. I continued to design textiles, but I was designing jacquard textiles that were not hand woven, they were machine woven, but at that point they were still manufacturing in the US. The division of Mohawk called Mohawk Home. I spent three years there and I went on to designing woven carpets for a not-American company called Taipang Carpets. They at the time had a different name. They’re a global carpet manufacturer and most of the competitors who compete in that hospitality and residential carpet industry, most of them manufacture off shore in China, India, different parts of Asia and Europe. There used to be a company in the US called US Axe Menster, which were woven carpets in the States. They were no longer manufacturing in the US by the time I was working for Taipang. At the time I started in the industry, the issues of declining jobs and mills closing was already starting to get to become a forefront issue. I feel like I was really lucky to at least get to work for a couple companies where I was on site and I was designing and I could walk out on to the mill-rom floor, or take a drive and get to the mill within a really short distance to where I was designing.
How beneficial is it for a designer to be involved in the production of their designs, let alone in the same building like at Churchill Weavers?
That’s an important experience for a designer to have. In the long run, I’m a better designer because of I was able to walk out and see first hand the problems from trying to create something pretty but not understanding the functional and technical issues that could come with the manufacturing process. While I was working there, I was designing things on paper, the old fashioned way. They wanted me to know how to design the way that they had been historically designing for 75 years. One of the reasons that I was hired was to help them develop designs for their electronic Dobby Looms, which were not hand-woven, but they were American made. They were trying to bring technology in to the picture a little bit. They had about 150 hand looms and around 5 Dobby Looms by the time that I left.
What were some of the factors that led to Churchill Weavers closing its doors?
There were several factors. Churchill had tried in many ways to keep up with technology by purchasing several electronic Dobby looms, but they were really well known as a hand weaving facility. That’s what they really wanted to remain. When David Churchill sold the company to the Yolandos, it was really a verbal agreement between them that things wouldn’t change that much and they would continue to produce quality, hand-made products. Churchill tried their best, I think, to compete on a global scale in the luxury market. It was the cost of manufacturing hand woven goods really forced them to be in the luxury market, which is where they had been all along. Another factor was the lack of copyright infringement laws on a global scale. A lot of imports were a direct knock-off of not only Churchill’s products, but a variety of other luxury items at the time. They fought it as best they could and won a lawsuit at one point to put a stop to some of those imports. The market got saturated with a product that was less than half the price and looked exactly the same and not all consumers know the difference and they don’t necessarily care, unfortunately.
What are, if any, some mills that are comparable to Churchill Weavers that have success in today’s market?
None that are hand-weaving facilities. Not on that scale. There are some cottage-industry hand-weaving companies out there weaving clothes, lady’s accessories, and rugs and on a bit larger scale, there are a couple companies like Texillary weavers up in Livingston, Indiana, and Pure Country weavers in North Carolina. Textillary doesn’t weave anything by hand, they’re using all machines and Dobby looms. Pure Country has been successful because they continue to go after the customized market. They have a picture throw line where you can send in your picture and have it digitized into a woven throw. They also work with some fine artists and do commission pieces. They’ve been able to diversify a little bit.
How does a designer have the ability to support American made goods and to choose who they work with?
Well, as a freelance designer, you can pick and choose who you want to work with, but it’s not always possible. The smaller the company, the more they are willing to respond to the desires of the consumer. My experience has been that the larger the company, not that they’re not aware of the issue, can’t respond on a larger scale to provide cost-driven goods that are American made. In the carpet industry, a lot of them have moved manufacture off shore to South America or India. I think that for textiles, there are some niche markets where it’s reasonable to manufacture goods in the US, but we have had a really hard time trying to source American Made products. If I wanted to design the surface of a pattern, for a fabric, and go out on my own and find a company who could print that fabric for me, and I wanted to make sure the base-goods were also made in the US, there are some companies that do that, but not enough; not to mention the prices are usually almost double what an imported product would be. In the last couple decades, a lot of the larger mills have been closing but smaller entrepreneurial designers are trying to re-introduce manufacturing practices back to America, which is really encouraging. It’s unfortunate that we’ve lost the history and equipment of the larger mills that are now gone. It’s too bad that they could not have foreseen this resurgence in American manufacturing. To lose all that experience and to have a new generation come along, and have them have to figure it all out on their own, is sad. At least, there’s an interest and there are people out there trying to do that. That’s encouraging.
What’s the one factor that will allow textile companies like Churchill Weavers to remain competitive in today’s market?
It’s not realistic to expect it to return to the textile manufacturing heyday. The knowledge and innovation that was the cornerstone of Churchill Weavers is really essential to the future of any successful manufacturing business. Keep that innovative spirit and educate the consumer.