It is no secret that I feel a commitment to my community; it is equally evident the role that growing up in Florence, Alabama, had on my development as a designer. Textiles – the growing, picking, spinning, knitting, cutting, and sewing – were a part of the vernacular of small southern towns from the late 1800s until the signing of NAFTA. My community has been no different.
This textile history is present in our studio today and we are surrounded by friends, colleagues, and families who have worked textiles, their parents worked textiles, and their grandparents worked textiles. My great grandmother “worked socks” at the Sweetwater Mill in East Florence.
One of our local historians, the late William Lindsay McDonald –with research by L.D. Staggs, Jr. – compiled two staple-bound books about the community of East Florence and the mill where my great-grandmother “pulled” socks. These books came into my possession recently and have reconnected me to the generations who worked textiles before me.
The first book was compiled in 1989, with the sequel published in 1990. Both are stapled with weathering covers – one pink, one blue – and as I browse through them, I feel the binding stress and the yellowing pages creak. Black and white photos populate the typewritten texts. The photos document master mechanics, rows of mill houses, children, and couples dressed in their Sunday best.
From, Sweetwater: The Story of East Florence 1818-1940, page 14:
“Florence was established as a river town because of its strategic location at the foot of the Muscle Shoals. Soon, however, because of its abundance of water and numerous falling streams it became a cotton mill town.”
This is the beginning of a history that leads to Alabama Chanin. Holding these two weathered books, I am so aware of the how the past is part of our work. Over the next year, as we continue our Friday: The Heart posts, we will come back to this history – and these books – over and over again.
In 2002, Mr. McDonald and L.D. Staggs, Jr. released Remembering Sweetwater – The Mansions, The Mills, The People in a bound volume with Bluewater Publishing. Also look for The Most They Ever Had by Rick Bragg about the “the hardscrabble lives of those who lived and died by an American cotton mill.”
William Lindsay McDonald, L.D Staggs, Jr., the community of East Florence, the boat captains who navigated the rivers, and the generations of textile workers who came before us – part of the heart and soul of Alabama Chanin.
From Alabama Stitch Book – page 11:
The author of several books on Florence, Mr. McDonald is the historian of our city, which was founded in 1818 along the Tennessee River (and named by an Italian surveyor after his favorite city). On many afternoons, Mr. McDonald can be found upstairs in a sunny spot of the downtown library, surrounded by colleagues who pore over old news accounts. ‘Some of the first cotton fabric production in the country happened right here in east Florence,’ he says.
This community expanded during America’s burgeoning Industrial Revolution in the late 1890s, and mill villages began to sprout up around these factories. Until recently you could see remnants of this time along Sweetwater Creek. There, a factory building with tall windows and a faded brick façade recalls a time when men, women, and children worked inside for meager wages making union suits, men’s underwear, and undershirts. ‘The workers barely made a living,’ Mr. McDonald says. ‘They worked ten to twelve hours a day, six days a week. They lived in homes owned by the company; they shopped at company stores. They really didn’t have much of a chance to get ahead.’ But the promise of work kept families coming to Florence and to other Southern cities. Their productivity paid off. By the mid-1930’s, according to Rivoli, 75 percent of the cotton-yarn spindles in America were in the South.