Two items in the museum have fascinated me since the first time I saw them, but for different reasons: we know a lot about the first item, but not so much about the second. These two pieces, on display in ATHM’s core exhibition, Textile Revolution, illustrate the connection between history and mystery that surround objects that humans create and leave behind. All artifacts have a story, but not every object has a provenance or background that can be discovered—therein lies the mystery—and, as objects can’t speak, it takes research and investigation to bring their history to light, as well as to establish their place in the world.
Both of my favorite items belong in the world of clothing. The first is a polyester dress from the early 1970s designed by Jonathan Logan and purchased from Bonwit Teller, a high-end department store that flourished in the ‘70s and ‘80s. The second is a navy blue knitted woman’s suit that dates to the 1930s or 1940s. The 1970s dress captivates me because it came to museum with quite a lot of its history. We know the donor, who was the original and only owner of the dress. On display is a photo of the donor wearing the dress. The dress is a typical and appealing 70s style—a black scoop-necked, long-sleeved A-line shift with a geometric design of circles, squares, and lines in bright colors that really pop against the dark background. If you saw it on someone today, you’d probably think it fits right in. I love it not only because of the style, but because we know so much about the item. The photo of the donor wearing the dress at a garden party is an extra fascination for me—her only accessories are her shoulder-length hair, parted in the middle, and a gold circle-link belt, both very 1970s items!
Turn the crank of the Gearhart Knitting Machine and the yarn carrier clicks around in a circle. A cam carries the latch needles up and back down again. Yarn unravels from the spool and the machine’s delicate hooks loop it through and through again. Turn the crank of the Gearhart Knitting Machine and a sock forms by the ingenious magic of careful engineering.
The Gearhart was the first of our textile machines that I learned to operate and it is still my favorite. Like many of the best examples of mechanical engineering, the mechanism is simple and robust. This machine has worked reliably for more than a century and needs little maintenance or adjustment. Its motion is beautiful and hypnotic. I made a short video as an ode to my favorite machine.
Quilt, c. 1790, 1996.61. American Textile History Museum.
Making quilts is often associated with a past when electric heaters, insulated walls and television weren’t available but even though times have changed people are still quilting. Since the late 18th century when this quilt was made technology, like sewing machines, and materials, like polyester batting, have improved, but what has changed most are our reasons behind why we quilt and our tastes in designs. We no longer need quilts for protection from the cold and as a result people often create them as a form of art.
Wilson Bobbin Company Display
For Leigh & Butler Company, Boston, MA
Late-19th or Early-20th Century
In the late-19th century and early 20th centuries, this display case stood in the lobby of the Leigh & Butler Company in Boston. It showed off a meticulously arranged selection of bobbins and shuttles from the Wilson Bobbin Company. Textile factories needed thousands of shuttles and bobbins every year. Shuttles crashed back and forth across looms until they wore out, and bobbins turned in circles until they were broken or lost. These were the disposable parts of a factory’s everyday operation, of no more interest than toothbrushes or #2 pencils would be to us. But, whoever designed this case took time and care to make something beautiful from the mundane.