The interlocking relationships in the textile industry become more apparent the more one researches mill and manufacturing history. The Indian Head columns are but one example of growth, acquisition and survival. Here are four more mills which were each founded by ambitious entrepeneurs, became dominant forces, merged and separated to re-emerge as two global textile giants of today, Victor Forstmann Co. and WestPoint Stevens.
They are examples of how competition can be an asset when innovation requires economic and technological change. And during the course of their rise and re-invention so many other American notable mills fall across their paths; the remanents of the history-making Slater mill and Cheney Silk Co. are part of this story.
The Forstmann Woolens Company to The Forstman & Co. to Victor Forstmann Inc. Forstmann Woolens Company was founded in 1904 by German entrepeneurs who came from a long line of prosperous and skilled woolworkers dating back to 1563. The Forstmanns were descended from one of the original members of the Weavers Guild, the oldest of guilds which had been established during medieval times by artisans to form merchant guilds to protect and maintain the high standards of their crafts..
The fledgling company became propserous as the demand for quality wool continued to create a large market for fine fabrics. Over the years, Forstmann promoted its fabrics widely in full-color ads in big city newspapers and magazines such as Life; strict company policy guarded its patterns and designs through patents. Forstmann fabrics were a favorite with consumers in the 1920s-50s with such brandnames as Charmeen, a fine worsted steep twill; Marvella, a type of wool pile bolivia; and Milateen, a heavier version of Charmeen..
Other patented brands were Milanette 1921; Anitra 1922; Lizarda 1926; Cedar Bark 1933; Coolaine, Cooltessa, Duvana 1935; Astrachana, Frigitex, Furlama, Porella, Porosa, Sanjha 1936; Chamoisine, Graniteen, Mezzo-Tones, Woolsuede 1937; Forstmann Woolen, Gunniburl, Mellotints, Needlepoint Stripe, Poreena, Poroseen, Porosette, Porotex, Watercolor Tweed 1938; Double Pickett, Ramosa, Repaleen, Sandrella, Shellda, Twill Topper 1939; Cordaleen, Elastaine, Elasteen, Khavora, Krelora, Lincolaine, Monotwill, Ondulaine, Pebblona, Pomola, Purlanda, Sandretta 1940; Ming Shades, Ming Tones, Shan-Tonga, Vellaire, Viodeen1941; Astraleen, Seranda 1942; Rococo Shades, Shades of Freedom, Thoroughbred Colors, Vellchilla 1943; Doebara, Famous Painting Colors, Marine Shades, Marine Tones, Triton Shades, Velsheena, Vitner Shades 1944; Cathredal Shades, Sandrola, Shades of the ‘Nineties 1945.
Forstman labels from the 1940s and the new Forstmann label which is a registered trademark in 25 countries worldwide.
- Textile Brandnames Dictionary In 1957 the old Forstmann woolen plant was purchased by J.P. Stevens & Sons and then closed. All Forstmann operations, products and processses were transferred to Stevens’ M.T. Stevens & Sons Division at the Dublin Woolen Mill plants in Dublin GA. By 1986 Stevens was expanding into other areas and spun off its huge woolen and worsted division, renaming it Forstmann & Co.
According to Forstmann chronicles, the J.P. Stevens era (from 1947 to 1986) is remembered by Forstmann employees and retirees alike as one of the most prosperous, exciting and rewarding periods in the history of Dublin plant. But in the latter 1990s, Forstmann was experiencing financial strain as after three straight years of losses, price pressures and the consolidation of the domestic apparel industry had virtually crippled the company.
In July 1999 the company filed a voluntary petition of reorganization under Chapter 11 but was saved by the sale to Victor Woolen Products Ltd., a Quebec, Canadian fabric manufacturer for $13.6 million. Victor, a family-owned textile company for more than 50 years was finacially stable and able to recognize the true worth of Forstmann with its diversified product lines and illustrious history. Sale included the assets of Forstmann & Company Inc., including two manufacturing facilities and their equipment in Dublin, GA, and the company’s accounts receivable, inventory, trademarks and other related assets.
The Louisville and Milledgeveille wool worsting and weaving plants, equipment and assets were auctioned separately. The new privately held corporation resulting from the sale, Victor Forstmann Inc., became a wholly owned but separate subsidiary of Victor Woolen Products. With experienced management from both sides, the new company was able to quickly turn business around to become one of the largest U.S. resources for apparel and specialty textiles.
