All exhibits are closed to the public as we prepare to permanently close our doors.
This is far from your run-of-the-mill museum. At the American Textile History Museum, you’ll spin, weave, recycle, and design your way through history – past, present, and future.
In the Museum’s core exhibition, Textile Revolution, you can mingle with a herd of sheep, try your hand with a shuttle on a beautiful hand loom, and create your own textile invention on a computer. And that’s just for starters. See how textiles impact so many facets of our world, including how far a major-leaguer can hit a baseball to how fast our Olympic swimmers can swim. You’ll be amazed to see how the clothing you’re wearing may be made of wood, crude oil, or plastic soda bottles!
You’ll never look at the world the same way again.
Early America: Textiles by Hand
Beginning at the Savannah, Georgia-style warehouse, the new Caroline Stevens Rogers Gallery explores the fascinating history of textiles prior to industrialization. Get the feel of some flax, wool, cotton, and silk as you see the steps necessary to convert each of these unique natural fibers into fabric. Measure yourself against a cotton bale, touching and examining the raw material, as you discover how the early cotton industry fueled slavery. Graze with our woolly “sheep” as you experience a demonstration of the hand spinning of wool and into yarn and watch our informative video on how flax is converted to exquisite linens. Unravel the mystery of silk and the worms that produce it, and try your hand with a shuttle to weave cloth the same way they did more than two hundred years ago.
The exhibition explores textile-related traditions of Native Americans who developed their own techniques to create useful and decorative objects and clothing long before Europeans arrived on our shores.
The Industrial Revolution: From Espionage to Fashion
Enter the industrial age with a fascinating tale of espionage and intrigue. Shortly after the Revolutionary War, as George Washington took office as our first president, a young man from Derbyshire, England, Samuel Slater, smuggled textile manufacturing secrets from England and successfully built the first water-powered yarn spinning mill in America, in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. By constructing a fully functional water-powered yarn spinning mill, Slater became known as the Father of the Industrial Revolution in America.
Look into the faces and read the letters of men and women who made the factories hum. Touch one of the 23 known authentic bells from Paul Revere & Sons dating to 1802. It was rung by mill owners to signal the start and end of the work day. Hear an authentic factory whistle – the predecessor to the modern alarm clock. Sit down and imagine yourself as a young girl interviewing for a position as a mill worker in the early 19th century.
Textiles, Clothing and Fashion
Explore the trends and fashions of textiles and clothing, from a man’s snappy green silk suit more than 200 years old to a psychedelic polyester print from the 1960s. Learn how social norms and cultural traditions have shaped our clothes and our lives.
Discover the stories behind the objects that are tangible connections between us and their original owners. A toddler-sized shirt and pants were the first “big boy” clothes worn by James Waller Brockman and lovingly made just after the Civil War by his mother, a seamstress in Charlottesville, Virginia. The photograph of James and his mother is a poignant reminder that James never knew his father, a Confederate soldier, who died just before his son was born.
Find out what all those layers under a 1870s dress really were, from the drawers to the corset cover, and discover how women created the smooth, sculpted look of the time.
Art and Design
Learn about embroidery in our Art and Design Gallery. We make it easy and fun! See how piles of mussels, coal tar, and madder root were used as original dyes to create colorful patterns on textiles and clothing.
Get a taste of being a top fashion designer. Using computer-aided design, you’ll create your own garment design, with your own personal touch and flair. Then print it out or email it as a fashionable souvenir.
Get a close-up look at the world’s first “computer” – a Jacquard loom that was an important precursor to modern computer programming because of its ability to change the pattern of the loom’s intricate weave through the use of punch cards.
See and feel how clothing and fabrics have changed through the centuries with the advent of modern technologies to produce synthetic and man-made fibers.
Have you ever worn clothing made out of wood? Soda bottles? A barrel of crude oil? The answer is likely “yes!”
Rayon is a popular man-made fiber made from cotton linters and – yes – wood chips. You’ll be fascinated to see how a pile of wood chips is transformed into some of your favorite clothing.
Check out the “timeline” as you enter the era of synthetic fibers. Why are a pile of oil barrels resting next to a beautiful wedding dress? Because some of our most popular fabrics are actually made from the very same oil used to make the gasoline in our cars! You’ll see oil that has been refined into polymer chips, which are then melted and extruded through a showerhead-like device called a spinneret, producing fibers such as nylon, polyester, acrylic and more. The dramatic fluctuations in the price of oil have not only affected the price of gasoline; fiber prices are rise and fall as well, which may mean that some of your favorite clothing items may be more expensive in the future.
