Flip through catalogs for J.C. Penney, Restoration Hardware or Pottery Barn and you could see a braided rug for sale. You might assume that rug was made overseas, but there’s a good chance it was made in Pawtucket. As part of our on-going series, Made in Rhode Island, Catherine Welch visited Colonial Mills where thousands of braided rugs are shipped out of Pawtucket to major chain stores across the country.
Tucked inside an old brick mill, a handful of workers meticulously move pieces of material through machines to make long spaghetti-like strings of fabric in crazy quilt patterns of green, pink and blue. The back wall of this room is lined with rolls and rolls and rolls of fabric. It’s the company’s secret stash, said Colonial Mills’ Meredith Thayer.
“So this is all the fabric that we carry for ourselves and use it for our products whether it be rugs or baskets or bowls,” said Thayer.
Meredith Thayer has been roaming around this rug factory since she was a little girl. Now she’s Colonial Mills chief designer. She grew up with many of the employees here, like Tony Loura. “Tony I’ve known since I was little. He and I work very closely together on product, on prototype, and I love them,” said Thayer.
Loura has worked at Colonial Mills for 28 years. In that time he’s watched technology speed up the process. “Right now we can produce so fast,” said Loura. “Our average ship days used to be 30 days and everybody was happy. Now if we don’t ship the order within five days, it’s a problem.”
How the Rugs are Made
Even with the technology making a braided rug is complicated. Two hundred years ago scraps of old clothing were sewn together and braided into a rug by hand. Today, machines dominate the process although here at Colonial Mills it still starts with a woman sewing together pieces of fabric.
The craftsmen at Colonial Mills cut and stitch the fabric into long spaghetti-like ropes that will then become braided rugs. They also braid yarn into rugs. Thayer walks up to a waste-high bin filled with big spools of minty green and electric colored yarn. Most of the yarn and fabric are made in the U.S. It’s how the owner, who happens to be Thayer’s father, does business. “You know my father has always found that it’s very important that we stay in the United States and we source as much as we possibly can from the United States,” said Thayer.
Maintaining control of the product from start to end is a big reason why Donald Scarlota stays put in Rhode Island. He says he’s been asked why he doesn’t make his rugs overseas and tells people he has no desire to do that. “Right now I can get up, walk out of my office, walk out on to the production floor, see what’s going on,” said Scarlota.
Scarlata has owned Colonial Mills for 35 years. He spotted it for sale in the Boston Globe, got his brother involved, together they came up with the $3,000 down payment, and then they waved good-bye to their jobs in corporate America.
“We felt that braided rugs have been around since the pilgrims, and the chances are that they will be around after we are dead and buried too,” he said.
Back on the factory floor a machine that fills nearly an entire room sorts hundreds of spools of yarn sitting on racks that climb from floor to ceiling. Carefully selected colors of yarn move through the machine and end up on even bigger spools.
And those bigger spools are then sent to the automatic braiding machine. Colonial Mills has a whole row of these machines that make a racket as they whirl spools of yarn up through mechanical fingers that braid the colors into a long rope.
“The fun thing about these braids is you can switch colors out and get totally different looks,” said Thayer.” You can get one that looks like a hounds tooth, one that looks like a twist you can play with color, like, crazy”
From here, the braided yarn and spaghetti-like ropes of fabric move upstairs to a place where they’ll start looking like rugs.
Two huge, bright green tables line the walls of a massive loft-like room. Sewing machine stations are set up along the green tables. The tables are covered in holes to release a constant stream of air. “They’re like giant air hockey tables. They pump out a bunch of air so they can turn the rugs, see they’re spinning them easily,” said Thayer.
The women at the machines, and it’s all women, guide the rugs across the so-called air hockey tables into the sewing machines. Everything at Colonial Mills is sewn by hand. Many of these women have been doing this work for years, and Thayer knows the constant sewing is tough on the hands.
“Sewing is one of hardest things to do here. The machines move at a pace that’s far beyond your traditional sewing machine,” said Thayer. “They have certain requirement we have to hit daily monthly so they’re moving fast.”
Rebounding From the Recession
Home decorating took a hit in the housing bust and so did Colonial Mills. There used to two shifts, now there’s one. But business is picking back up, and owner Donald Scarlata is grateful for the help he got from both the city of Pawtucket and the state.
“All of them worked with me during my difficult financial times, so you know, they’ve helped me,” said Scarlota.” And I don’t know whether it’s obligation but I don’t feel the need to leave.”
A new product that happened by accident also helped Colonial Mills get through tough times. It started with some woven baskets they made to hold rolled up rugs at a Laura Ashley store. “And then we got word that they wanted more baskets, and we said, ‘why what are you doing with them’? Well we’re selling them. Oh, you’re supposed to be selling the rugs out of them and keeping the basket full.”
That conversation turned on a light bulb. Now what’s called “soft storage” is about 20 percent of Colonial Mills business. The company is putting a modern twist to the traditional braided rug, banking on the baskets, the neon colors, and some funky new patterns to keep the centuries-old handcraft relevant for the next generation of home decorators.
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