Many of us think of handmade rugs as being indigenous to regions far away from Western North Carolina, perhaps the Middle East, Turkey, China, or India. Few of us think of fine rugs actually being produced in our area. Surprisingly right here in Hendersonville, North Carolina, is a well recognized custom rug company, well known for its high quality rugs. Mountain Rug Mills produces custom rugs in all sizes and shapes, which, because of their fine craftsmanship, will undoubtedly be considered a hotly sought-after family heirloom. Their specialty is hand hooked (tufted) and braided rugs, made of virgin New Zealand wool, sometimes with the added highlight of Mulberry silk from China. Many of the rugs are quite beautiful, particularly when there is a combination of hooked and braided, an unusual border, or an amazing center medallion.
Gill and Judy Morgan (though no relation to this writer) are both from this area—Judy, from Fairview and Gill, from Toxaway. In 1973 Gill joined Mountain Rug Mills in Fletcher. Even though his background was accounting, Gill says, “Wool is in my blood. It comes back to being able to have a clean slate, wool, and make a beautiful piece of art. It allows someone to be creative. They go from a paper design to a rug with many shades of wool colors to work with and incorporate. You might call it yarn art, or painting with wool. It takes a person with a lot of skill to have a finished product that is a beautiful piece of art, much like a museum piece. I just couldn’t get away from it, the construction process, building something from nothing. It’s in my blood.”
In May, 1994, Gill and Judy bought Mountain Rug Mills. Their son Anton became the plant manager and designer. In 1999 due to the road widening of Highway 25 next to the building in Fletcher, the company found it necessary to move to Hendersonville. In 2007 they bought Spinning Wheel Rugs from Jason Sumner, and the combined companies are located on King Street in downtown Hendersonville. Their Factory Store/Showroom is located in the same building as the mill.
Most of their employees have been with the company 15 years or more. According to Gill, it “takes someone with good color perception and dexterity. One can almost always tell right away if the person has the capacity to be a good hooker. It takes years to train a person to get to a high level of expertise.” Before the economic downturn the company needed approximately 50 employees; now unfortunately it is close to half that. They had to make changes in order to survive. Major corporations, such a Citibank, have had to cut back and economize, so sometimes a particular project such as a board room must be completed within a lowered budget. Thus, Mountain Rug Mills developed rugs with a lower price point and did some overtufting. Gill does “See some upticks in the economy since 2008.” He thinks the economy may have turned the corner last year and hopes their company will get back to full production soon.
Commercial projects including hotels and yachts all over the world are a major part of their business. Two weeks ago they made a carpet for someone’s Ferrari. One area of business that was once plentiful, but has slackened in this economy, is commercial and residential aviation, such as Delta Airlines, Hawaiian Air, Continental and American Airlines. This included making carpets for Donald Trump’s private jet, helicopter flooring, or custom rugs for the Bing Crosby Estate and Perry Como.
Even though Mountain Rug Mills does not install the rugs in the aircraft, the work for the aircraft industry is quite exacting, technical, and must always be precise. The sizes of the bulk head dividers, often with a logo, the kick panels and the flooring must be spot on correct with no small variations. They must fit perfectly. And the specifications and codes by the industry are stringent, including the exact level of flame retardants needed for each separate area. Apparently most corporate jets have two sets of floor carpets. A set of carpets on the aircraft is taken out for cleaning while it is on the ground for maintenance, and clean or new ones are installed. Gill Morgan gets a chuckle over some projects. Some years ago the Egyptian government ordered carpeting—possibly wool and silk—for a wide bodied plane, perhaps an L-1011. But one area of the carpet needed to be extremely stiff and firm—stiff enough for the passengers to roll their dice easily! Another amusing sight was seeing an aircraft with all real gold fixtures! These were installed, because the owner did not think the gold plated fixtures were bright enough!
According to Judy and Gill, their business is primarily custom.
Orders are sent to them from all over the country, including the Northeast, Michigan, Ohio, and California. A lot of the orders are brought to them through a private label, such as Scalamandre or Stark Carpet. In recent years, however, Mountain Rug Mills has been stepping away from the private label umbrella to be recognized on their own. They are gathering a network of representatives around the country.
Designers and architects are coming to them directly to place orders for their projects. They work with Cheryl Smith of Hendersonville, Susan Kinney of Suezen Designs in Asheville, Kathleen Rivers of Charleston and Cashiers, Todd Richesin of Knoxville, Susan Nilsson and Samsel Architects of Asheville, Jane Hoke of Birmingham, Amelia Handigan of Charleston, Lucile Clarkson and several other designers in the Atlanta area. Susan Kinney says, “I have had such a great time working with MRM, and they did a fabulous job on all of the rugs I designed.” These designers and others, especially within a 300 mile radius, like to use the MRM showroom because of the easy access to the large collection of samples and rugs. There is the added benefit of being able to work directly with the mill. More are always welcome. One specialty store MRM has worked with is Macy’s. However, they do not send orders to the big boxes, such as Walmart, Home Depot or Lowe’s.
Corporate orders make up close to 25%, while residential is approximately 75%. Eighty percent of the business is hooked rugs and 15%, braided. Mountain Rug Mills make very small rugs, like a 2’ x 3’ rug, all the way to very large rugs, as well as chair pads. In fact, with an unlimited frame for hooking, they can handle any size of carpet. Usually one person hooks a rug completely, but when it is a very large size with a tight schedule, different operators work on different design elements, in order to keep the continuity of quality the same within the rug.
