Written by Anna Raddatz | Photos by Anthony Harden
Located on the edge of a quiet, suburban neighborhood in Hendersonville, North Carolina, across the street from a Boys & Girls Club, is a low-slung red brick building. From the outside, it looks like any industrial edifice. At first glance, you might guess it’s a warehouse or plant. In fact, originally constructed after World War II, it spent a substantial portion of its life as a frozen vegetable packaging plant.
Today, the building is still tied to its industrial roots, but in a very different way. Inside the 72,000-square-foot structure are cavernous rooms containing miles of thread, ten electronic looms, and stacks of some of the most gorgeous fabrics you’re ever likely to see.
The folks at The Oriole Mill are on a passionate mission to change the way American textile manufacturing works. Instead of focusing on higher outputs and bigger profits, owner Stephan Michelson and creative director Bethanne Knudson are developing a collaborative culture and are driven by the desire to create textiles worthy of passing down to future generations.
As a result, there is one word you will hear repeatedly from every person on their team: “perfection.” It’s a philosophy; it’s a goal; it’s what makes this young business stand apart from other fabric makers.
From First Date to Fabric Production
The history of The Oriole Mill begins with a love story.
Back in 1998, Bethanne Knudson was single and 36 years old. She had recently transitioned from a life in academia (teaching textiles and art at a variety of universities and colleges) to working as a trainer for a Macintosh-based Jacquard fabric design software. She was traveling three weeks out of every four, both nationally and internationally, and had very little time for a personal life.
A friend of Knudson’s, who was a Macintosh engineer, had just met a man named Stephan Michelson, a musician with a recording studio who had hired her to help him with ProTools. That friend thought Michelson and Knudson would make a good couple, and tried to match them up.
Knudson was hesitant. Not only was she tired of the repetitious get-to-know-you game of singledom, she was also so busy with her work, she couldn’t imagine maintaining a real relationship. But she finally relented, allowing her friend to give Michelson her phone number.
Michelson called her on Thanksgiving weekend (“Which was very strange, right? Because any sane person knows that’s a time for family and travel,” says Knudson.) and they talked for an hour. “I didn’t know then that his typical phone call lasts for three and a half minutes,” she says.
After a couple more dates, and a flurry of heartfelt emails during Knudson’s subsequent business trips, the two were officially an item.
A couple years later, Knudson would open The Jacquard Center, a training facility in Hendersonville for full-immersion study of Jacquard woven textiles. And Michelson would continue his work as a statistical analyst for lawyers involved in litigation. (His illustrious CV includes a PhD in economics from Stanford, teaching positions at Reed College and Harvard University, and stints at both the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute.)
But around 2004 Knudson was hitting a creative wall. As a textile designer, she naturally wanted to see her designs produced. However, as North Carolina textile mills were disappearing, it was becoming harder to find mills to produce her work and that of her Jacquard Center students. And when she did find them, she was limited by their existing loom set-ups, yarn quality, and production schedules.
As a result, Knudson wanted to get a Jacquard loom for The Jacquard Center. She and Michelson explored this idea, but, as Michelson says, “when you investigate what it takes, it turns out to be a very stupid idea.” One loom cannot produce enough output to support the infrastructure that that single loom requires.
“I expressed frustration, and he was looking to solve my frustration,” says Knudson of Michelson. “And, frankly, Stephan doesn’t do anything small.”
For Michelson’s part, he hated to see Knudson’s abilities go unexpressed. “Here’s this fantastic design talent without an outlet,” he says. “I wanted to help her have a platform.”
The only solution seemed to be to open their own mill. So the pair started looking for a location and equipment.
While Michelson seemed more than happy to invest his own time and money into such a massive undertaking, Knudson was nervous. “I had far more trepidation,” she says. “I was afraid of what we were taking on.”
Looking back, she realizes that she was right to be afraid.
“We both knew it was going to be very difficult, but I don’t think it ever occurred to either of us that it might be impossible,” she says. “That reality surfaced in 2008, which is when we were launching—and the economy collapsed.”
Launching Into a Dying Industry
The American textile industry has been in decline for a long time.
