The End of the Wonder Rug
EDEN, N.C. — Sounds change with the seasons, of course, but this spring, among the usual mix of bird song and lawn mowers, there are notable silences in this town of 15,000 people.
First, the whistle that used to signal the start of three daily shifts at the Karastan rug factory, a brick mill whose smokestack has towered over downtown for generations, isn’t blowing. The work force has dwindled to a few as the operation prepares to close, after 93 years.
Inside the mill, it’s quiet too. When the train ran, it drove directly into the factory to pick up goods. The rooms and halls are so large, as James Ivie, a retired educator and preservationist said, “You can drive a Sherman tank down them.” As of March 2021, many of these massive rooms were empty. The remaining employees no longer wear earplugs. Instead of blanketing the place with the percussive din that only a room full of power looms could produce, most of the machines sit silent and still.
Among them are the Axminster looms that from 1928 until 2019 made Karastan’s most famous creation: a worsted wool rug that so convincingly replicated the design and durability of imported, handmade rugs from the Middle East and Asia that it was called “the wonder rug of America.”
That a product made and marketed as an “Oriental” rug is associated with wonder should come as little surprise given the history of Orientalism in the West, which conflated various geographical regions and romanticized this invented place — the “Orient” — as a site of exoticism and danger, in need of colonialist control.
Handwoven and knotted rugs of wool or silk from various countries including Iran (a.k.a “Persian” rugs), China, India, Russia, Turkey, Pakistan, Morocco and Egypt have long been used in Western décor, especially in 19th-century Europe. Karastan helped take this trend into the 20th century, making a machine-made rug sold exclusively at department stores and through a network of approved dealers across the United States. Karastan’s wool rugs cost much less than handwoven imports: In 2019, a 9-by-12-foot Karastan was around $1800.
These American-made rugs were marketed to a customer who, like the grand department stores of yore, seems not to have survived into the 21st century. The wonder of the wonder rug may be that as a relic of America’s shrinking middle class, it managed to last this long.
“It’s one of the better machine-made rugs. Even after 30 to 40 years, they hold up really well,” said Robert Gordon Shropshire of Scotty’s Carpet and Oriental Rug Service, which specializes in cleaning and repairing Karastan rugs.
Mr. Shropshire’s own Karastan rug has been in storage at the shop ever since his family welcomed a new puppy to their home last year. (“Dogs, cats and kids keep us going,” he said of the rug-cleaning business.) Mr. Shropshire’s shop has had ties to the people who worked at the mill, less than a mile away, since Scotty’s opened in 1974. But Karastan has been in these parts far longer than that.
A Cadillac of Carpets
In 1917, when Marshall Field & Co. moved its underwear and bedspread manufacturing from Illinois to the town of Leaksville, which consolidated with two other towns to form Eden in the 1960s, it was to be closer to non-unionized labor and cotton, a raw material used in many of its products. Though known today for its former retail empire, Marshall Field had an equally important wholesale business that supplied its stores and others.
The company already had mills nearby, and the new site — a former furniture factory along the Dan River — offered plenty of water for textile finishing. But the new mill needed land for expansion and chose a Black neighborhood nearby, displacing much of the population. The expanded mill was built, along with 166 cottages, to house what at the time was an all-white work force. Textile mills were segregated until the 1960s, and Black workers were excluded from production jobs until then.
When it opened in 1921, the mill was a branch of Marshall Field’s Homecrest Rug division. An engineer and inventor employed by the company, Eugene Clark, began experimenting with the Axminster broadlooms. He modified the loom so that it wove through the back, simulating the look of a hand-knotted rug.
According to company lore, the first rug came off one of these customized Axminsters at 2:02 p.m. on April 8, 1928, and its resemblance to a handwoven Persian carpet was so remarkable that it was called a “mystery rug.” The new rugs were given a name that played up the enigma — Karastan — an invented place that, to American ears, surely sounded more like the source of a Persian-style rug than Leaksville, N.C.
