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Inside The Colorful, Hypnotic World of Textile Mills

Polartec, Lawrence, MA. (All photos: Christopher Payne)

In one textile mill, the floor shudders as clanging, oily machines churn out dainty, colorful fabrics. In another, sheets of lace are quietly created on century-old looms. Welcome to the wide-ranging world of American textile mills, circa 2015.

Photographer Christopher Payne has spent the last five years exploring mills from the Carolinas, where the largest number of textile manufacturers are based, to New England, where some of the mills date back to the time of the American Revolution. According to Payne, many of the older mills are “still functioning as they have for decades, using vintage equipment,” while newer mills have become increasingly automated.

In this glorious series of photos, Payne takes us inside the factories that create the textiles that get shipped all around the globe with “made in America” on their labels. 


 Creel with tubes filled with woolen yarns for a carpet loom, Bloomsburg Carpet Industries, Bloomsburg, PA.

What specifically attracted you to document textile mills?

In 2010, I discovered an old yarn mill in Maine that reminded me of the state hospital workshops I had photographed for my book, Asylum. While those places had long been abandoned, this mill was fully operational, a scene from the past miraculously coexisting with the present. Given my background in architecture, I have always been fascinated by how things are made, and textiles are another form of construction, albeit on a human scale.

I am also deeply concerned about the loss of craftsmanship and manufacturing in the American workplace. We don’t make anything anymore, and in this era of service jobs and office work, most of us have never been inside a factory. Several decades of overseas competition, unequal trade policies, and a flood of cheap imports have decimated American factories.

Since 1990, job losses in apparel and textiles have been greater than those in any other type of manufacturing, and today we have little idea where, or how, the shirt on our back is made. Taking on a project about this iconic industry seemed like an effective way to tell the story of American manufacturing as a whole—how it has changed, and what its future may hold. 

 
 Bartlettyarns, Harmony, ME.

Are there particular aspects of working mills that may surprise people?

What photographs cannot convey is the visceral raw energy of a working factory. The floors vibrate, the machines run at insanely fast speeds, and the noise is deafening. Stepping through the front door, onto the mill floor, is like walking into a giant engine room—something you can’t get from your iPhone or computer screen. And yet, from the street, a passerby might never know what’s going on inside.


Gerber conveyor, Sterlingwear, East Boston, MA. 


Braiding machines, Conrad-Jarvis Corporation, Pawtucket, RI.

 Are any mills in particular more interesting to shoot?

Whether a mill is old or new, I never know what I will find, and each has its challenges. Some are completely modern, with state of the art equipment, while others are dirty and cluttered from decades of constant use. In general, the mills I enjoy shooting the most are those that make something I haven’t seen before.

Recently, I visited a mill in Rhode Island that produces lace on century-old looms. The complexity of these machines is mind-boggling, and yet they’re really just simple computers using punch cards to instruct bobbins of yarn to move over or under each other to form the filigree patterns.  


White yarn bobbins on a beaming creel, Langhorne Carpet, Penndel, PA. 


Picker and duster for separating and cleaning raw wool, Bartlettyarns, Harmony, ME. 


Circular knitting machines for Darn Tough socks, Cabot Hosiery Mills, Northfield, VT.

Is there anything that has changed in mills like that since their heyday?

Walking into one of the older mills is like stepping back in time. Visually, nothing has changed. Even the offices look like they’re right out of the 1960s, with wood paneling, typewriters, and heavy steel furniture. Workers have kept old machines in service by cannibalizing parts from shuttered mills. What has changed, however, is the industry, and the sense of community it engendered. One veteran employee recalled how it was possible, in the 1970s, to quit a job at one mill, walk down the street, and get a job at another mill in the same day. These kinds of factory towns no longer exist.

  
Burling and mending, Woolrich Woolen Mill, Woolrich, PA.

What is the community like in different factories? How do the workers feel about you coming to photograph? 

The workplaces contain a cross section of young and old, skilled and unskilled, recent immigrants, and veteran employees, some of whom have spent their entire lives in a single factory. It is still common for a mill to draw its workforce from the surrounding neighborhood. Almost everyone at a mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, is Cape Verdean, and they speak Portuguese, while workers at another mill in Fall River, Massachusetts, are from the Azores, and they also speak Portuguese.

The people I’ve met are proud of the work they do, and eager to tell their story. Whether they want to pose for a portrait is another story! I try not to be too distracting because they’re on a tight production schedule, and a delay in one area affects others down the line. They’re also shutting down a machine so I can take a shot.


Warp knitter, Darlington Fabrics, Moore Company, Westerly, RI. 


Leavers Lace, West Greenwich, RI.


Circular knitting machines, Fall River Knitting Mills, Fall River, MA.

What do you find most compelling, visually, about the mills? 

What I find most compelling is the visual contrast between the rugged, oily machines and the delicate, beautiful fabric they produce. It’s a surreal juxtaposition that can make or break a photograph. If necessary, I’ll wait months until a mill is running bright colors.

One of my favorite shots is of the pink wool being carded. It looks like cotton candy. For most of the year this mill spins a monochromatic mixture of grey and black yarn, used for fill inside the official major league baseballs, or for the U.S. Navy pea coat. And then for a few weeks, they run a rainbow of bright colors, and the place is transformed into Willy Wonka’s factory. I’ve never seen anything like it.


Wool carders, S&D Spinning Mill, Millbury, MA.