Barry Conner, the head overhauler at The Oriole Mill, grew up in Rutherford County, North Carolina, in the 1970s. In those days most everyone in the area worked in textiles. His parents both worked in mills, and Conner, like many of his classmates, dropped out of high school (where he took elective courses in textiles) to work in the mills, which offered salaries of $30,000 to $40,000 per year. “In 1984, at the age of sixteen, I was making $480 a week,” he recalls. “We viewed it as a career you’d start in and retire from.”
But Conner watched as that career path disappeared. In 1994 the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed. Manufacturers began moving their facilities to Mexico to take advantage of cheap labor. “Textiles was one of the first industries to go overseas,” says Conner. “It was a major blow to the South and the whole Eastern seaboard.”
As a result, Conner left the mill, got his high school diploma, and went on to other things, including working in his father’s restaurant business, and owning several businesses of his own, ranging from custom concrete coating to home restoration.
Meanwhile, the textile industry was dealt another blow in 2000, due to the U.S.-China Relations Act. The act lifted restrictions on Chinese imports, encouraging American manufacturers to outsource to China and leading to an influx of cheap, imported goods.
“While the rest of the country was focused on the California tech bubble bursting,” says Knudson, “the textile industry was collapsing here, and no one seemed to notice or even care.” She says that it happened so quickly that in the spring of 2000 she was contacted once or twice a week by headhunters looking for Jacquard designers; by October those inquiries had turned into designers looking for work.
When Knudson and Michelson were looking for equipment for their future mill, they hoped to buy machines as they could afford them. But they found themselves in the position of scrambling to snag machines before they all left the country. Michelson, who had planned to put up the cash for the business, says he had never been in debt in his life. But he took out a $1.5 million line of credit in order to purchase equipment before it all disappeared.
“We didn’t think we would save the industry,” says Knudson, “just change the way it works.” But as domestic mills disappeared, it became clear that The Oriole Mill would play a small but important role in preserving an American industry.
[quote float=”right”]Not only were high-quality, American-made supplies disappearing at an alarming rate, the industry they were entering was shrinking fast.[/quote]Then, as Michelson and Knudson planned to launch their venture, the financial crisis of 2007-08 hit. Knudson says the economic downturn “was the last nail in the coffin for the mills that had hung on.” The evaporation of short-term loans, which struggling mills and other textile-related businesses had been using to cover payroll, were the death knell. For example, Knudson says that “within six months, we lost the last spinning mill in the U.S. that was capable of mercerizing* yarn.” (Today The Oriole Mill sources its mercerized cotton yarn from Egypt.)
This was a sobering reality check for the nascent business. Not only were high-quality, American-made supplies disappearing at an alarming rate, the industry they were entering was shrinking fast. On top of that, the peers that Michelson and Knudson looked to for guidance and support had no interest in offering either.
“There is not a textile industry, in a sense of people who identify with each other and think of themselves in a common quest,” says Michelson. “Mill owners are so into competition and backbiting. Everybody’s out to destroy everybody else.” He tells stories of mill owners who have purchased equipment they don’t need, just to keep Michelson from buying it. And he has heard of other owners who will destroy equipment when they’re through with it, rather than put it up for sale.
As a result, in many ways, Michelson and Knudson were on their own. They had a warehouse in Hendersonville (purchased in 2006), a handful of machines, and a lot of passion.
But perhaps most importantly, they had Barry Conner on their team.
A New Kind of Mill Worker
In 2007 Conner was looking for a stable nine-to-five job so he could spend more time with his family, and had a job lined up with the City of Hendersonville. But then he heard about The Oriole Mill, and saw an opportunity to work with machines again, in an industry that was dear to him. “I thought it was wonderful that they’d found a niche in something that was long gone,” he says.
But what really drew Conner to The Oriole Mill was its fresh approach. In the old mill model, the goal was to increase profits by making more product, faster and cheaper. Each worker had one job that they did day in and day out, and, as Conner recalls, “management had no respect for you and didn’t care about anything going on with you.” Workers were seen as disposable, easily replaceable.
But Conner understood that Michelson and Knudson had a different vision. “Their idea was to take the finest materials on the planet and make perfect fabric,” he says. “I just never had seen that in textiles.”
It was a philosophy that immediately resonated with Conner. “It’s about quality, taking your time, doing it right,” he says. “That was always my mentality that I was raised with. It’s just that you never get to use that in other environments.”