Today, the two Dublin plants employ 800 workers who continue in the in the fine Forstmann tradition of manufacturing and marketing. high-quality wool and wool-blend fabrics — worsteds, woolens and blends, alpaca, camel hair, lambswool, melton, cool wool, coatings, tweed, flannel, gauze, crepe, doublecloth – for menswear, womenswear, outerwear and for specialty applications including school uniforms, headwear, home products and billiards and gaming tables. Pepperell Manufacturing Co. to WestPoint Pepperell Throughout its history the Saco River falls with its safe harbor and abundant natural resources attracted many settlers, fishermen and hunters to this Maine location.
One such settler was Sir William Pepperell, a merchant and baronet who in 1716 acquired vast acreage and timber rights and whose name was given to a new village Pepperellborough, later changed to Saco in 1805. In 1844 Sam Batchfelder built his first cloth mill on the same site where Pepperell’s old wood mill once stood. In honor of the of the baronet’s pioneering spirit, Sam named his mill The Pepperell Manufacturing Co. He envisioned the same water turning tens of thousands of spindles and producing millions of yards of fabric. He selected Francis Skinner [not known if related to Wm. Skinner family] to run the company and who would be responsible for much of its success. Skinner built the company around developing and selling a product solely on quality, a daring concept at that time.
Rigorous standards were set for clothmaking with personal inspections and rejections where cloth fell below exacting tests. The first product was home sheeting and marketed as a planned product of quality. Pepperell’s next product was drill, a heavy cloth used for sails. The same exacting standards for sheeting also applied to drill.
Enter the griffin. As more than half of the market for drill was the Far East, Skinner sought a way to differentiate Pepperell’s superior product in the crowded market stalls in Asian ports. His solution was to mark the cloth with a symbol which could be understood without any knowledge of the western alphabet. Skinner selected the griffin, a figure used in the heraldry of the English Tudor kings. The effect was an immediate success as the griffin became a universally recognized symbol synonymous with quality. This is the same griffin that would be incorporated in today’s WestPoint Stevens logo.
epperell early brandnames — Salisbury 1892 and White Pine 1911.
- Textile Brandnames Dictionary
The famous Pepperell griffin 1931 trademark still appears on today’s WestPoint Stevens logo.
- Textile Brandnames Dictionary
Lady Pepperell was born 1n 1939 and still going strong.
- Courtesy Textile Brandnames Dictionary In the ensuing years, Pepperell acquired Lewiston Bleachery and expanded cloth production to bleached and unbleached cotton piece goods, muslins, jeans, toiles, Canton flannels, grey goods, moleskins and rayons.
Some of its brandnames patented may sound familiar: Battleaxe, Pep Fabrics 1931; Lady Pepperell Jr., Pep-Crepes Douette, Regency 1934; Kittery, Tellmark 1935; Brigadiere, Duchess Plainsman, Prepster, Tropic-Spun, Warmnight 1936; Pre-Vue Prints, Tapered Weave 1937; Crescendo, Gone with the Wind, Shangri-la 1938; Koolnite , Lady Pepperell, Nodtime, Thrifty 1939 In 1965 Pepperell merged with West Point Manufacturing Co. whose history follows.
WestPoint Manufacturing Company to WestPoint Pepperell Georgians are proud of the illustrious Lanier name, especially residents in the Chattahoochee Valley; in fact many regard the name as magical. The founder of West Point Manufacturing Company, Lafayette Lanier, was an industrial visionary of the new South. After the Civil War he recognized that the South had abundant natural resources and an available labor supply.
In 1873 he acquired control of The Chattahoochee Manufacturing Company and its mills which straddled the Alabama-Georgia line near West Point, Georgia and which had been established following the Civil War. His scheme was to circumvent Southern cotton growers shipping raw cotton to the North for manufacturing by establishing a southern company that could compete with northern textile mills.
Lanier realized the advantage to be gained by bringing the manufacturing end of the cotton business closer to home, declaring: “If the Southern people produced one-half the former crop of cotton and manufactured it, even into yarns, the profits would be far greater than during the antebellum days of four million bales.” During the 1870s Lanier enhanced production and marketing methods by changing cloth from osnaburg to a canvas-type material called flat duck for clipper ships and covered wagons, throwing out second-hand equipment and purchasing new machinery, and contracting with a Boston selling agent.
In 1880 the name was changed to the West Point Manufactuirng Co with Lafayette at the helm until 1906. From 1880 to 1920, mill fever swept the South. The number of textile mills in the South increased during this time from 161 to 731 (in 1910). At the beginning of the period, the southern states possessed only 21% of the nation’s textile mills. By 1910, the South claimed a full 60% of U.S. mills.Three additional mills were built by the company on the Alabama side of the river.
