The Skinner name in fabrics conjures up sumptuous images of slinky satins, rustling silks, fine silk prints and luxurious linings. Every bride’s dream was to float down the aisle in a shimmering gown of Skinner silk. Every woman’s wish was to feel the soft warmth of a Skinner lining next to her skin.
As with many other family-owned textile mills or companies, the Skinner family prided itself on producing quality fabrics generation after generation. And later as a survival tactic, to expand by diversifying through acquisition of other companies or trademarks such as Ultrasuede.
In the end, Skinner itself was an acquisition, its name living on through its new owners, Indian Head Mills [a slight touch of irony here as Skinner's trademark was also an Indian head] and ultimately Springs Industries. In the same vein and tradition as Stifel and Indian Head, Skinner also has a story to tell. 1848 William Skinner, who emigrates from England in 1843 at age 19, establishes Unquomonk Silk Mills in Willimasburg MA on the Mill River and adopts as his picture trademark the head of a famous Indian chief, Unquomonk of the Agawam tribe. Having learned the manufacture of silk at an early age, he gears his mill to the production of fine sewing threads for merchant tailors.
Tailoring is a booming business as there is no ready to wear; Skinner prospers and the high production standards he sets enhances his reputation.
1853 Skinner establishes another thread company in the Williamsburg district known as Skinnerville.
1860 Mills prosper, requiring 50 employees to produce orders.
1874 Dam bursts, flooding Skinner’s mills downstream and destroying the village.
1874 Skinner invited by an enterprising businessman to move his business to Holyoke.
With a water and power company donating land and five years free rent , Skinner reestablishes his business and calls it the Skinner Satin Company. For the next 30 years business is profitable producing sewing threads and braids used for binding men’s suits and service uniforms.
Magnificent wood carving of the famous Skinner logo as seen in ads and in selvages. Bottom inscription is missing but thought to be William Skinner Co.
- Courtesy personal collection
The famous Skinner Indian chief logo which appeared on selvages and in ads.
- Textile Brandnames Dictionary
The mill as it looked in 1848. From a commemorative bronze letter opener engraving [see 1948].
- Courtesy anonymous collection The family records note that Mrs. Skinner wasn’t happy about the move. A superstition at that time forebodes that it was unlucky to build a new house after one reached the age of 40. A determined Mr. Skinner moves his entire home down the river one section at a time on rafts and oxen to Holyoke. The home, named Wistariahurst, stays in the family until 1959 when it is deeded to the city and then becomes home of Holyoke Museum at Wistariahurst.
1894 First appearance of the Indian chief logo selvage marking Look for the Name in the Selvage. Early 1900s With success of braid business, Skinner installs looms to weave fabrics for linings. This venture becomes largest part of business and leads to manufacturing pure silks and pure dye taffeta. Soon, a line of silk satins is added. Two sons join the firm which is renamed Wm. Skinner & Sons. Advertisements begin to appear in Woman’s Home Companion.
1919 & 1939 Introduces Casino brandname for silk piece goods and crepe piece goods of silk and/or artificial silk.
1926-1930 A line of all-silk dress goods crepes is developed for the cutting and piece good trades, followed several years later by a line of rayon dress goods. Rayon goods are only manufactured once the infant rayon process is determined suitable after 1928. Skinner begins to switch over to the synthetic resulting in its leadership in popularizing rayon fabrics.
1933 Introduces Esquire brandname for rayon lining materials in the piece.
1934 Introduces Barrister brandname for synthetic linings in the piece.
1935 Introduces Rentley brandname for synthetic linings in the piece.
1937 Introduces Skinner’s Five Hundred Crepe for silk goods and crepe piece goods of silk and/or artificial silk.
1938 Renews patent for Look for Name in Selvage for piece goods of satin, silk, artificial silk, mixture of art. silk and silk, silk and wool and silk and cotton.
1939 Introduces Floriswah for silk and crepe piece goods of silk and/or art. silk; Gridiron for silk, rayon and cotton piece goods and combinations thereof; King Cloth for silk piece goods and crepe piece goods of silk or artificial silk; Mellowspun for silk piece goods and crepe piece goods of silk and/or art silk; and Minaret for silk piece goods and crepe piece goods of silk or art silk.
Look for Name in the Selvage marking first appeared in 1894.
- Textile Brandnames Dictionary
From a series of Saturday Evening Post ads in 1925, 26, 27 and 29 promoting beauty, dependability and quality of Skinner silks.
- Courtesy anonymous collection
Chic coats with Skinner. Celanese linings in National Bella Hess 1937-38 catalog. Coat is silk-pile seal fur fabric, the latest fashion statement.
- Courtesy Betty Wilson
Some of the Skinner brandnames appearing on the market during the 1930s-40s.
