Please welcome guest author Adam MacPharlain. He has been working hands-on with the Churchill Weavers Collection at the Kentucky Historical Society for over a year now. Adam has also worked with collections at the National Museum of Toys and Miniatures in Kansas City, the Art Museum at the University of Kentucky, and the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, England.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Appalachian Craft Revival brought about a resurgence of various handcrafts such as woodworking, basketry, and weaving. These renewed ventures were often cottage industries comprised of home workers selling their wares privately or through regional crafts centers; however, one company in the small town of Berea, KY, rose up to become one of the nation’s foremost companies to specialize in handweaving. The company, Churchill Weavers, played a pivotal role in expanding the visibility of handwoven goods through its business practices, marketing, design, and willingness to experiment.
Churchill Weavers was founded by David Carroll Churchill and his wife, Eleanor Franzen Churchill, in 1922. Carroll Churchill, who was from Oberlin, OH, graduated in engineering from MIT at the turn of the century. In 1901 he traveled to India on behalf the British government to study the local handweaving industry.
Churchill noticed that handweavers could not compete with the output of power looms, so he developed adaptations to the fly-shuttle loom that increased the output of handweavers so that the individuals could make a solid living with their craft. Also while in India, Carroll met and married his second wife, Eleanor, who was there on missionary work. The Churchills returned to Oberlin in 1917.
Three years later Carroll moved the family to Berea, KY, where he began teaching at Berea College. He taught in the engineering department for two years before deciding to leave the college; he and the family, however, decided to remain in Berea. It was around this time that Carroll built a loom for Eleanor, who had not woven before that time. Set up in a room at a local hotel, Boone Tavern, Eleanor quickly learned the weaving handcraft and drew international attention for her design aesthetics.
By August of 1922, the couple formed the Churchill Weavers with their first order of scarves for the American Lace Co. of Elyria, OH. With the profit from this order and a small amount of additional money, Carroll built a temporary shed on the lot that would later hold many additional permanent structures, including their loomhouse, gift shop, offices, and more. For their second big order, Churchill Weavers had seven looms and seven weavers; at the company’s peak, the company could have as many as 150 looms of various sizes and uses.
Carroll and Eleanor Churchill both had vital rolls in how the company was run. Carroll designed and built the looms, continuing throughout his life to modify the functionality of the looms and other machinery; he also helped to manage other aspects of daily business.
Eleanor started as the designer and saleswoman in the beginning, and in later years, hired others to take on those roles while she supervised with a watchful eye and regular input.
Unlike other handcrafts enterprises of the time, which often were work-at-your-own-pace jobs for the benefit of the craftsperson, Churchill Weavers was set up using formal business practices that were meant to ensure a long-running, self-sufficient company. Nevertheless, the Churchills did encourage locals to come and be trained in weaving as a way to boost the local economy. Carroll believed that a handweaver should be able to support herself solely on the goods she produces.
While many weaving studios of this time period often stuck to making home linens such as placemats and towels, Churchill Weavers produced a large number of products that included: ladies’ accessories (scarves and shawls), men’s neckwear, baby blankets, bags, couch throws, yardage fabric, ready-to-wear garments, and home linens.
At various points in their operation, Churchill Weavers managed stores in Berea, New York City, Chicago, and Detroit. They had sales representatives throughout the country, and in later years, for international markets in Europe and Asia. In addition to their own stores, Churchill Weavers products were sold in high-end retailers such as Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdale’s, Lord & Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue, and more. Often these stores would commission special styles exclusively for their stores, such as an order of suiting yardage for Sears in the early 1940s, totaling over 6,000 yards.
The early pieces produced by Churchill Weavers were often fabricated from wool that was purchased from outside mills and dyed per their specification. They also used rayon, cotton, linen, and other fibers, blended yarns, and various twist and novelty yarns. While the weave structures themselves were nothing new, the sheer variety Churchill Weavers produced was impressive. Beyond plain and twill weaves, which could be done in multiple combinations, Churchill Weavers also made pieces in traditional weaves such as Ms and Os, huck, and Bronson lace, as well as overshots with patterns like Chariot Wheel and Whig Rose.
