- location Citywide
October 21, 2015
About Structure and Surface
From the late 1800s to the early 1900s, Philadelphia was at the forefront of high-quality textile production and design. By the 1950s, just prior to a precipitous industrial decline, nearly half of the city’s population was employed in manufacturing. Structure and Surface seeks to reveal the rich, complex, and largely overlooked history of Philadelphia’s textile industry. The project placed six regional contemporary artists and designers in exploratory residencies with six long-established Philadelphia-based textile and textile-related companies to examine the historic legacy of the city’s textile industry, its past and present impact on the region’s landscape and people, and hopeful glimmers of rebirth.
We saw monumental tape mazes and a dye house at Wayne Mills, modern swaths of vintage car fabrics woven over and over again until they’re right at Churchville Fabrics, and yarns of all colors and sizes wound and unwound at Clemson Winding.
Philadelphia-based urban planning/design firm Interface Studio mapped the growth and decline of the city’s textile industry over the last century, showing Philadelphia as a clear industry leader hitting a sharp peak in 1923 and weakening ever since. Of the eight Philadelphia textile manufacturers that have been in business for at least a century, six participated in Structure and Surface, and three were profiled in short documentaries produced by MING Media.
MAPPING THE GROWTH AND DECLINE OF PHILADELPHIA’S TEXTILE INDUSTRY
Structure and Surface uncovered a long forgotten history, showing the ways in which these businesses are woven into the fabric of their respective neighborhoods, and shaped by the same social forces that drive artistic thinking. The community-minded Bentley Robe Company was founded to meet unaddressed civic needs; Clemson Winding is a small, family-run business with a niche textile process; and Wayne Mills, a larger operation, offers economic opportunity and mobility to any employee willing to work for it. Surrounded by whirring spindles and symmetrical bundles of fabric, Structure and Surface begins to ask: where is the line between art and craft?
“[In 1887, the Philadelphia Museum of Art] didn’t see a distinction between art and production…It’s all the same, it’s about design, it’s about skill and craft.
Artist Susie Brandt (Baltimore, MD), whose work has addressed domesticity, consumption, abundance, time, and devotion, was in residence with G. J. Littlewood and Sons, a commission raw stock dyeing facility in Manayunk.
Philadelphia-based designer and professor Kelly Cobb has designed functional prototypes for children’s sportwear and women’s ready-to-wear, and teaches ground-up thinking about sustainability in product development. Cobb held a residency at Bentley Robe Company in Germantown, which specializes in clergy, choir, judicial, and academic attire as well as embroidery and monogramming.
Writer and designer Julie Lorch blends digital fabrication techniques with craft and combines elements of public experience, perceived acceptance, and playfulness. Lorch’s Structure and Surface residency took place at Clemson Winding in the Frankford section of Philadelphia, where spools of thread and different yarns and nylons are rolled onto cones or other spindles for distribution.
Fiber artist Amy Orr (Philadelphia, PA), 2012 Executive Director of FiberPhiladelphia, was in residence at Humphrys/CoverSports USA in southwest Philadelphia. The textile company started out making canvas sheets for covered wagons in 1874, and now focuses on modern protective covers: athletic field covers, banners and signs, and even gym mats.
Fiber artist Piper Shepard (Baltimore, MD), who teaches in the Fibers Department at the Maryland Institute College of Art, held a residency at Germantown’s Wayne Mills. Family-owned and operated across 5 generations, the original company was first built in 1812 to make cloth for soldiers’ uniforms.
Canadian interdisciplinary visual artist Katherine Shozawa, based in Philadelphia, has a strong background in and commitment to community-based participatory artwork and social histories of marginalized communities. Shozawa was in residence at Churchville Fabrics, originally known as Philadelphia Felt, situated in the Frankford section of Philadelphia. The company originally specialized in wool and felt, re-upholstery, civil war reenactment outfits, and blankets, and now specializes in interiors for classic cars.
[Lowell Historical National Park] leaves the impression that New England was THE center of American textile production. We know that skews and simplifies the arc of American textile history. With Philadelphia’s textile story in the mix, the narrative becomes deeper, more complex, relevant and, we think, more potent.
Manufacturer Site Photos by Katie Winkler
Structure and Surface Advisory Committee
Carla Bednar, Executive Director, Fabric of Philadelphia
Kenneth Finkel, Distinguished Lecturer, American Studies, Temple University
Kristina Haugland, Associate Curator of Costume and Textiles / Supervising Curator for the Study Room, Philadelphia Museum of Art
Bruce Hoffman, Board Member/Curator, FiberPhiladelphia 2012 International Biennial
Hilary Jay, Founding/Executive Director, DesignPhiladelphia
Walter Licht, Walter H. Annenberg Professor of History, University of Pennsylvania
Barry McCarthy, Special Project Manager, Manufacturing Alliance of Philadelphia
Will McHale, Co-Director, Philly Works / Senior Lecturer, Industrial and Exhibition Design, University of the Arts
Karen Randal, Director, Office of Business Attraction and Retention, City of Philadelphia Commerce Department
Alexandra Schmidt-Ullrich, Co-Director, Philly Works / Assistant Professor, Industrial Design, University of the Arts
Marcia Weiss, Coordinator, Textile Design B.S. Program/Harold Neuman Textile Design Chair, Philadelphia University
Structure and Surface Consultants
Scott Page, Principal, Interface Studio
Mindy Watts, Interface Studio
A special thanks to
Robin Trent, Bentley Robe Company
Vernard Trent, Bentley Robe Company
Bob Indoe, Churchville Fabrics
Bill Clemson, Clemson Winding
Joan Clemson, Clemson Winding
David P. Littlewood, G.J. Littlewood & Son
Shana Brenner, Humphrys Textile
Martin Heilman, Wayne Mills
Mary Jane Myers, Wayne Mills