Just around the corner we’ll show you how your empty plastic soda and water bottles are recycled to become garments most of us wear. Ecopileâ fleece is made right here in New England by one of the oldest knitting companies in America. See how a mix of technology and ecology is allowing us to create new products using organic cotton, clay and soy dyes, hemp, and recycled fabrics and fibers.
Higher, Safer, Faster
Experience the present and future of textiles with an air beam arch structure – lightweight, portable air-pressurized beams and arches that are used to create some of the lightest and strongest inflatable air structures in the world. These ultra-modern textiles are made just down the street from the Museum at Federal Fabrics-Fibers in Lowell, Massachusetts.
What does the textile industry have to do with Olympic gold medals and world records? A lot, according to our U.S. Olympic swim team. A new full-body Speedo swimsuit –made out of fabric that mimics sharkskin – allows our swimmers to swim faster than ever before. But some critics say the swimsuits shouldn’t be allowed in competition, comparing them to “technological doping”. Get a firsthand glimpse of this $500 marvel and see what the buzz is about, as you compare it to the early 1900s swimsuit with wool underwear – ouch!
How have textiles changed the way we ride a bike, fly a plane, and play field hockey? New carbon fiber composites have made bicycles, planes, baseball bats, and field hockey sticks lighter and stronger than ever. With carbon fiber composite wings, planes are lighter and use up to 25 percent less fuel. Compare the weights of old and new equipment and see the difference for yourself.
Learn about how Major League Baseball’s (MLB) “baseball police” work to keep the game honest and true to its traditions. Located in a basement laboratory at University of Massachusetts Lowell, the Baseball Research Center is the official MLB test lab, ensuring that no one has tinkered with the age-old formula of baseball construction (wool and other yarns under the leather cover). Textiles used in baseballs span the globe: from Alabama, where the tiny rubber globe in the center of a baseball is made; to Vermont, where the wool wrapped around the rubber core is spun; to Tennessee, where the leather for the outside of the ball is manufactured; to Costa Rica, where the individual components that make up baseballs are assembled into a whole and stitched with cotton yarn.
Can textiles save your life? Absolutely! Firefighters, police and military personnel, and even passengers in a car rely on textiles to keep them safe.
In our interactive safety exhibit, you’ll explore the dozens of parts of an automobile that rely on textiles – from tires to instrument panels to airbags. Feel the airbag and get a clear sense the textiles that will protect you in the event of a high speed crash.
See how textiles have improved safety in firefighting gear through the years: Kevlar for strength, Nomex for protection from fire, Goretex to allow moisture release – all working in harmony to save lives. Try on state of the art turn out gear and watch a video of “Pyroman,” a firefighter mannequin standing up to the white-hot flames in North Carolina State University’s revolutionary test chamber. See how high altitude suits, Kevlar vests and other high-tech gear have protected our military and police in harm’s way.
You’d definitely never want to go skydiving without textiles. Modern textiles have made parachutes lighter, stronger, and safer than ever.
The World of Outer Space
Experience the story of Peter Homer, an unemployed engineer who won NASA’s international Centennial Challenges project by designing a new pressurized glove for astronauts. For months, Peter – often joined by his 14-year-old son Matthew – experimented in his dining room with different materials and configurations – until he came up with a prototype to maximize hand mobility while providing the required protection. See “firsthand” the invention that won Peter Homer $200,000 and will improve the safety and comfort of our astronauts in space.
Nanotechnology is revolutionizing the world of materials. By combining two revolutionary technologies – textile technology and nanotechnology – scientists are transforming our everyday lives. From stain-resistant carpet to “wicking” fabrics that pull perspiration away from the skin, “nano textiles” impact our lives every day.
These applications of nanotechnology in creating novel fibers and textiles are newly released or just on the horizon:
- Super-sensitive bio-filters made of fibers capable of filtering out viruses, bacteria, and hazardous particles;
- Nano-layers applied to natural fibers and then made into protective clothing for firefighters, emergency responders, and military personnel that selectively blocks hazardous gases and minuscule contaminants but allows air and moisture to flow through;
- Lightweight smart textiles for hikers, athletes, and environmentally sensitive individuals;
- Fibers that control the movement of medicine to administer time-released antibacterial and antiallergenic compounds; for example, gloves that deliver arthritis medicine or antibacterial sheets in hospitals;
- Magnetic nano-particles embedded inside a garment or paper document to create a unique signature that can be scanned to detect counterfeit currency or fake passports;
- Sensors that could swab a food or surgical preparation surface to immediately detect the presence of hazardous bacteria;
- Biodegradable fibers saturated with time-released pesticides that could be planted with seeds as an alternative to spraying pesticides;
- Doilies, seat cushions, or wall hangings used in airplanes that would continually absorb particles or gases or other airborne biohazards.
The future of nanotechnology – and the use of textiles – is limited only by our imagination!