Some products used additional notions, including purses and some sewn goods; these parts were often purchased from outside suppliers, though some were made in the company’s own woodshop. Notions could include plastic or wood purse handles, satin lining fabric, snaps, buttons, and so on. For sewn goods, the woven and laundered cloth would be sent to at-home “finishers” who would cut and sew pieces, as well as add embellishments such as trim and embroidery.
In an effort to keep up with the market, Churchill Weavers was always looking at new trends and experimenting with new endeavors. They quickly began using Orlon® acrylic yarns and Lurex® metallic threads soon after they were developed in the 1940s and early 1950s. In the 1990s, the company began regularly incorporating rayon chenille yarns into their products, which would later become their signature look, keeping them on point with the greater home furnishings market.
Over the decades, Churchill Weavers would see rises and falls in business, fluctuating with the national economy, raises in minimum wage, and changing tastes. When Carroll died in 1969, Eleanor continued to run the business until 1973. At that point, Eleanor sought out new owners, knowing their children were not interested in continuing on in the business. She was able to find new owners in Richard and Lila Bellando. The couple were well-versed in the crafts world. Richard had been the director of the Kentucky Guild of Artists and Craftsmen up until 1971 and had started their annual crafts fair. Lila had been an art teacher at all levels of education, from elementary school to college; she had also worked with Kentucky Educational Television, the state’s public broadcast station, on arts programming.
Richard Bellando took over as the president of Churchill Weavers and Lila was a board member and took charge of design, while Eleanor continued as board president and consultant until her death. In 1980, Lila took over as president of Churchill Weavers. The Bellandos maintained the same spirit of the company as its founders—enhancing the traditional aspects of handweaving while seeking new and innovative ventures.
As imported foreign goods such as home furnishings became cheaper and easier to access, Churchill Weavers found itself needing new life, so the business was sold to Crown Crafts, Inc. The company, which also owned Goodwin Weavers and other fashion and home furnishings brands, was positioned to provide new markets for Churchill Weavers to sell in. The Bellandos continued to run the company on the ground, while Crown Crafts provided financial backing and a larger community.
Unfortunately, this partnership did not last long due to falling profits on both sides. Churchill Weavers was unable to secure a new buyer and was forced to close its doors in 2007. Luckily all was not lost. Throughout its 85-year history, Churchill Weavers kept samples of nearly every product and experimental style they made. Lila recognized the importance of this collection and purchased it to be sold at auction. Not long after the shuttles stopped flying across the looms, the Kentucky Historical Society was able to purchase the Churchill Weavers collection, which consists of nearly 32,000 fabric samples, as well as numerous loom parts, tools, office pieces, and a large collection of paper business records.
Within the fabric archive are finished products for many of their styles, specialty commemorative pieces, and samples of commissioned works. Some of the highlights in the collection include:
-Upholstery fabric commissioned in 1932 for an amphitheater at the Toledo Art Museum. This cotton fabric was woven with such high quality that it is still in the theater today, over 80 years later!
-Experimental “space cloth” woven for possible use as part of NASA’s Mercury Mission spacesuits in the 1960s. The fabric was made of Teflon-coated glass and rayon fibers. A mockup suit was made using this fabric, but the commission was unfortunately awarded to another company.
-Examples of neckties and samples for IBM employee uniforms in 1973. These navy blue ties feature an embroidered white logo.
-The “Rebecca Boone” carriage throw commemorating the national bicentennial in 1976. The throw, named after the wife of Kentucky pioneer Daniel Boone, featured a traditional coverlet appearance in groovy 70s colors.-Fabric made for textile artist Gerhardt Knodel in the late 70s and early 80s for various installation pieces. Churchill Weavers wove yardage designed by Knodel using strips of clear and metallic plastic combined with wool and other yarns. The installation art hung in buildings across the US, including in Detroit, Oklahoma City, Miami, and Chicago.