June 22, 2022 551 PM
So, I read this rad new book from the collection at Marfa Public Library called Worn: A People’s History of Clothing by author Sofi Thanhauser. As a fan of fabric, I found this historical read quite remarkable, broken into chapters for linen, silk, cotton, synthetics and wool. A tiny bit dense and academic at the beginning, it then explodes into a wild, eye-opening, hair-raising ride all over the globe.
The part where the author is visiting with people in the Carolinas who are working to save looms that have been phased out by more modern computerized machines and the techniques subsequently lost by that switch, along with the challenges inherent in the quest to save huge contraptions and the expertise of the people who operated them may sound boring to you –– but years ago I tried until exhaustion to find a manufacturer who could produce satinet wool knit and discovered all the machines had long years before been sent off to South America or scrapped.
This all started after I found a wool bathing suit in a thrift store probably from the ‘30s or ‘40s which lacked a tag, however had a patch sewn at the hem — that’s right, there was a skirt of sorts, so hence a hem — of a woman in a swim cap in an arched dive that would have landed her flat on her tummy; that was my north star. I not only loved that suit, I wore it for years and years while trying to find a way to reproduce it so I would never have to live without one. I wanted nothing more than to recreate it. Everywhere I swam, people stopped me to compliment the suit and ask where they could buy one. It was the most wonderful wool knit, dried quickly, didn’t get heavy with water and wore like iron.
I relentlessly tracked down knowledgeable people, and learned that particular knit had been the go-to choice for whalers back in the day because it was incredibly warm, shed water and if wet dried quickly. Also, perhaps most remarkably, it wasn’t scratchy next to my skin. Discovered by way of an old postcard, in the days of whalers there had been an actual, real life satinet mill on Martha’s Vineyard, near where I lived and swam. The knitting machines long gone, that old mill had become the headquarters for the garden club, an organization as tightly bound to tradition as an early tulip bud and equally mysterious, yet no longer filled with the machines I longed to find.
It was these ancient machines that were able to produce the twist and spin of that particular yarn that I was unable to track down because the machinery and people who produced that fine and particular yarn were all gone. Some of the machines may have still lived on in South America, or other countries, yet eluded my best efforts to locate one.
The letterpress printer I worked for in Italy confirmed what I’d been told about jettisoned looms and other cast iron machinery finding homes in other less industrialized countries. A California native studying at Berkeley, he somehow found himself a member of the Catholic priesthood in South America, where he discovered letterpress printing presses galore. He loved the type bite on handmade paper and became fascinated, eventually becoming a printer himself.
He got transferred to the Vatican, which is how he learned of Verona, the city of hand printers and fine art book printers in Italy, where he moved, established a press with machines he brought from South America, and where some years later I was hired to design and bind an edition of letterpress books for him.
Someone, I don’t remember who, had mentioned years ago there was once a denim factory in Marfa, in what’s now the MAC Building. Reading about fabric and clothing production brought this memory to the fore. Since we have a new denim factory in Marfa, in the one-person company of Marielle LaRue, known as Indigo Prophet, I wanted to establish historical precedent, if the earlier factory was in fact true. I love the thought that tiny Marfa was part of clothing folks in dungarees. I called Aurie West, which I do fairly regularly with random questions. Aurie only agrees to speak with me if I promise to not write about her, and yet indulges me with answers. “Yes,” she remembered, “It was owned by a Lebanese man, last name Farah, from El Paso.” Research revealed that the company was started in 1920, and eventually employed as many as 9,000 folks in El Paso, mostly women, which is the worldwide story of fabric and clothing makers. Women and children have done the heavy lifting of producing fabric and clothing forever, which is an astounding history laid out in the book, much of it in painful detail.
The Farah Company came to Marfa in 1957, according to Mary Williams of the Marfa Museum, and was not in fact in the MAC Building, but was instead on a foundation that still exists behind what’s now the Thunderbird Hotel Office. She relayed the denim factory wasn’t well received due to pulling workers away from ranches. I’m thinking there must be some folks around whose parents or other family members worked at Marfa’s denim factory and remember more than we have recorded at the moment. I would love to hear any memories. Also, if you read Worn: A People’s History of Clothing, you too will rethink everything you know about what you are wearing and how it came to be, a remarkable accomplishment from this young author and truly a memorable read about the machinery and world of fabric production. Like I said in grade school for my first book report: I recommend this book to anyone who likes to read.