Workshop of the World

stories of industry in & around Philadelphia

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11,700 threads are woven together on this loom, controlled by double Jacquards (2007).


Torben Jenk, 2007.

In 2007, Lonsdale and his dedicated staff are some of the few survivors of Philadelphia’s textile industry. Production for the mass market has moved overseas, using cheap labor and threads, often including polyester, which costs one third that of nylon. American weavers face other challenges, including the weak value of the dollar to other currencies which has driven up their cost for wool, today supplied mainly from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. On our tour Harry Lonsdale will demonstrate various weaving and finishing operations for us, then share his observations of the contemporary textile market.
“Wool is a most amazing fiber” exclaims Harry Lonsdale, a third generation weaver and felter. “It is resilient, strong, polishes, wicks moisture, insulates heat and sound, absorbs shocks, resists abrasion but does not rot, burn nor conduct electricity.” Through understanding these characteristics, hands-on technical savvy and by serving specialty markets, Lonsdale and his dedicated staff have produced an extraordinary range of products made from wool, felted and woven.
Lonsdale continues “Felt surrounds us. Felt held the ink in printing calculators. Felt seals revolving doors. Felt is used on countless industrial feed rolls. The furniture industry uses felt as backing to extend the life of their expensive wide carriage sand belts. They also use felt to burnish table tops. Felt also protects lamp bases from scratching those fine surfaces.” Lonsdale estimates he produced over 5,000 different die cut parts from felt.
The military purchased about 60% of Lonsdale’s production in the 1980s, mainly felt which was used to subdivide and seal ammunition boxes, preventing sparks from metal to metal contact. “Unscrew the detonator pin from the body of a grenade and you will find a small felt disk... But after the NASA Shuttle Challenger exploded [soon after launch in 1986] the military specifications became too cumbersome. It’s no fun making felt conform to specifications of a thousandth of an inch.”
Lonsdale produces contract upholstery for hotels and offices, designed by others and in house but his desk is covered with written requests stapled with fabric swatches from companies that supply authentic-specification parts to restore classic automobiles. Consider the 1930s era weather seals known as “windlace,” rubber tubes wrapped in fabric with a flange for tacking; made from cotton they quickly rotted. Real enthusiasts and judges at classic car competitions look at these small details to assign points and determine “best in class.”
Cotton was also used in auto upholstery. Now worn out from excessive use and its tendency to absorb perspiration, Lonsdale has woven over 500 different reproduction fabrics. “Studebaker offered about a dozen different fabrics each year. Here is a swatch from a 1950 Olds, notice the nylon. Look here, metallic threads were used a lot from ‘55-59, often with Mylar, a fine aluminum thread. And it’s not just for restorations of the well known cars like the ‘55-57 Chevy Belair and Nomad which have become so expensive. I now get requests for upholstery for the Nova and Falcon.”
Lonsdale supplies another fabric to history. In 1998, twenty thousand Union and Confederate re-enactors gathered in Gettysburg for the 135th anniversary of the disastrous infantry assault known as Pickett’s Charge which ended Lee’s campaign into Pennsylvania. For the first time since 1863 there were enough Union and Confederate soldiers for a complete one-for-one re-enactment. A further one hundred thousand people paid to watch.
Modern suppliers to this market often call themselves “sutlers,” the term for an army camp follower who peddled provisions to the soldiers. Lonsdale says “loads of crap uniforms sell for $200 but their inferior fabrics wear out quickly. Many original Civil War uniforms survive in superb shape, a testimony to their original design, superb fabrics and craftsmanship. We weave fabric for Charles Childs who has done loads of research. A great guy to do business with too.”

Childs credits his interest in re-enacting to his father and uncles who took him to the centennial commemorations of the Civil War when he was only eleven. Childs spent much of his career “working as a production guy for a modern dress manufacturer” but his hobby was researching Civil War uniforms. At the National Archives Childs found the US Army Quartermaster Manuals, compiled during the Civil War but never published. Therein are the most complete and exacting specifications; Childs concentrated on the uniforms, blankets and tentage. In the mid 1970s, seeking authentic cloth, Childs started to weave his own fabrics, producing about one yard per hour, but the “finishing” was even more time consuming.

Wool shrinks and sets when dampened and shaken, a quality frustrating to anyone who has thrown their sweater from washer to dryer. The woolen industry captured that tendency to create heavier weight cloth, to obscure the weave, to improve the lustre, handle and finish. One hundred years ago this “scouring, fulling, sponging, decating and shearing” was subcontracted to specialist firms. Childs says “I looked around for years. Lonsdale has all those weaving and finishing skills, and the equipment to recreate quality 19th century fabrics on a commercial scale.”

With Lonsdale’s fabrics, Childs went full time into making Civil War uniforms under the name
County Cloth. 6 Unable to meet the demand he offered kits, fabrics and patterns (developed from his close observation of authentic uniforms and his tailoring skills). Childs says that his customers “want the best stuff, properly tailored from the best materials, not just sewn from mill ends bought by the pound.” Few recognize that a uniform constructed to original specifications will wear well for decades while cheap imitations might survive only a year—a costume rather than a uniform. Sleeping in the rain and marching around the battlefield is sure to shrink that inferior garment, a sartorial hazard, particularly revealing if in the trousers.

Walk into Lonsdale’s workshop and you might find him repairing a thread on his double-headed Jacquard loom which “can weave up to 11,600 threads with a 7-1/2 inch repeat. I could write the Declaration of Independence in fabric.” How does anyone learn all these skills? Lonsdale says “I am the third generation in America but it is likely that my grandfather was descended from a long line of weavers since that was the major activity in Bradford, England, where he emigrated from in 1893 at age 18.” [The textile industry in Bradford stretches back to the 13th century and it was renowned for the ‘Bradford system’ of weaving worsted cloth. The essential feature of a worsted yarn is straightness of fiber, in that the fibers lie parallel to each other ]. Lonsdale’s grandfather lost his first textile business during the Depression but later established the “Lonsdale Worsted Company.” Harry worked with his father and grandfather at Lonsdale Worsted until it went out of business in 1974.
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Harry Lonsdale then went to work for Philadelphia Felt, owned by the Putney family and operated by Bob Putney, Jr. Philadelphia Felt produced lots of paper making felts—“we would run over a mile a minute”—but the demand for ever wider rolls required the investment of millions of dollars in new equipment, a risk the Putney family decided not to take so Philadelphia Felt closed in 1981. Lonsdale bought all the textile equipment from Philadelphia Felt, nothing related to making paper felts. In 1983 he bought all the customers, equipment and real estate of Quaker Felt. He sold Quaker Felt in 2004 and operates under the name Churchville Fabrics.