He joined The Oriole Mill team as overhauler (a role that Knudson describes as “someone who can take apart a weaving machine and make it as good as the day it left the factory”) and today he can’t think of one thing he doesn’t like about his job. He and the other four employees don’t punch in and out at a time clock, and they’re self-supervised. Every employee wears multiple hats, so no two days are ever the same. And Conner gets to put his ingenuity to full use, coming up with new machine fixes all the time.
Michelson says that back when they were looking for machines, having Conner on their side was key. While dealers told Michelson he was crazy to look for equipment in the United States, since so much of it had gone overseas, he did find machines here and there, including two looms in a warehouse in South Carolina. “It was only because we had Barry that we had the confidence to buy them,” says Michelson. “We knew Barry could make them work.”
Knudson agrees. She says that buying used equipment is like buying a used car: you never really know what problems you’re inheriting. “If you don’t have someone of Barry’s skill and ability, you’re dead in the water,” she says. “This mill would not exist without Barry.”
It may seem that with all of the mill workers who lost their jobs over the previous decades, there would be a glut of overhaulers who could fill this role at The Oriole Mill. But Knudson says that Conner’s level of skill is rare. Michelson adds that most of the people who worked in the previous mill structure don’t fit in at their company. They tried hiring some of them before settling on the current team, but the level of flexibility and creativity demanded by such a small mill was a challenge for traditional mill workers. Used to having one role and one place in the hierarchy, they bristled at an environment that required constantly shifting duties.
For example, Knudson explains that most overhaulers would never operate a loom or make a sample for a designer—tasks they would consider “beneath their station.” And most designers would never actually be at the loom as their designs were woven, looking down on the mill workers as “grease monkeys.”
But she says that she and Conner often work together at the loom because they both share the same goal of making the best fabric possible. Conner is able to evaluate whether Knudson’s design will run smoothly in production, and Knudson can alter the design if need be. “At the loom, he and I together can solve a problem in four minutes,” says Knudson.
Designing, Cutting, and Sewing
Today, The Oriole Mill has three main lines of business. First, it sells yardage of their fabrics to the furniture industry. (Crate & Barrel is currently selling a rocking chair, the Jeremiah Fabric Back Rocker, that features the Mill’s fabric.) Second, it weaves for Pavo Textiles, a baby-wrap company. And third, the Mill produces its own line of “top of the bed” products, which includes coverlets, duvets, throws, pillows, and shams—all of which are available at their website (theoriolemill.com).
As designer and creative director, Knudson is the visual mind behind the stunning patterns. She claims that explaining her design inspirations is hard for her, but that’s most likely because her inspiration comes from so many places—from historic textiles (a scrap of tatting made by her great grandmother) to old ceramic tiles (“They’re already in repeat, so they translate well,” she says.) to designs from her own drawings, paintings, and etchings. She also gets new ideas from special yarns or from playing around with weave structure.
Knudson says the most important element in her design process is just having the freedom to experiment—a luxury that many textile designers don’t have. Other designers usually have to work within set “recipes,” and may only have the option of altering colors or motifs. But Knudson, with a whole mill at her fingertips, including eight Jacquard looms that can create extremely complicated patterns, is at liberty to play. “We’re developing new recipes all the time,” she says, “and they’re distinct to this mill and our set-ups.”
While Knudson has major talent in the design arena, she will be the first to say that she’s not a seamstress. Her dream for the mill was to bring in yarn and then send out finished products. But for that she needed an expert in the “cut and sew” department.
“We knew those skills existed in this area, but we couldn’t find the caliber we needed,” she says. Similar to the challenge with finding mill workers, the cut and sew providers who had worked with the traditional textile industry were focused on doing things quickly. Knudson worried that once someone is used to doing a task with speed, it’s hard for them to go back and learn to do it slowly and meticulously.
Through a mutual friend, Knudson met Libby O’Bryan, a young woman who had a background in fashion design, patternmaking, sewing, and business administration. At the time, O’Bryan was living in Chicago and was trying to figure out her place in the world. She was struggling with the shift of production from domestic to overseas, and the “continual glut of consumption” inherent to fashion cycles. Eventually, O’Bryan decided she wanted to start her own cut and sew operation where, as she describes it, “skill and labor in a domestic manufacturing environment could be preserved, honored, and celebrated.”
