The fabric of a community

by Joe Murphy

Former Greensboro mill workers contribute to Frau Fiber’s community quilt at Elsewhere Artists Collaborative (photo by Joe Murphy)

There is always something going on at Elsewhere, the former thrift store turned living museum and artist collaborative on Elm Street. Last Friday, it happened to be the completion and presentation of a particularly distinctive quilt. Officially the event was titled Sewing with the People, An Opening with Frau Fiber. Throughout July, a textile worker and activist calling herself Frau Fiber and a wide breadth of Greensboro residents stitched and sewed the quilt until its completion Friday night.

The event brought several generations of Greensboro residents together for the presentation and plates of burgers, hot dogs and salad.

The youngest generation present, the children, amused themselves by throwing rubber bouncy balls against a collage of percussive material including pots, pans, a snare drum, a windowsill and — most aurally noticeable — cymbals. The patter of small feet and yelps of high voices backed up the cacophony of clangs and bangs that sent the small rubber balls bouncing around and rolling through the path of the other attendees.

But none of the grown-ups seemed to mind. Not even the guests of honor, the last generation of people brought up in the White Oak Mill Village in the 1940s and ’50s. All of the fabric used in the quilt was remaining after the closing of the Cone/Proximity Mills and now makes up Elsewhere’s “Revolution Textiles” collection.

The bouncing and rolling balls probably didn’t bother them because the games of their youth mostly were limited to open patches of pavement or concrete, chalk for hopscotch and marbles or jacks.

Johnny Morgan looked over the photographs and literature on display and pointed to a picture of the White Oak Mill drug store where he worked in high school. He explained that the origin of acid-washed jeans was denim salvaged from a flood of Buffalo Creek in the midsixties.

Paul Sams’ parents, like Morgan, worked in the mill their entire lives, often starting at age 12 or earlier. “If it weren’t for the textile industry in the early 1900s there would be no Greensboro,” said Sams. It was 1915 when the mills began producing denim for Levi Strauss.

White Oak, one of Greensboro’s four major mills, paid its employees between $8 and $14 a week depending on their position in the mill that was roughly the size of three football fields. A four-room house in the village cost $4 a month and every fourth house was painted the same color. The mill gave its employees turkeys at Thanksgiving and hams at Christmas — and occasionally treat bags with candy and nuts for their children.

“As a textile worker and activist I wanted to come to North Carolina for the rich and undiscovered [textile] history in this state,” said Frau Fiber. Frau (born Carole Francis Lung) worked in the apparel and garment industry for 12 years prior to getting a BFA and MFA in Fiber/ Material Studies at the Art Institute of Chicago and is now an assistant professor at California State University Los Angeles. Her work has taken her across the country and beyond, from Ireland and Finland to New Orleans and Port-Au-Prince.

Frau teamed up with the Center for New North Carolinians and took Sewing with the People on the road to community centers throughout Greensboro such as the Glenwood Library. The quilt’s final composition is a participatory piece in that a wide breadth of Greensboro resident’s contributed under her guidance and tutelage.

“I asked people what would be the iconic image of their childhood and they said the houses and the mill,” said Frau.

The back of the quilt tells a story too. The denim stitching replicates the script of a notice to mill workers upon the reduction of the work week from 66 to 60 hours.

As the outsourcing of industrial labor has decimated many local economies and communities in this nation, it’s good that we have places like Elsewhere to breathe life into Greensboro history. In regards to Elsewhere’s “Revolution Textiles” material, Frau said: “I hope the energy the quilt created continues to grow.”

wanna go?

Elsewhere Artists Collaborative 606 S. Elm St. Greensboro