By Julia Halewicz
There's a persistent rhythm to the sewing machines at the Colonial Mills factory in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.
Needles puncture through cords of cotton and linen, binding yards of fabric into soft braided rugs and baskets so fast they're barely visible at a passing glance.
The women operating the machines act like snake charmers, coaxing tangled piles of baby pink, gray or floral blue fabric out of barrels and into recognizable rug forms with seemingly magical ease.
Only the hissing sound of forced air competes with the drum of the needles. The air comes through small holes drilled into sprawling green wooden tables, helping to levitate the rugs and ease the process of spinning them as they grow to 9- or 12-feet wide.
There's a loft-like feeling to the 68,000-square-foot factory, with windows that flood the wide-open floor plan with light, and cheerful white and green painted walls that give off an energetic freshness. Rooms for bobbin production, fabric storage and braid making are remarkably clean, with not one fabric cutting out of place.
On an average day, 80 employees will make about 700 rugs, and in a year fill 175,000 orders. Often it only takes two days from when you hit "submit" on your online order to having one of these rugs under your feet.
While the digital age may have added online-only retailers like Wayfair.com (W) to Colonial Mills' traditional customer base of stores such as Pottery Barn and Kohl's (KSS), the company hasn't much changed the way it makes its rugs since it opened in the 1950s. They all start as cotton from Georgia or wool from Canada or America that is dyed, braided into flat or cable lock patterns and then sewn on one of the company's 35 sewing machines.
A rug begins as a bolt of fabric or wool, which then gets turned into spools of thread or yarn. From there, the spools are braided into long cords in patterns like houndstooth, seersucker, florals or even solid colors then cut precisely to measure for specific rug orders. Next, they're sewn into their shapes and if necessary, finishers add a border or piping. Although machines are used at every step, the process has a handmade feel about it as each step is watched and manipulated by trained workers on the lookout for quality.
The company's long-standing American-made reputation has kept Don Scarlata -- who bought the company in 1977 and now runs it with his two children, Gregg Scarlata, 31 and Meredith Thayer, 34 -- from ever taking production overseas.
"I'm always asked why I don't move production overseas. There may have been times it might have been less expensive," Don says. But even when the economy crashed in the late 2000s, Colonial Mills remained committed to its "Made in the USA" mantra. "I wanted to maintain all the control over what was being made and how it was being made," he says. "Our reputation made me continue to focus on being a domestic manufacturer."
Embracing The Past
Don, 63, didn't know how to run a factory when he purchased Colonial Mills more than 30 years ago. And he didn't know how to make a rug. But he had a feeling he could figure out the mechanics of sewing machines.
With the self-assured swagger of a new father, a then-26-year-old Don walked away from a job in finance to get his hands dirty. Living in Massachusetts, Don had been on the lookout for a job that produced something he could touch, when he and his brother Paul Scarlata saw an ad in the Boston Globe. Colonial Mills was being sold for $3,000. They pooled their money and dove in. If there were fears of failure, his New England practicality steadied him: "I looked at it as a simple manufacturing operation," Don said. "If it didn't work out, I'd get another job."
With that, Don became part of a centuries-old American tradition. New Englanders are known for their braided rugs, a craft that began in the late 1700s out of necessity, weaving straw into floor covering. When it became available, leftover wool and fabrics were used and utility met a softer kind of beauty. Pawtucket in particular would play a huge role in making materials for braided rugs more easily available.
A few miles down the road from Colonial Mills, Samuel Slater built the first cotton-spinning factory in 1793 by harnessing the power of the Blackstone River. Young men apprenticed for more than 10 years before getting paid for their work, mastering the machinery needed to run the factories. Women worked the cotton mill and seeded protests over fair pay. Slater Mill revolutionized American textile manufacturing and became a harbinger of the industrialized America to come.
In its 1977 form, Colonial Mills was far from the technological marvel Slater Mill was when it was built. There were just five employees working at a factory that was literally a mess. Exposed wires hung from the ceilings and lights dangled. Don got right to work, cleaning up the space and putting organizational processes into place. Each night, he returned to his family filthy and exhausted, but completely fulfilled.
Once the factory was up to Don's standards, his attention turned to the rugs. "The product was not being designed to coordinate with home fashions of the time," he says. While on the surface the company seemed like it was a manufacturer, Don envisioned it as a home fashion business. It seemed obvious enough to Don that Colonial Mills' color palette needed to change from drab browns and oranges to fit the ever-changing nature of interior design. They added five new designs in four color options -- including the now classic Federal Blue -- in the first few years. In 1989, Don's innovations had set the company on a course for success, so much so that he was able to buy his brother's share of Colonial Mills.
For more Made in the U.S.A. stories, go to This Built America.