O’Bryan knew about The Oriole Mill and hoped to pick Knudson’s brain as a mentor. But Knudson surprised her by inviting her to run her cut and sew business out of the Mill’s facility—and offering to be O’Bryan’s first client. After some consideration, O’Bryan accepted the opportunity, moving to Asheville and launching the Western Carolina Sewing Company, or Sew Co., in 2010.
Today, O’Bryan spends about half of her time working on development and production for The Oriole Mill and the other half on her other clients. Her small team—made of up women from a variety of backgrounds (industry veterans, fiber artists, and custom apparel makers)—makes 400 to 500 items per month, ranging from baby wraps to karate tool bags to high-end women’s wear. While the clients may be varied, they all have one thing in common: they demand high-quality finished products.
“I don’t want some clients who don’t care if it’s perfect,” O’Bryan says. “That way, we always know to do our best work.”
Quality for Life
Up and running for seven years now (the first yard of fabric was produced in 2007), The Oriole Mill is stable, but still searching for its place in the market. The fact that it’s still around at all could be considered something of a miracle.
As far as traditional manufacturing goes, the business is doing everything “the wrong way.” Instead of focusing on mass production, efficiency, and division of labor, this mill is all about perfection, experimentation, and a supportive work environment. The result is artisanal products that carry a relatively high price tag (coverlets start at $1,200, throws at $400).
But there’s a reason that the traditional manufacturing model is so popular: it’s very good at making money. Making cheap products and selling them to the masses is a tried-and-true recipe for getting rich. To eschew this model and still succeed in modern times means fighting against all odds—a fight that, for many, is well worth it.
[quote float=”right”]“Paying workers a living wage and using materials that are long-lasting and non-toxic should be the norm, not the exception,” O’Bryan says.[/quote]O’Bryan says that cheap, ubiquitous goods come at the cost of poor wages, poor working conditions, and environmental damage. “Paying workers a living wage and using materials that are long-lasting and non-toxic should be the norm, not the exception,” she says. “If that was the case, the economy would shift to that reality, making our goods more accessible.”
In short, if consumers purchased fewer higher-quality goods that could last for years, or even generations, then investing in those higher-priced items would make sense. In the fashion world it’s known as saving up for “investment pieces,” a trend that could take hold in the area of home decor as well.
The question is: are the American people ready for that shift? Does the demand for high-quality goods actually exist?
Michelson worries that perhaps it does not. He offers an interesting comparison taken from his other passion—music. He notes that in the music industry audio formats improved over time. From the phonograph cylinder to the vinyl record to compact discs, each format introduced better sound quality than the last. But now, with MP3s, sound quality has actually decreased. Michelson explains that music is recorded at about four times the bit rate as the consumer receives it as an MP3. To him, this represents the first time in music recording history that the consumer has deliberately chosen an inferior product.
“There’s tremendous fidelity out there, but there’s no market for it,” he says. “The public has chosen convenience over quality. That’s our fear about textiles. We’ve produced this incredible stuff, but people are into cheaper, faster, whatever they can buy quickly at the store.”
For her part, Knudson is optimistic that this can change, as some people start to ask themselves different questions when they’re shopping. “When I see something that’s such a great deal,” she says, “now I ask myself, ‘How can they do it for that price? What corners are they cutting? Would I be comfortable rewarding this behavior if I knew how this product came to be in my hands?’”
Conner adds that the quality aspect of many products has suffered so much that both the consumers and the companies are starting to notice. He says the products coming from overseas often have so many defects that they have to be shipped back (a considerable cost for those companies) and re-done. And it’s not just foreign manufacturers who are guilty of shoddiness, Conner says he knows of an American mill whose output is 40% defects.
“A lot of companies have started to navigate back this way,” he says. “I don’t think [the domestic textile industry] will ever rise up to its former glory, but things are shifting.”
As they maneuver through this entrepreneurial journey together, Michelson and Knudson are betting their time, their resources, and their energy that the shifting tide toward quality over quantity is nigh.
And as they spread the word about their “top of the bed” line (which was recently featured in The New York Times), and make plans for future product lines (including “top of the table” items like tablecloths, napkins, and placemats), it’s clear that their guiding principle—perfection—will keep them on track toward making beautiful things that are worthy of future generations.
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