By 1931, the mill’s engineers had transformed 52 working Axminster looms, reproducing patterns that were copied by Karastan’s designers from handmade originals. The rugs were named after famed rug-producing regions in Iran (Ispahan, Kirman, Sarouk), Azerbaijan, Armenia and Turkey (Oushak, Turkoman), along with Karastan’s unique number coding — the first Karastan designs, or what is now called “the original Karastan collection,” are the brand’s 700 series.
An appearance at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933 transformed Karastan’s mystery rug into “the wonder rug of America.” For the event, the mill created an enlarged version of its “Tree of Life” (Kirman pattern 791) rug. Rather than hang the carpet so that visitors could admire its beauty like an art object, Karastan’s executives placed it on the ground so fairgoers could walk across.
An electric eye measured the crowd at more than 12 million people “wear testing” the rug during the six-month event. When the fair continued to the next year, Karastan returned with the rug: half cleaned, half dirty. The dramatic contrast proved the rug’s durability. The stunt was so effective it was repeated at the New York World’s Fair in 1939.
“Wool is the miracle fiber,” said Walter Denny, a professor of art history at UMass Amherst who specializes in Islamic carpets and textiles and frequently advises museums and other institutions on their rug collections. “Nothing compares to it and probably nothing ever will.”
But he points out that the wool that Karastan used to make its yarn — imported from New Zealand — lacks the luster of that used in the Middle East and Asia. (According to a company brochure, Karastan’s finishing process included “Lustre Wash,” a chemical formula meant to give the rugs a more antique and lustrous appearance.) Mr. Denny prefers the irregular artistry of the hand-loomed. “Machine rugs for me are a pretty dismal lot. But Karastan is the Cadillac of them.”
Eliminating the variability of imports, Karastan offered a consistent collection of rugs with set prices for dealers, instructions for care and an extensive guarantee. Owning a Karastan was a way to own a luxury item without having to participate in something as intimidating, for some Americans, as the antiques marketplace.
“You didn’t have to have any knowledge or expertise as a purchaser, and you didn’t have to worry about it because the product was the same for everyone,” Mr. Denny said. In the absence of any mystery around a rug’s provenance, Karastan created “a different kind of mystique — it was technological.” The company both democratized a luxury good, making it more attainable, and whitewashed the product, creating an American-made “Oriental” rug that replaced an Orientalist fantasy with a technological one.
The Kirman 717, introduced in 1937 with 50 yarn colors, went on to become Karastan’s best-selling rug for the next half-century, appearing regularly in homes, public buildings and commercial spaces. It and others have proved so durable that they are now themselves a part of the antiques market: a simulation that endures, and perhaps even acquires its own authenticity.
Along with its signature wool area rugs, Karastan also became known for wall-to-wall carpet, introducing their patented Karaloc broadloom in 1951. The brand’s high-end carpet as well as its area rugs eventually expanded into collaborations with designers and interior decorators. One of the designer Halston’s many license deals (alluded to in the new Netflix series) was with Karastan, with whom he specially designed the red carpet in his Olympic Tower office.
‘The Computer Was Taller Than I Was’
People are needed to make machine-made rugs, too — another point Karastan emphasized in its marketing. Every part of production was done in-house.
An ad from 2016 boasted that 32 human hands were involved in the creation of a single rug: from mechanical engineers and designers, to the men and women who worked the dye pools downstairs, or hand-set the machines, or spooled the yarn onto frames for the looms. It took nearly an eight-hour shift to weave it, depending on the size.
“The only thing we didn’t have in that mill was the shipping department,” said Delma Galloway, who worked for 51 years in the Eden mill’s setting department. After her first job in Greensboro, N.C., made her homesick, Ms. Galloway came back and went to the mill on her 18th birthday for work. “Back then you had to do a test with your hands. They had your records and grades, but they wanted to see where they could put you,” she recalled.