Last year First Source Bank in South Bend, Indiana, came to them to remake their rugs, which dated back to the 1980s and under heavy usage had become worn in places. This turned out to be an amazing job. These were very large rugs, with many angles and special shapes in places with the largest being 30’ x 40’. Initially, First Source wanted to change the colors, but ultimately they decided not to do so. The installation was quite a production. To insure that business on Monday could continue smoothly, the installation had to take place on a weekend. The coordination and timing had to be precise. After the rugs were ready, they were loaded onto a dedicated truck, leaving North Carolina on Friday afternoon. They had to be delivered very early in the morning on Saturday. The windows of the corporate offices had to be taken out by the time the truck arrived. A crane was waiting to lift these rugs, which were quite heavy, onto the proper floor and into the rooms. Many walls had to be taken out inside. Workers were lined up and ready to install the rugs immediately. After that the corporate offices had to be put back together, so work could continue smoothly on Monday. The pressure and precision was immense for all to accomplish this without a hitch.
Mountain Rug Mills is a custom manufacturer with a Factory Store/Showroom. In their business, color and design are everything, which also means working closely with the customer. “Our level of service must be high, never sacrificing anything and paying great attention to detail,” says Judy. “I try to treat every client like I want to be treated! I take it to heart.” Service is an important part of the business. The qualities they produce range from level one loop or cut with very little detail to multi-level with carving or needlepoint with a lot of detail. Andy Balla, Judy Morgan and her son Anton often create the rug design for the customer; sometimes it is taken from a small piece of fabric, a drawing or photo; sometimes the creation grows out of something already produced. The customer can choose colors from the company’s standard color poms, or perhaps other yarns need to be dyed specifically for the project.
Mountain Rug Mills dyes everything in their own dye house. This is an art in itself. They dye by the hank or skein in dye kettles with environmentally friendly “green” dyes—all the wool, the silk, the jute, the sisal. There are over one hundred standard colors, but many customers request slight variations on the tone. Custom colors can be dyed to match a piece of fabric, color pom or even a piece of tissue. A person needs a chemistry background, good math skills and experience to do this type of dyeing. Atmospheric pressure can make a difference, as can the exact condition of the wool itself. The finished product must be as colorfast as possible. If a sample is made, it must be approved by the customer—before production can begin. Sometimes a rendering is all that is required, or MRM may have a sample or rug in the factory Store/Showroom that serves as a sample. Then a stencil of the design is put on the monk cloth, which allows the hooking to begin on the loom. After the rug is completed, it is closely inspected. If it meets their high standards, a good quality of latex is applied to lock the wool in place, and the rug is sheared and carved if required. Then it receives a final inspection. The overall finished product must exemplify fine craftsmanship. Most hooked rug orders average approximately 12 weeks to complete, but the Morgans work with a client to meet their schedule as much as possible.
The White House
An interesting job was making rugs for the White House. Just before leaving in 2009, First Lady Laura Bush unveiled and installed new acquisitions of area rugs handcrafted by Mountain Rug Mills for the Old Family Dining Room and the Diplomatic Reception Room. Earlier Mountain Rug Mills had already installed a rug in the Green Room, a colorful state parlor. They were to replace carpets with signs of wear and tear. The rugs were acquired for the White House collection as part of regular room refurbishments. Everything was purchased by the White House Historical Association through its Endowment and Acquisition Trusts. This is privately raised money.
Judy & Gill Morgan worked closely for a number of years with William G. Allman, White House curator, Mrs. Laura Bush, designer Ken Blasingame, and also Casey Wenskus, artist, to create some amazing designs. Architectural elements from the rooms were chosen to be included in the rug designs, as well as the easily recognized American emblem, the bald eagle. The rugs are quite large. The Old Family Dining Room rug is 17’9” x 21’10” and the Diplomatic Reception Room rug is 22’5” x 32’7.”
The Family Dining Room was where the family ate most of their meals, up until the Kennedys added the upstairs dining room and kitchen. President George W. Bush entertained 81 heads of state for luncheons in this room. According to First Lady Laura Bush, the color in the rug was taken from the color that was already in the room, a cheerful yellow. The mantel has swags and an eagle, so these were used in the border of the rug. The room has medallions in the corner of the door casings, so these medallions were modified and placed in the field of the rug.
The Diplomatic Reception Room (p.57) is a lovely parlor for receiving diplomats from afar. The Mountain Rug Mills carpet here has emblems from the flags of the 50 states in the United States around its border. The Diplomatic Reception Room is the room where First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy picked out panoramic wallpaper, which depicts four scenes of North America, including Boston Harbor and West Point. The wallpaper was created by the artist Deltil for French wallpaper Manufacturer Zuber, a firm founded in 1797.
Many pioneers of early America made hand hooked and braided rugs for their families. To produce them was very time consuming. It is part of the American heritage, and many fine historical examples are found in museums and homes throughout the country. If you want to try your hand at hooking, small kits with the basics can be found in hobby shops. For the Early American look, Mountain Rug Mills is licensed to reproduce a collection of rugs on exhibit at The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.
It is quite amazing to find a successful company, such as Mountain Rug Mills, right here in our neighborhood, in Hendersonville. Happily for us, they do have an outlet store located in the mill itself at 609 North King Street. You would have to look far and wide to match the quality of their craftsmanship. This is truly a Made in America product that one can be proud to own. The rug is made to last; it is a quality product. Their standard patterned rugs all have names that you can recognize, such as Etowah, Broom Sage, Mud Creek or Biltmore. Judy and Gill Morgan are members of the Southern Highland Craft Guild and collaborate with Handmade in America. Do visit Mountain Rug Mills or give them a call at (828) 698-4543 or visit their website at www.mountainrugmills.com. The outlet store is open Monday through Friday from 9 to 5, also evenings and weekends by appointment. For after hours appointments, call (828) 275-1857. They will be happy to help you with your creation or project. You will undoubtedly be pleased with the results.