Open book with photographs of a map, a dam, and a design featuring electrical towers.


Photo above from Embroidery: Threads and Stories, pages 104-105

From Embroidery: Threads and Stories, by Natalie Chanin, page 102:

The Tennessee River cuts a path right through the center of The Shoals—splitting Florence from the cities of Muscle Shoals, Sheffield, and Tuscumbia. Before the construction of Wilson Dam as part of the National Defense Act of 1916, the river flowed wide and shallow, and was prone to flooding and rife with shoals. Muscle Shoals is named after one of these shallow shoals. Heading downstream, boats and rafts had to be carried with “muscle” over or around the obstacle. Below the shoals, the river became narrower and deeper, and thus, navigable by boat. For this reason, by the 1890s, textile mills were moved to the region, brick by brick, and the river was used to transport cotton and finished goods that were the products of a vertical system where cotton was grown, ginned, spun, knit, cut, and sewn. With the completion of Wilson Dam, electricity produced by the river was used to run machines and power the factories that were transforming fiber to garment.

The textile history of this region can be attributed, for better or for worse, to this river flowing right through its center. Eventually, of course, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) would help to carry this industry away—as, machine by machine, it flowed to the next location.

Read more about the Tennessee River here.

Learn more about the history of textiles in The Shoals and the beginnings of Alabama Chanin and The School of Making in Embroidery: Threads and Stories. Explore our upcoming events here.

A vintage map of the Tennessee River.
Vintage map of the Tennessee River Valley at the Shoals from Natalie’s family home. Photo by Abraham Rowe.

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