No-name brand for WestPoint towels in 1937. Logo appears to be a football field.
- Textile Brandnames Dictionary 1937 So revered was the Lanier name that in 1925 a monument was erected to Lafayette, honoring him for his genius and vision which was largely responsible for the industsrial and civic development of the Chatahoochee Valley.
In 1965 WestPoint and Pepperell merged to form WestPoint Pepperell whose story follows. The Lanier family was still at the company helm. WestPoint Pepperell to WestPoint Stevens For the next 28 years the company expanded its line in the design, manufacturing and markting of textile products.
In 1984 it acquired Cluett Peabody [Arrow shirts and Sanforizing] but later sold it and its Carpet and Rug Division when it was a target of a failed takeover by Farley Inc. in 1989. It was at this time that the last Lanier would be associated with WestPoint. During this time of dispute Joseph Lanier Jr. resigned and went on to acquire a major stake in Dan River Inc. and serve as chairman and CEO , ironically a company now in the throes of Ch. 11. Rebounding with greater energy, WestPoint Pepperell undertook its biggest acquisition with the purchase of textile giant J.P.
Stevens, whose story follows and is the last leg in this mill journey. Stevens Woolen Mill to J.P. Stevens to WestPoint Stevens J.P. Stevens & Sons was global textile giant world famous for its illustrious history, prestigious brandnames and 17-year battle with a textile union which resulted in the Oscar-winning movie Norma Rae. One of the oldest American textile companies, Stevens Woolen Mill was established at the onset of the 1812 war with Great Britain by Capt. Nathaniel Stevens in North Andover MA.
He correctly guessed that timports would be cut off for the duration of the war and that the domestic demand for cloth would continue to grow as the country pushed westward; American producers would have to meet that demand. With a loan from his father, he converted an old gristmill to woolens production and was immediately successful. When the war ended and foreign competition returned, many of Stevens’ domestic competitors were driven out of business.
But Stevens adapted; in a risky move, he converted his mills to flannel production, a fabric that had never before been manufactured in the United States. The conversion succeeded financially, enabling him to expand and buy more mills. It was said that his keen sense of the market and ability to adapt in times of adversity were qualities that would continue to be hallmarks of the company that still bears his name. There are some accounts which state that the orignal name was changed to M.T. Stevens & Sons Company prior to 1900, then at that time the company established its own selling agency in New York City known as J.P. Stevens Company. And at some later point there was another change with M.T. Stevens & Sons becoming a division of J.P Stevens & Sons.
During the 1930s Springs Cotton Mills [Springs Industries] used the J.P Stevens bleachery services but would be replaced by Springs new Grace finishing plant in 1948. In 1933 Springs purchased Steven’s Aragon-Baldwin Co. Division. Among the patented brandnames were Gnome Cloth cotton shirtings 1934; U.S.B. Co. Fabric for worsted cloth 1939; Stocktex fabrics 1941; and M.T. Stevens Hockanums wool and worsted piece goods 1935. The most famous brand was yet to come – Martex.
J.P. Stevens 1938 U.S.B. Co. label for worsted cloth.
- Courtesy Textile Brandnames Dictionary After WWII, the company closed many of its northern plants and moved to the South, mainly buying and building plants in the Carolinas and Alabama to avoid unionization. None of the textile mills operated under union contract.
In 1946 it established a Synthetic Fabric Division and purchased a slice of American textile history, the S. Slater and Sons Inc. plant in Greenville SC. This firm was the one which Samuel Slater began as a cotton spinning mill in 1790 Pawtucket RI. When the company was relocated to the South in 1927, the cornerstone for its new plant was from the original Slater Mill.
During the late 1930s the Slater plant converted from cotton to rayon and acetate. After the purchase, Stevens began in 1951 to use the plant primarily for weaving fiber glass. Other acquistions that year were the Stanley Mills and Lola Mills in Stanley NC which were for worsted operations and the Piedmont Manufacturing Co.
In the latter 1940s Stevens acquired the Utica-Mohawk brandname for sheets and other bedding.. As noted in the Forstmann section, in 1947 the company expanded into Georgia building two manufacturing plants in Dublin for weaving and fulling of wool and was known as the Dublin Woolen Mills. When Stevens purchased the old Forstmann plant in 1957, all Forstmann operations were relocated to Dublin. Stevens came to the rescue of the declining fortunes of the highly esteemed Cheney Silk Co. by purchasing it in 1955.