Equipped with a good memory and speed, she was offered a position in the setting department. Like most everything at the mill in 1968 (except for weaving), setting was done by hand. “We had to read the pattern, every thread, and set it — put the thread on the spool, wind it up, lay it down. It was production, and I loved it,” Ms. Galloway said.
The frames used had either 252 tubes of yarn or 378. “Back then we had six weeks to learn and get our speed up,” she said. “You had to move.” If your partner was good, Ms. Galloway said, you earned money. “If your partner wasn’t, they could pull you down.”
In the 1990s, Ms. Galloway would play a pivotal role in another one of Karastan’s technological developments, the creation of “Autoset,” where spools of thread were mechanized into tube banks rather than hand-set onto the Axminster’s frames. “The computer was taller than I was,” Ms. Galloway said, but she wanted to learn the system because she knew the emerging technology would transform production.
After working with a prototype, Ms. Galloway encouraged Karastan’s mechanical engineers to automate the winding process as well. They did. “It was challenging,” she said. “The machine would get on my last nerve sometimes but when the fixer would come, I would stay there and watch.” But “with Autoset you had to do so many lines a day. My body was used to moving at a certain pace. If my machine broke down and I had to be on the floor, it made me tired. With 20-some years on production, I still had that momentum going.”
In 2019, Mohawk Industries, which purchased Karastan in 1993, eliminated the Autoset department and Ms. Galloway retired. “There weren’t but three of us making these rugs by then,” she said.
Five of Ms. Galloway’s family members worked at Karastan in her time there, and two at other area mills. All their lives, like many of Eden’s residents’ were directly affected by the ebb and flow of the turbulent textile industry as ownership of the mills changed and production either moved elsewhere or evolved.
“Karastan is the only one that stayed,” said Mr. Ivie, who serves on the board of the Eden Historical Museum. On weekends, he is at the desk at the storefront museum, which exhibits various artifacts from the area, including a small Karastan rug. “I guess that we’re lucky in a way that it stayed as long as it did,” he said.
In 1953, Marshall Field & Co. sold its mills in the area to an investment company based in Boston, which formed a new company that would define this region of the Piedmont for the next half-century: Fieldcrest Mills. By the time Ms. Galloway began working in the late 1960s, the mills no longer rented out houses to workers, deducting the rent directly from their pay as they had until the 1940s, but Eden was still very much a company town.
Like its predecessor, Fieldcrest Mills provided jobs and helped fund public facilities like recreation centers and parks, as well as the area’s hospital and community college. Fieldcrest built the town’s Y.M.C.A., where it held music lessons for a company orchestra, provided land for the country club and developed subdivisions for employee homes. The company’s executives, like H.W. Whitcomb, the longtime mill president, were influential in the community, serving in leadership positions and as donors to local institutions like churches and clubs.
According to Mr. Ivie, the culture of the town changed as the mill’s owners did: “If you ask old people who grew up here who they work for they would say Mr. Whitcomb. And then he died, and they started bringing in these other people. And you’d ask them who they worked for, they would say their superintendent’s name or their shop foreman. The top people weren’t real anymore — they were just figureheads. They weren’t from here and didn’t mix with the people here.”
Grounding a Family
My husband grew up in Eden during the peak of the Fieldcrest era, just before the long-term economic decline and industry consolidations of the late 1970s and ’80s began. His father worked as a clerk for Marshall Field & Co. before serving in World War II. After that, none of his immediate family worked in the mills, but many worked in the businesses that grew up around them.
My brother-in-law, William Pace, is the third-generation proprietor of Pace-Stone, a furniture and rug store on Washington Street, two blocks from the mill, that sold its first Karastan rug in 1929. For my husband, almost every part of his childhood bore the influence of Fieldcrest, from the towels he used (sold at a discount in the mill’s outlet store) to the church he attended.
