In 1790 Samuel Slater signed a contract, here in Rhode Island, to replicate British cotton spinning machine designs from his home in Britain and therefore was known in the UK as “Slater the traitor”. It was then, in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, that the “American Industrial Revolution” was born. Thus, the direction of the country was forever changed from an agrarian society to a technology driven one that became the wave of the future, an American way of life.
New England had a lock on the manufacturing of textiles until the close of the 19th century. It was then, southerners began opening mills, and because of lower fuel and labor costs, jobs started moving to the south. This proved to be devastating to New England. However, to this day, there are still holdouts in the northern textile industry that have managed to endure. Most of these textiles’ manufacturers haveinvested in new technology. However, one mill chose not to change.
This is the story of the last lace manufacturer in America. A factory that still produces fine laces using traditional techniques. This company is “Leavers Lace Corporation.” One of the details that makes this story so compelling and significant, is that these lace looms, all made in England, have not been manufactured since the early 1960’s. The machines at Leavers Lace are virtually all at least 100 years old. All the replacement parts must be fabricated by hand, as spare parts no longer exist. The upkeep is a testament to Yankee ingenuity. The level of understanding and attention required to keep these machines working is extraordinary. Each loom uses approximately 12,000 individual threads, from three different sources, to create these beautiful intricate lace designs. There is an intuitive understanding of the lace weaving process that borders on mystic. One weaver, or “twist hand,” as they are often called, told me he can hear when a single thread breaks. This is astounding considering there are multiple looms creating their own roaring cacophony around each weaver.
There is a sense of working history at Leavers Lace, like no other place I have been. I’m not talking about working museums that show what it was like to be part of something revered and historic. This is the kind of history that is real, viable, and alive, and continues to be income producing in the present day. Leavers Lace and its predecessors have become such an important part in the development of American history and culture, that I feel homage should be paid.
Bob Grundy, a Weaver, pointed to a machine and told me, “I have worked on this machine for over 25 years. My father worked on this machine for 40 years, and his father before him also worked on this machine for over 40 years.” That calculates to over 100 years that one family has continued legacy on the same machine. Once, there were scores of lace mills scattered across America, with hundreds of looms. These last looms and craftsmen are hold outs from our past and are honored in the last lace mill portrayed in this book. Leavers Lace has rightfully earned their place in history. This noble history begs to be recorded, and this book is my attempt to visually do just that. Lace is the most challenging and intricate textile to work with. The mechanical productions well as the dexterity and aesthetic skills required to operate these machines takes years to master. This story is dedicated to the determined, unique, proud, and extremely hardworking people who have kept this tradition alive for generations.
Leavers Lace Corporation | 144 Mishnock Road, | West Greenwich, Rhode Island 02817