The (R)evolution of carpet (Part 2 of 4)

This is the second of a four-part essay on the rise of the tufted carpet industry in North Georgia. While it's easy, in hindsight, to consider that growth destined, or inevitable; it came about despite numerous obstacles. Though technology can provide the means for growth, growth itself, through creative problem solving, drive and passion can only come from committed people.


The American textile industry traces its roots to the very founding of this great nation. Weavers and looms and techniques came over from Europe. Mills were built and business went on in America much as it had in the old countries. There were a few changes, for example, as the American textile producers grew; they stopped purchasing raw materials from European middle markets and established their own direct supply chains. And patterns and techniques inevitably developed that were distinctly American. Alternative raw materials were tried with very limited effect. The public bought wool because that was what dominated the market and the mills made woolen products because that was what the public bought. The advances of the industrial revolution occurred roughly parallel on both sides of the Atlantic; so the big, established industries kept doing things the same way they always had and everything was fine—if a little bit boring.

Remember our socially awkward Catherine Evans? Well she eventually married, but apparently didn’t develop many other interests. She kept making bedspreads and began selling them to local general stores. Interest locally was good because of the low cost but there was also demand from outside the community, partially due to a small national trend at the time toward folk art and goods. When demand became too great she taught others how to make the bedspreads and soon many households were laboriously turning out bedspreads. In fact the cottage industry came to be many households’ primary income and cars speeding down the road at night (heading to Dalton at least) were more likely to be rushing more yarn and cotton to busy home businesses than carrying bootleg whiskey.

Could this have been one of the first modern examples of a collaborative business effort using an open-source platform? Let’s go back to our comparison, the internet revolution started quietly. Everyone knows now the internet had been around for years before two key events happened at just the right time. The introduction of the Windows operating system was the first event, followed by the first web browser program. One was a commercial business product; the other was written and disseminated at no cost but both represented the arrival of technology that could deliver product on demand to a wide audience in real time. McDonough and Braungart call this a “technology key” and the Georgia Carpet Industry was waiting for one to unlock its own revolution.

What was happening in North Georgia certainly caught the notice of the carpet mills in the north but the potential competitiveness was easily dismissed. The small Georgia mills weren’t following any established production models, they were using the wrong materials (cotton yarn instead of wool) and they were tufting instead of weaving. The northern mills even allowed representatives from the south to come in and tour their facilities and to take ideas back to incorporate at home. Growth was steady but slow, the carpet industry’s technology key was just about to arrive. That happened thanks to two men working separately who produced the first modern carpet tufting machines. These men, one named Carter and the other Cobble developed machines that allowed mass output faster, requiring less labor and less cost. But even before Carter and Cobble arrived with their innovations, resourceful people were purchasing used or broken Singer sewing machines and modifying them to take larger needles to punch though the heavy material and to handle the bigger scale. Like the internet pioneers would later do, the carpet innovators were quick to adopt new technology. And when the technology couldn’t meet their demands they adapted that technology to keep up with their needs. And like the Big Computer Companies would later do, the Great Northern Mills saw the revolution coming, even provided assistance, and never recognized it for what it was until too late. (to be continued…)

No comments:

Our blog is mostly about sustainable design in the interiors industry,
especially carpet. Sometimes it's just about us. Updated when we've got something good to say.