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Article about Blanket Town in Friends and Neighbors of Swannanoa's Newsletter

Check out the update about Blanket Town in the Friends and Neighbors of Swannanoa Newsletter. Special thanks to F.A.N.S. for helping to spread the word about the film.

Film About Swannanoa's 
Beacon Mill Nears Completion
Final editing is underway for the  documentary film Blanket Town: The Rise and Fall of An American Mill Town, directed by Swannanoa resident Rebecca Williams. Years in themaking, Blanket Town traces the rise and fall of Beacon Manufacturing, the "big red thumping heart" of Swannanoa, once the largest blanket manufacturer in the world. The film examines the complex legacy of textiles in the South and looks at what happens to a small mountain community when it loses its economic engine and heart. "The story of Beacon is the story of the textile industry and other manufacturing in the U.S." states Williams. "It's about a way of life that once supplied thousands of people decent housing, strong communities and steady jobs." 

Blanket Town looks at what life was like during Beacon's heyday, with mill village housing and company baseball teams that played in the South's textile league. It's filled with first-person interviews of former Beacon workers, testimony from historians and mill scholars, archival footage of Swannanoa shot in the 1920s, and hundreds of historical photographs. The film also takes a look at the legacy of the Beacon blankets themselves, which featured complex and colorful designs.

In addition to its historical perspective, Blanket Town explores how Swannanoa is faring in its post-Beacon economy. Williams and cinematographer and Swannanoa native, Sam Scott, could be seen recently filming and talking with locals at Swannanoa landmarks such as The Breakfast Shoppe and Native Kitchen. 

Musician and Swannanoa resident, Laurie Fisher, will join music producer George Scott in his Swannanoa Juice Box studio to record some old-time tunes on her fiddle and banjo for the film. The soundtrack for Blanket Town features local musicians and songwriters, including Robert (Bert) Brown, the NC Carburetors, and former Warren Wilson College students Cameron Lash and Lucy Martier. The lyrics of several songs used in the film were inspired by interviews with former Beacon workers.

Anyone interested in keeping an eye on the progress of the film is encouraged to go to the Blanket Town website and like the Blanket Town Facebook page, which recently posted a video made by Beacon in the 1990's that garnered over 14,000 views in one week. "It's pretty amazing to see how deeply people still feel connected to Beacon," says Williams. "People are using the film's Facebook page to reminisce, tell stories, honor family members, and connect with long lost friends."

The producers are still raising funds to complete the film, including paying for a finishing editor, and music, color and sound correction. Funds are also needed to purchase licensing rights for historical photos, songs and footage. The project has been funded in large part by generous donations from hundreds of individuals, as well as grants from The North Carolina Humanities Council, The North Carolina Arts Council, and Alternate ROOTS. If you'd like to help bring the film to completion, you can make a secure tax-deductible donation via Paypal at Donors can also send a check to Serpent Child Productions, 215 Wilson Ave, Swannanoa, NC.

The documentary will be submitted to film festivals this spring and summer. Williams also plans to offer a preview screening of the film to local residents. Stay tuned for details.

For the complete F.A.N.S. newsletter click here.

What Makes A Beacon Blanket ?

There several characteristics that made Beacon Blankets so popular. Most Beacon blankets were made of cotton instead of wool. Softer than wool blankets, they were made of color fast yarn that could be washed. Inspired by Native American design elements, and woven on a Jacquard loom, classic Beacon Blankets featured strong geometric patterns and bright colors.

Perhaps the most unique aspect of a Beacon Blanket was a process known as ombre, where the individual fibers were dyed in gradients of color, from dark to light. It's almost as if each fiber were painted, which gave designers a wide range of hues to choose from, thereby increasing the complexity of the patterns. Beacon was the only blanket manufacturer who was able to achieve this, and keeping an eye out for ombre is one way to identify your collectible blanket as a Beacon. They also designed novelty blankets decorated with popular figures. Often featured as children's blankets, these designs might depict cowboys, animals, popular destinations, or other novelty figures like the Strongman blanket, below.

Work Lessons from the Past- The Baltimore Museum of Industry

Last month I had the opportunity to visit The Baltimore Museum of Industry and while they didn’t have a dedicated exhibit to textiles, the place gave me a lot to think about.

Most of the exhibits are separated into different work environments that depict some of the once thriving industries that built the city of Baltimore. You can walk through a small commercial bakery, or a steam powered machine shop, an oyster cannery or print shop. You can handle some of the safer tools in the machine shop, open drawers in the printing office and finger the wooden letterpress blocks, or rummage through a bin of piece work in a garment loft. Surrounding all of these re-created work spaces are photographs of the actual sites themselves and pictures of the people who worked there. 

The museum gave me a deeper understanding of the various skills and processes that each type of work required. It also helped me appreciate the value of each type of work that was done there. That often invisible labor of the past that built whole industries, cities and towns across the United States.

One of the most moving
exhibits was a collection of photographs and artifacts that memorialized the life of one worker in the machine industry. In a small case, mounted on the wall, I saw his work ID badge, his union dues book, the personal tools that he used as a machinist, and pictures of him at work and at home. He worked 40-odd years for one company and his story reminded me so much of the stories I have heard from so many Beacon workers. That fierce loyalty to a company that had given them a steady job, and the understandable pride in mastering a craft and making something that made the world function a little better. His life was his work and there was a quiet joy and undeniable pride in that.

On their website, the Museum of Industry bills itself as a “connection factory”, helping people make the connections between the work of the past and the present that we find ourselves in. That continues to be my hope for Blanket Town. A way of sharing the stories surrounding the Beacon Blanket Mill, that connect the story of Swannanoa to that of the rest of the world, especially those small rural towns across the US, looking for a path forward from their past.