Cheney was an old firm, established in 1838 by the Cheney brothers as the Mount Nebo Silk Company in Manchester CT. The name was changed to Cheney Silk Company in 1843. With its innovative production methods, the company grew into the nation’s largest and most profitable silk mill by the late 1880s. Cheney had pioneered the waste- silk spinning method and the Grant’s reel. The company reached its peak in 1923, after which it quickly declined due to industry-wide overproduction and competition from new synthetic fibers such as rayon.
A slight revival during WWII was not enough to alleviate its problems. Following the purchase, Stevens liquidated the equipment and the remainder was sold to Gerli Incorporated of New York. In 1978, the Cheney mills and surrounding neighborhood were declared a National Historical Landmark District. The mill was permanently closed in 1984. Most of the mill buildings were sold to developers who converted them into luxury apartments and offices.
Diversification by Stevens continued with the purchase of A&MK Karagheusian and the Gulistan carpet name in 1964. By the 1970s Stevens was the second largest company in the U.S. textile industry with $1.4 billion in annual revenues, 45,000 employees and 85 plants. But financial success was breeding workforce discontent. From 1963, when Stevens first attempted to crush a union organization drive, through 1977, the National Labor Relations Board processed more than 100 cases of labor violations and grievances for unfair labor practices, health and safety conditions and race and sex discrimination.
In October 1980, after 17 years of battling in the courts and, through government agencies, on picket lines and with a nationwide boycott, the ACTWU reached a tentative agreement on a contract with J.P.Stevens & forcing the company to sign its first union contract with ACTWU. The 1979 film Norma Rae was based on the real-life story of textile union activist Crystal Lee Sutton in her fight against the J.P. Stevens Co. in Roanoke Rapids, NC during the 1960s. By the late 1980s Stevens was experiencing eroding profits even though it was one of the largest and most diversified textile companies in the world.
To alleviate financial stress, the company spun off the Dublin Mill operations in 1986, forming Forstmann & Co. Two years later in a leveraged buyout, all but Stevens home furnishing segments, were organized into a new comany JPS Textiles which later would evolve as JPS Glass, a divison JPS Industries Inc. Stevens sold A&M/gulistan to JPS textiles. The Stanley Mill was sold and renamed JPS Converter Yarns.
In a bid to keep Stevens alive, WestPoint Pepperell acquired the company in 1993 to form WestPoint Stevens. As a tribute to the Pepperell heritage, its famous griffin trademark was preserved as part of the new company logo. WestPoint Stevens This final step to create what is called the nation’s premier home fashions consumer products marketing company produced a star-studded lineup of brandnames — Martex® Combed Cotton Sheets, Ralph Lauren Polo Collection, J.P. Stevens Utica®Sheets, J.C. Penney Home Collection Cotton Blends, Dan River Comforter Set, Fieldcrest,, Macy’s The Down Pillow, Macy’s The Killington Pillow, Bibb Sheets, Carousel Sheets, Lady Pepperell, Vellux, West Point Pepperel to name a few.
The Pepperell griffin still lives in WestPoint Stevens current logo.
WestPoint Stevens proudly points out that this culmination represents “Products which can be found on every page of American history – the drill for sails that powered the world’s ships before they had propellers and motors, the duck cloth that covered covered wagons, tents, blankets, uniforms, and parachutes for the American military, fabrics used on the Apollo space missions and the bedding and towels that were staples in the everyday lives of millions of people around the world for more than a century.” Sources: Cheney Silk Co University of Connecticut online library Forstmann Forstmann internet home page Forstmann bankruptcy bankruptcy online library North Dakota ASI lamb/wool online newsletter J.P.
Stevens Dublin Woolen Mills open house presentation 1949 JPS Glass internet home page Stanley NC online Town Newsletter California OAC online archives Gulistan Carpet internet home page West Point Troup County GA online archives For One Glorious Purpose, Georgia Textile Manufacturers Assn., 2000 WestPoint Stevens WestPoint Stevens internet home page business.com online business news Southern Textile News, 2002 editions Textile World, 2003 editions The arbitrary cut-off date for this Vintage Fabric column is 1960.
To stay within the scope of this timeframe, reference materials published up to that date are the prime source of information to more accurately capture actual thoughts of the time.
Joan Kiplinger is an antique doll costumer and vintage fabric addict who learned to sew on her grandmother’s treadle and has been peddling fabrications ever since.