“Social Fabric: Land, Labor, and the World the Textile Industry Created,” is an exhibition currently installed in the Hirshland Exhibition Gallery at the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections. Running from October 27, 2022 until September 1, 2023, this exhibition is a component of “Textiles at Cornell: a year of exhibits,” celebrating the “Threads of History” in Cornell’s collections. Division and gallery hours can be found here.
The exhibition has been funded through the generous support of the Stephen E. ’58, MBA ’59 and Evalyn Edwards ’60 Milman Exhibition Fund.
Exhibit curated by Marcie Farwell, Gordon and Marjorie Osborne Textile Industry Curator; Dr. Wesley Chenault, Director of the Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives; Dr. Tamika Nunley, Cornell Department of History, Associate Professor of History and Sandler Family Faculty Fellow, and Claudia Leon, Undergraduate Public History Fellow.
The seeds of our digital age were planted in the Rhode Island soil in 1793 when Samuel Slater and Moses Brown opened their first textile mill at Pawtucket Falls. The Industrial Revolution had already begun in England, and with designs stolen from Richard Arkwright, Slater would bring that revolution to an America that had just won its own.
The roles of men like Brown, Arkwright, Lawrence, Singer, and Lowell are known, yet the story of the textile and garment industries is also inextricably linked to other stories. You cannot weave this tale without the warp of the landscape on which it was built, the waterways on which it depended, and the people and wildlife that it displaced. The weft is made up of the threads of the institution of slavery as well as the labor of children, women, immigrants, and prisoners. That tapestry was mended by the emergence of the labor movement and workplace safety laws. The fabric of the 21st century was shaped by both the titans of industry and those who dedicated their lives to the struggle against them. This fight continues in other parts of the world where these industries are centered today.
Every textile tells a story about the people and places that made it.