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Beacon's Beginnings

I am on my way to attend the Center for Independent Documentary/Kopkind Filmmaker Retreat for one week in Guildford Vermont, to work on Blanket Town.  

Photo Courtesy of the Swannanoa Valley Museum

Since I am going to be in New England, I've decided to visit New Bedford and Lowell MA, researching the early days of the textile industry. While the focus of Blanket Town is on the Beacon mill that operated in Swannanoa, NC, Beacon Manufacturing Company started in New Bedford Massachusetts.

New Bedford provides a fascinating case study of America’s cycle of industrialization and it's decline, first establishing itself as the whaling capital of the world in the 1700’s. Whaling flourished in New Bedford, making it one of the richest cities in the United States. According to the American Whaling Museum by 1857 New Bedford was home to 329 whaling vessels, valued at more than $12 million dollars, which employed more than 10,000 men. A short 15 years later, as the whaling industry declined, New Bedford emerged as a center for textile manufacturing.

Photo Courtesy of the Swannanoa Valley Museum

By "1907 New Bedford was home to 25 textile manufacturing companies operating two million spindles in 50 separate mill buildings, with 14 additional mills under construction." - American Whaling Museum

Beacon Manufacturing emerged during this time of growth, starting operations in 1905. But the industrial boom of New Bedford was relatively short lived, as textile manufacturing shifted to the south. Beacon built their second mill in Swannanoa in 1925, shuttering it's New Bedford operation in 1933.

Photo Courtesy of the Swannanoa Valley Museum


One of the advantages of hosting community works-in-progress screenings is that we get invaluable feedback from audience members. At the Q & A at one of our recent events, someone asked "Where are the blankets?" Incredibly enough, while making a documentary about the largest manufacturer of blankets in the world, we had forgotten to discuss the design process and to include many images of colorful Beacon blankets. 
 We put a call out on our Facebook page, asking for any collectors to contact us so we could film their blankets. Recently we filmed three different people who had beautiful blankets to share. We also spent time conducting additional research about how Beacon blankets were designed and were reminded of the sophisticated ad campaigns that Beacon created to help sell their products.

It is easy to forget how much artistry went into each blanket design. In pre-computer days, full color designs were sketched out by an artist and then created as a watercolor. Thread had to be assigned for every color or pattern. Remember, the designs were woven into the blankets, not printed on them. Once the design was approved a test run blanket was made. According to the book Language of the Robe: American Indian Trade Blankets by Robert W. Kaupon, the use of the Jacquard loom "...allowed for the creation of a blanket with a positive design on one side and a negative of the same image of the reverse."  

 Although inspired by Native American patterns, with bold colors and strong geometric design, Beacon blankets were not American Indian Trade blankets. Unlike some of the west coast woolen mills like Racine or Pendleton, Beacon blankets were not designed and marketed to be used and worn by Native American populations. Instead Beacon blankets, including their "Indian" designs, were marketed as colorful bedding, motoring or camp blankets. 

Asheville Event Celebrates the Legacy of Beacon Manufacturing

 Blanket Town Kicks Off Community Discussion

On Friday November 20th, approximately 200 people attended Beacon Blankets: Portrait of a Swannanoa Textile Mill, an evening of film, music, and stories about the rise and fall of the Beacon Manufacturing Company, at the Center for Craft, Creativity and Design in Asheville. The event included the screening of excerpts from Blanket Town: The Rise and Fall of An American Mill Town.

The event was presented in collaboration with CCCD's current exhibition, Made in WNC, which examines the legacy of craft-based industry (textiles, pottery, and furniture) in Western North Carolina and its influence on artists and designer-makers working in the region today.

Beacon Blankets: Portrait of a Swannanoa Textile Mill began mill-inspired music by Robert (Bert) Brown, a native of Swannanoa whose grandparents worked at Beacon.   


Filmmaker Rebecca Williams showed clips from her ongoing documentary project Blanket Town: The Rise and Fall of an American Mill Town, which examines the migration of the textile industry from England, to New England to the American South, and, with the advent of globalization, overseas. The screening was followed by a panel discussion with previous Beacon Blanket mill employees and local historian David Whisnant.