New England Mills… Going, Going, Gone.

New England textile mills… a great place to live.

Any drive around New England, including our town of Camden, Maine, will prove one thing: we have some great condos in former mill buildings. If you love exposed brick, hearty beams, tall ceilings and well-worn flooring then New England has much to offer. If you love the industry that formally resided in those mills, then you are, for the most part, out-of-luck. To a large degree, those condo buildings formerly housed textile mills.

“If you love exposed brick, hearty beams and tall ceilings…New England has much to offer. If you love the industry that formerly resided there…then you are, for the most part, out of luck.”

The Industrial Revolution

The very first mechanized mill in this country was in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. The Slater Mill, which you can visit as a historical site, came about due to some industrial espionage. Samuel Slater, known as “Slater the Traitor” in England, emigrated from the U.K. after having worked in state of the art textile mills. Slater memorized the plans for the equipment. Teaming up with Moses Brown, from the Brown University founding family, they created a successful model of water powered milling of cotton into thread.

Wilkinson Mill and Slater Mill National Park Service Photo

Due to New England’s unique geography, it was well-suited to an industry that was powered by fast moving water. Here in Camden, we had 7 mill sites on the Megunticook River as it flowed to the sea. Each site was located at a fall line: a place where the river quickly plunges and thus races more quickly resulting in more power captured to drive machinery.

The Knox Woolen Mill, Camden, Maine. Image courtesy of The Walsh History Center, Camden Public Library

The industrial revolution was now well on its way as more industry took advantage of this know-how. Immigrants from Europe began to pour into the region to take up the jobs created by the technology. Slave labor in the South fed the need for cotton while sheep farming grew it’s markets exponentially.

The Offshore Revolution

Applying this new technology allowed cloth to be made cheaper and thus more available to the mass of the population then did the former cottage industry based on hand work. As the New England industry matured rivals began to spring up where there was a competitive advantage. That first happened in the lower wage South and then again oversees. By the 1990’s, this evolutionary process led to the availability of those great loft spaces.

During the later second half of the 20th century a new concept around textile production began to take form. The obituaries had been written for New England textiles and the last nail in the coffin was about to be driven in (by a hammer made in China).

The Knox Woolen Mill in Camden, Maine today houses an assortment of apartments, condos and retail&bnsp;space.

Glimmers of Hope

However, vestiges of that old industrial base were still lurking about here and there. Younger people began to see opportunity where their elders saw only a vanished history.

When Swans Island first started to look around for a vendor for our warp yarn (the vertical threads) we found a venerable company right here in Maine that was in its fourth generation of the Jagger family. It still operated next to the old mill pond upon which it once depended on for power. Jagger Brothers, in Springvale, Maine, has been supplying us with warp yarn from that day forward. They have stayed in business by being smart and nimble. Whereas they use to perform all of the stages of yarn production, they now just do the last stages, spinning, twisting and plying, allowing other specialized mills to do the earlier work.Jagger Brothers, Green Mountain Spinnery and Swans Island, all “new” New England textile concerns working together to create new heirlooms.

Swans Island produces what is called weft-faced weaving. That means that the horizontal yarn is most prominent visually and in terms of the drape or hand (the feel) of the product. For this yarn we needed ultimate control. We knew the breeds of sheep we would use and the farmers we would source from. But where could we find a mill who would produce to our taxing specifications? (no “run of the mill” for us) Enter the Green Mountain Spinnery. An upstart like Swans Island. They were large enough to be a commercial enterprise, but small enough to answer the phone and tend to the details with the same amount of obsessiveness that we do. Thirty years later we continue to make our signature blankets with weft yarn spun at this mill.

Jagger Brothers, Green Mountain Spinnery and Swans Island, all “new” New England textile
concerns working together to create new heirlooms. I can only imagine that many of those loft
dwellers are sleeping comfortably under a Swans Island blanket doing their part in reviving this industry.

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