When we moved to California more than two decades ago, one of the first things we did was pool our limited funds to order a Karastan rug for our new apartment. My nephew, John Tyler Pace, who has taken over at Pace-Stone, shipped it to us. It never even occurred to us that we could have found a Karastan dealer on the West Coast (nor would we have gotten a family discount). Karastan rugs, like Nana’s boiled custard or a Dick’s Drive-In hot dog, came from Eden.
Like transplants often do, we took a piece of home with us to ground us in a new place. And I’m not the first to do so with a piece of Karastan carpet: In 1964, when Mr. Ivie left Leaksville to attend Princeton, his parents gave him a framed tiger rug that was part of a limited edition of Karastan, 3 feet by 5 feet, made in the 1960s and ’70s that were meant to be hung as artworks.
“I think they thought it would help me make friends — something I could show to girls,” Mr. Ivie said. Ms. Galloway, in her home, has a commemorative piece of a Kirman 717 sitting on an end table that she flipped over to demonstrate how the Axminster looms sewed through the back. She immediately spotted an errant stitch, a mark of a human error that was likely not made on her shift.
When Fieldcrest consolidated with another textile company in North Carolina, Cannon, in 1986, 2,500 people worked at the Eden mills. This merger eventually resulted in both companies’ dissolution and bankruptcy and the biggest single-day layoff in North Carolina history, as well as the state’s longest-running labor dispute.
Mill work, especially in a right-to-work state, can be dangerous on many levels, from machinery mishaps to byssinosis (brown lung disease) to violent conflicts that have occurred when workers attempted to unionize. In 1993, Fieldcrest Cannon sold its remaining carpet and rug business to Karastan’s current owners, Mohawk Industries.
“Fieldcrest had the towels and everything, but when Mohawk came in the only thing they wanted was Karastan,” said Ms. Galloway, who remembers that when the new owners arrived they seemed surprised at “how much was in this one spot,” in terms of production and also how sensitive the looms were.
Maybe they hadn’t planned on staying, but they did, even expanding the plant in 2015 so that they could make commercial carpet for the aviation industry, as well as Karastan’s broadloom carpet and wool rugs. Until 2019, the old Axminsters continued weaving alongside newer looms, but with the shutdown of Galloway’s department, production of the wonder rug ceased.
Though the Eden mill is closing, the Karastan brand will continue. Mohawk Industries is consolidating rug production to its Georgia facilities. Most of the area rugs made there, however, will be synthetic, and the few wool ones still in production will not be made on the Axminster looms. Perhaps most importantly for the people of Eden, they will not be made here.
Required paperwork filed with the North Carolina Department of Commerce on March 3, 2021, set April 23 as a closure date for the mill, but, as locals attest, there are still a few cars in the mill’s parking lot. The fate of the Axminsters inside, their delicate machinery making a move challenging if not impossible, is unknown.
Mohawk Industries did not respond to requests for information, but these special looms’ survival might require not only another company to buy them, but to buy the mill that houses them.
A story of such unlikely resurrection occurred just 40 miles away, in nearby Greensboro, where in 2020 the antique looms of another heritage brand — Cone Denim, the last makers of selvage denim in the United States — were transported.
The closure of the famed Cone Mills White Oak Plant in 2017 was a shock for premium denim makers, as Cone’s product is held by aficionados to be some of the best denim in the world, used in Levi’s since 1915. But Eric Goldstein, a denim expert who has done lines for both Ralph Lauren and the Gap, tracked down the mill’s looms (Draper X3s) and had them transported to Louisiana’s Vidalia Mills. All but one made the trip.
For people like me, whose babies learned to crawl atop a Karastan, there’s a sentimental attachment to having the centerpiece of your home made in your hometown. I will certainly be taking my Karastan rug with me when I depart my sunny Los Angeles rental. It’s traveled a long way to get here, and like the cans of pickles my mother mails after a summer’s harvest, it was created by local hands. That one rug can contain so many paradoxes — distant and domestic, machine-made and artisan, memory and history — is indeed a wonder. And you can walk on it too.
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