- Textile Brandnames Dictionary 1940 Introduces Tackle Twill for piece goods of rayon and cotton or combinations thereof; and unnamed brandname represented by dots and dashes graphic for silk, art. Silk, silk/art, silk, silk/wool, silk/cotton piece goods.
1941 Introduces Combat for silk, rayon, cotton piece goods and combinations thereof; and Sunbak for linings for clothing of silk art. Silk, art silk/silk, silk/wool, silk/cotton piece goods or combinations thereof.
1943 Introduces Constellation for piece goods of silk, rayon, silk/rayon, silk/wool, silk/cotton and rayon/cotton.
1944 Introduces Soft-Sleep for piece goods of rayon or cotton or combinations thereof.
1948 Skinner observes its 100th anniversary; presents gift boxed commemorative bronze letter openers with message: Greetings on the occasion of our 100th anniversary. We are proud of this significant milestone and grateful for your friendship and cooperation that have meant so much in its attainment. William Skinner & Sons. 1961 Indian Head Mills acquires Skinner. Continues conversion operations and merchandising of Skinner fabrics which include bridal, evening and lining lines. This acquisition is reported to have a favorable profound effect on Indian Head’s sales and profits.
1970 Spring Mills (now Springs Industries) buys the Finished Goods Division of Indian Head, Inc.
Transaction includes coveted Skinner trademark and rights to a revolutionary new synthetic to be called and trademarked Ultrasuede. This remarkable fabric is a story in its own right but briefly – in 1970, after years of experimentation, Toray Industries [Japan] scientist Dr. Miyoshi Okamoto succeeded in creating the world’s first ultra-microfiber.
A few months later, his colleague Dr. Toyohiko Hikota perfected a new process capable of transforming Dr. Okamoto’s invention into an amazing new fabric, a non-woven material that combined luxury with the rich aesthetics of a suede surface with benefits no animal product could ever offer. In Japan it was called Ecsaine.
1971 Springs begins selling the Toray developed man-made suede which is marketed in the U.S. under the Ultrasuede® brand name. In Canada, Ultrasuede® is sold under the trade name of Ultima®. Although expensive, Springs has a profitable, perennial winner.
1970s – mid- 1980s Springs continues to develop specialized and innovative Skinner fabrics in the same fastidious Skinner tradition and utilizing marketing plans which parallel those that were projected many, many years ago by the Skinner family.
Lacquered bronze letter opener commemorative centennial souvenir. One side of handle shows mills in 1848, other side as plant appears 1948.
- Courtesy anonymous collection
Early salesman’s samples of Ultrasuede and a woman’s washable checkbook cover. Maker is Excessories by Marti, style no. 116. Ultrasuede label proclaims this as a Skinner Couture Fabric from Springs Retail & Specialty Fabrics Division.
- Courtesy anonymous collection
Skinner couture fabric is featured on a 1985 Vogue magazine cover using a Bill Blass design. Skinner Crepe Radiance (the first completely washable crepe) creates a sensation at its initial sales demonstration in the 1970s for buyers, recalls one marketing assistant.
When a sales agent, on stage, dips rayon into a bucket of water, shakes it dry and shows no shrinkage, there is a mad stampede by buyers to the lobby phones to place orders! Another envied collection introduced in the early 1980s is the Skinner Couture line. This is followed by a new group of Skinner home fashions. Springs continues to make and to supply a large variety of Skinner fabrics to its customer base and top merchants in each trade who demand quality and manufacturing integrity.
Sometime in the latter 1980s, the Skinner name is dropped and lines are folded into Springs lines. The Skinner trademark has not been picked up to date by any other business, according to a Springs spokesperson.
1998 Toray Industries Inc. acquires the Ultrasuede business of Springs Industries, Inc. as a venture to expand its man-made suede line in the United States. New company is called Toray Ultrasuede [America] Inc. or TUA and will employ Springs employees from the Ultrasuede division.
My thanks to the communications and legal staff at Springs Industries for archival information; to former Indian Head and Springs personnel for personal recollections and items from their collections; and to Betty Wilson for catalog research.
Sources: Skinner history – Skinner Family Assn — http://22.214.171.124/skinner/SKU/SKU02_4/02_4satin.html which includes: Holyoke Chicopee: A Perspective, Ella H. DiCarlo, Holyoke 1982 and Story of Western Massachusetts, Harry A. Wright, 1949 – Springs Industries archives and communications staff – Indian Head Inc. archives Ultrasuede information – http://www.ultrasuede.com/about/science.html – http://www.oxford.net/~lindas/whatisus.html Brandname information -Brandnames Textile Dictionary, Textile Book Publishers, 1947 Next: Springs Industries, last in the Indian Head trilogy 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.