As StyleWeek Northeast unfolds in the Capital City this month, the event has more significance than those under the bright lights may realize. Fashion and the Ocean State have been inseparable for centuries. In fact, Rhode Island is the birthplace of textile manufacturing, the foundation of the garment industry. The first textile mill in the country was founded in 1790 in Pawtucket by Samuel Slater and by the mid-19th century, thriving textile factories were operating from Westerly to Woonsocket and beyond.
Here in South County, landmarks including the now-dilapidated Potter Hill Mill on the banks of the Pawcatuck River in Westerly were home to booming textile businesses. It has even been said that the first pound of cotton cloth was produced here.
Companies that occupied the Potter Hill Mill included Joseph Potter & Sons Co., a cotton spinning and dressing mill in the Potter family from 1810 to 1843; E & H Babcock Company, a woolen mill in the Babcock family from 1843 to 1885; and J.P. Campbell & Company, which produced cashmere yarn and cloth until 1889. The mill compound was so expansive that by mid-century it had boarding houses to accommodate the hundreds of employees, many of whom came from far off places for the steady work.
The Pawcatuck Woolen Mill Company brought the mill into the 20th century, manufacturing wool yarn and cloth for men’s clothing at the site until 1930. The Swift River Woolen Company operated there until 1955 followed by the Westerly Woolen Company, which only operated for three years. By then, a substantial number of local and regional manufacturing companies either moved south or closed permanently.
Today, a handful of textile manufacturers and related companies are continuing South County’s fabric production legacy. Like Potter Hill Mill, Griswold Textile Print, Inc. is perched on the Pawcatuck River, which used to be the primary power source for the spinning mechanisms. Located in the White Rock section of Westerly, local retired reporter and historian Gloria Russell says Griswold used to be home to the White Rock Mill. “That mill was very prosperous,” tells Gloria. “There was a wonderful village and the people that owned the mill took care of the workers that worked there. I have seen pictures of early White Rock; they had a school and everything.” Gloria says like many mills, the owners “sold out and left” quite suddenly, leaving the workers, machinery and lifeblood of the village behind.
However, since 1943, the mill has thrived. Griswold is one of the few fully operational, hand-printed fabric mills in the country. The company was founded in 1937 by the Blair family, says manager Jack Wilson. Today, the team there stocks, prepares, prints and finishes high-end decorative fabrics for the interior design home furnishings market. “Designers come up with concepts and the graphics, then between us and the screen-makers, we closely cooperate,” to produce the coveted, superbly crafted fabrics, explains Jack.
How high end and historically significant are Griswold’s fabrics? A popular fabric brand Griswold Textile Print produces for is Brunschwig & Fils, which dates back to 1891 and can be found at such high profile addresses at White House and the Palace of Versailles. Brunschwig & Fils became part of Kravet Fabrics in 2011, an industry leader in the trade home furnishings industry that turns to Griswold to produce its exceptional, high-style designs.
The company also prints for Clarence House fabrics and wall coverings that can be found in some of the most distinguished museums and historic houses around the globe.
A newer client for Griswold is Duralee, the upscale fabric brand which breathed new life into the prestigious Bailey & Griffin line. The exquisite designs had been archived by a company Duralee acquired in 2012. The first collection of printed and woven fabrics under the Bailey & Griffin name in more than 80 years is being hand-screened on the highest quality fibers by Griswold. It’s a reunion for the two names as Bailey & Griffin had used the Griswold mill to churn out its classic sought-after designs for decades.
“We do a lot of work for small, boutique, artisan-style companies,” says Jack, which has helped propel the company forward and continue to employ Rhode Island and southeastern Connecticut residents. The company has seen its fair share of trying times, including during the most recent recession and as competition with the foreign textile industry increases, but Griswold has prevailed. “I see the leveling of the playing field again,” says Jack. “We’ve always competed with groups in Europe – with the Asian companies and other emerging markets – but I do see hope in the future.”
Darlington Fabrics is also based in Westerly. You might not know the name, but you have likely seen the product. According to Alexandra Moore, executive vice president of The Moore Company (Darlington’s parent company), Darlington Fabrics are used by all the major names in the athletic market including the NHL, MLB, NFL and NCAA. The global leader in end-use market sales of Raschel (weft knits often used in women’s apparel), tricot (a plain warp-knitted fabric like nylon, wool, rayon, silk or cotton often used in undergarments) and satin warp-knit elastic fabrics, Darlington’s innovative high-quality stretch fabrics equally dominate textiles throughout the medical field and intimate apparel market.
The Moore Company, a privately owned family business, was founded in 1909, says Alexandra. “Darlington Fabrics was acquired in 1973 and relocated to Westerly from New Jersey,” she explains. Today there are two locations here: Beach Street, where the warping and knitting is done, and Canal Street for dyeing and finishing. According to Gloria Russell, the Beach Street location was once home to Moore’s Mill. “They manufactured elastics and garters, they called it elastic web,” she adds.
But what sets Darlington apart is the company’s revolutionary product development. The company manufactures compression fabrics for high performance athletic wear that helps athletes perform at their peak, fabricates odor resistant finishes that act as a built in deodorant, creates unbroken loop hook receptive stretch fabrics for medical and industrial applications, and has also pioneered soil release and moisture management fabrics. In short, the company collaborates with clients to develop technologies that are specific to their requirements, employing approximately 162 full time workers.
There are a few other textile manufacturers in and around South County, while other mill compounds are beginning new chapters like the William Clark Thread Mill in Pawcatuck area of Stonington, Conn., which is slated for a $26.3 million respiration project that will feature apartments and retail space.