Felt Lace X-Change
Company: Studio Structure
Designed by Pauline Verbeek-Cowart
Woven by The Oriole Mill
Medium: merino wool
Technique: fulled double cloth with hand finishing
Place made: North Carolina, U.S.A.
One of the favorite parts of my job is inspecting all of the new acquisitions coming into the textile collection. Earlier this year I was thrilled to come across a beautifully woven and hand-finished textile called Felt Lace X-Change. This off-white double cloth with an open weave structure is cut at certain points to create a series of intersecting panels that move freely around the points of intersection. Even though the textile has the word “felt” in its title, it isn’t a true felt as it is first woven and then “fulled” to achieve a felted appearance. It sounds very complicated, and it definitely is! It was designed by Pauline Verbeek-Cowart for her design house Studio Structure, and it was woven at The Oriole Mill down in North Carolina.
After putting the textile into proper archival storage, I promptly forgot about it as I went about doing the rest of my work. That is, until I had the fortune to bump into a woman named Bethanne Knudson at a Brooklyn dinner party a few weeks ago. When I found out that she was associated with the mill that wove Felt Lace X-Change, I knew I had to talk to her. She had many fascinating stories about the excitement and challenges of running a mill, but what was most inspiring is that she not only works at the mill – she is the founder of the The Jacquard Center. I had heard about the Center from a friend of mine who went down there to experiment with designing conductive textiles, so I was thrilled to also meet the person responsible for trying to keep the art of jacquard weaving alive in the United States. I wanted to help spread the news about the really innovative and cool weaving and education that Knudson and her partners are doing, so I asked her to answer the following questions for this blog:
How and why did you start The Jacquard Center? Can you explain about the mission of the center and the audience you are trying to reach?
I started The Jacquard Center in 2000 as a response to traveling three weeks out of four, often to sites that did not lend themselves well to a 50 hour training session [Ed note: Before starting the center Knudson used to be a trainer for the JacqCAD MASTER® software]. The Jacquard Center is a training retreat for Jacquard studies. The 4,000 square feet building, set on the side of a mountain, with a wooded view, allows for full concentration on designing using a CAD system. We offer training to designers in the textile industry and we offer mill access classes to individuals who want to design their own custom Jacquard fabric and watch their fabric weave.
Can you run us through a typical day at the Center?
Most days I am running the mill. A day at The Jacquard Center is a day during a mill access class. Class starts at 8:00 a.m. and goes to 6:00 or 7:00 p.m., depending on student needs. We spend the first two days on computers, developing and preparing images for the demands of applying the technical information to the file. We spend the third day testing the designs at the mill, responding to the woven sample and making changes in the design to weave the next iteration. The fourth day of the class is spent weaving the modified or entirely new designs.
How is it related to The Oriole Mill? What sort of work does the mill produce?
The Jacquard Center and The Oriole Mill work closely together but they are separate entities. The Jacquard Center is owned by me, Bethanne Knudson while the Oriole Mill is owned by Stephan Michelson. I am the Design Director of The Oriole Mill and I run The Jacquard Center, including teaching responsibilities.
The mill weaves for others, as mentioned above, and it weaves its own line of home furnishing pieces: coverlets, shams, throws, bed scarves, window coverings. The Oriole Mill is an open mill, offering tours to the public and allowing student groups access through The Jacquard Center classes. Part of being an open mill involves collaborating with other artists and designers, for example, Despina Papadopoulos. In our first trials we wove using conductive yarn in the weft direction, customizing the weaving to work with components Despina had developed. It is the very beginning of our collaboration and the direction is open-ended. This is a case where the one thing that is clear is that we will continue to work together, developing fabrics that integrate conductive capabilities with Jacquard weaving.
The X-change piece acquired by the Cooper-Hewitt was woven at The Oriole Mill in 2007. The fabric was developed by Pauline Verbeek Cowart, using merino yarn that she developed for its ability to felt. The fabric requires hand finishing, a process which is time-consuming and difficult. Mistakes at the felting stage can ruin the fabric. The X-change fabric is a great example of how the machine and hand processes work together.
What are some of the challenges of running a mill?
The collapse of the American textile industry is the biggest challenge in running the mill. The exit of the industry makes getting equipment and parts more difficult, it has made getting yarn more difficult, getting small quantities of dyed yarn has become expensive and time-consuming. Problems that were quick and easy to solve in 2000 are no longer.
What are the goals for the future of your center and the mill?
Financial security is the primary goal. We will be launching a new website in the coming months, ultimately allowing individuals, as well as retailers, to purchase our goods directly from the website. The next challenge will be in driving traffic to the website.
Where do you see the American textile industry heading?
The only model that has a chance to survive and thrive long-term is in the niche areas. High end home furnishings, small runs, artisanal fabrics, as we are doing should survive. Medical, smart/technical and military fabrics will continue to have a presence in the United States but will not likely have the rate of expansion enjoyed in the past.
Weaving Room at the Mill. Photo by Bethanne Knudson