Material Instincts


materialinstictsnov16article4There was an era when everyday textiles were designed to be handed down from generation to generation, when they were made to endure.

And endure they did, and not because they were placed on a shelf or sealed in a box only to be trotted out for special occasions. They endured in our grandmothers’ wardrobes, on their grandmothers’ tables, atop the beds of our ancestors. The pieces that lasted were carefully considered for usefulness, scoured over for beauty, made with equal parts time and talent, and constructed of materials coming straight from the earth.


Smooth Operators // Utilizing the highest-quality natural yarns, equipment rescued from abandoned mill floors, and an expert crew, The Oriole Mill creates beautiful, functional, and durable goods designed to last lifetimes.

A modern-day classic in league with these ancestral treasures is hard to determine—and even harder to find. But up the road a stretch, in Hendersonville, North Carolina, new American heirloom textiles are being crafted—carefully, thoughtfully, intentionally—by a uniquely blended team of tradespeople and artisans.

materialinstictsnov16article3Coverlets, tablecloths, shams—these pieces and more are envisioned in an artist’s mind and woven on room-size looms reclaimed from abandoned textile mill floors. Items are constructed so well—from French seam to knit-braid trim and handmade bias to the Jacquard-woven cloth itself— there is almost no discerning inside from out.

Cotton is woven to feel like silk. Layers of thread, because of their unique tying, become an undulating stitch seemingly blooming into a work of art. Patterns are so intricate with hues so saturated that the eye sees colors and contours that aren’t even there.

The fact these pieces exist at all inspires awe. But they do, at The Oriole Mill, and they are exquisite.



The Oriole Mill is a place where fabric is treated is as art, constructed with a quality one might expect of a piece of furniture, or something solid and unshakeable.

“For us, it really matters that the quality is all the way through,” says Bethanne Knudson, who with her partner Stephan Michelson founded the mill in 2006, a time when the last of the legendary textile mills nationwide, along with the Upstate, were shutting their doors.

Michelson has shaggy silver hair and dark- rimmed glasses. He’s a Stanford University economist, and invested significant capital in the mill Knudson envisioned. He carries a serious façade that gives way to a smile only when his longtime partner springs into animation when talking about the work they’re doing.


Delicate Details // A collection of Jacquard and high-speed Dobby looms actively weave fabrics at The Oriole Mill. In-house warping, winding, nishing, and sewing facilities support the weaving process to produce high-end, luxury fabrics and home goods. Rather than source trims and bias, the mill makes their own

Knudson, meanwhile, is an impossibly petite woman with sharp edges. It gives her the appearance of slicing, rather than walking, through the air as she strides the mill floor and its ancillary rooms, where products are on display.

Knudson cut her teeth in academia teaching about textiles, and after that spent another seven years providing training and technical support for the software used to design Jacquard woven fabrics. Jacquard is often referred to as a “power loom,” where both hand and machine work in concert to turn hundreds upon hundreds of threads, weaving vertically and horizontally to form a complex and durable pattern of fabric. And just like their diverse woven materials, Knudson and Michelson have blended, as well, combining two drastically different professional backgrounds to build The Oriole Mill.

But they shared a passion; and more important, they shared the same questions.



What would fabric look like, what would it feel like, if quality and sustainability and superior construction were part of the ongoing conversation?

How does a piece of clothing wear when it’s crafted around the principles of integrity and design, rather than the way the rest of the universe constructs our wearables—by starting with a product design and then selecting a fabric to apply to that design?

materialinstictsnov16article12What would the textile industry look like if every step of the process—from design to production to cut-and-sew operation—were housed under one roof and staffed by a team of people who talked together and worked together every single day?

One long swipe of your fingers across a piece of Oriole Mill fabric is the most revealing answer to these questions. It explains what happens when you take everything known about the way textiles are made, ip those truths on their head, give them a home inside a 72,000-square-foot former frozen-food factory, and throw in half a dozen Jacquard looms, a couple of Dobby machines, and a staff of veteran artists and mill workers who can bring them to life.

Even when looms are in full swing, the air is clean, a byproduct of their process’s sustainability. “Originally, we wanted to make beautiful fabric. We just didn’t find people who could figure out what to do with our fabrics,” Michelson says. “It became clear we were going to have to make product.”

materialinstictsnov16article13Now, by “doing it all in one place”—designing and creating the fabric and then turning it into a finished product under the same roof—they’ve closed the gap between design and production.

On the factory floor, this means the equipment and the small team of people who arrive daily to operate it, are capable of transforming the world’s best cotton thread—extra-long staple Giza cotton—by blending it with wool, alpaca, linen, and bamboo among others, to create a collection of exceptional and sustainable fabrics. In their raw form, they’re so luxurious, so transformative, that a designer is inspired to create product around the fabric, rather than the reverse.

“We start with a fabric in mind and go forward, so it’s completely different,” Knudson says. “If you start with a product and go backward, you’ve greatly constrained the designer of the fabric.”

Consider a traditional mill environment, where each factory floor has an overhauler who repairs and rebuilds textile machinery and equipment, adjusting rollers and cylinders, aligning and leveling the intricate parts of the loom and its frames, separate from anything that happens on the design and creative end. The Oriole Mill also has an overhauler, a man named Barry Conner who is in charge of keeping the equipment going. But rather than being sequential, he works in concert with the design from beginning to end. Barry and Bethanne are in lockstep throughout the entire process.

All of that, completely imperceptible from the average retail display, matters.



Discerning how to take Knudson’s designs and execute them on the loom is as much science as art. More intricate and textured designs might make their way to pillow shams and throws. These smaller pieces are typically made from something she calls tatting fabric, an antique lace technique that transforms into a luxurious textured fabric when interpreted on a much larger scale on a Jacquard loom. But be it a large piece or a small one Knudson says, “The whole mill pays the price if a design doesn’t work well.” Every item in The Oriole Mill’s collection has been designed around the fabric, so if it doesn’t work, “I haven’t done my job.”

materialinstictsnov16article11This delicate balance has moved them slowly but surely toward a niche market, encompassing all things the hand- crafted movement holds dear. With prices reflecting the quality and workmanship with which pieces are made—throws average around $400, while coverlets are more than $1,000— the investment can be felt and appreciated both immediately and over time. Materials are generally reversible and extremely versatile; layers of weaving make a natural insulation that is lightweight but substantial.

The mill is now transitioning into apparel items, including scarves and outerwear equally versatile—a kimono-style jacket, for example, has been tailored to t right-side up and upside down, fitting equally well in either direction. A top of the table line has started to take off with napkins so beautiful, “you’d be afraid to wipe your mouth on them,” Michelson says. Except you can, because that’s what they’re designed to do.

“We’re doing stuff nobody has thought of before,” Michelson says.

“We keep pushing at the boundaries,” he offers. “There are things we’re producing now that we hadn’t dreamed of before. But that’s what keeps us alive.”

Find The Oriole Mill’s products at Homestead Fine Linens, 10 N Main St, Hendersonville, NC.(828) 697-8787,


Libby O’Bryan, the force behind the high-end construction of The Oriole Mill’s nished product, is the owner of Sew Co., the cut-and- sew operation housed inside the Hendersonville facility. O’Bryan’s job is to turn fabric into product, meaning that she touches everything from pattern to bias and all the elements in between, and builds them into boutique collections that de ne the mill’s product lines.

Veteran textile workers whose lineage in the industry dates back to the business’s heyday in the 1960s and 1970s have teamed with Libby and her fabric artists, whose background is primarily in dressmaking and costume design. Together, they assemble into an artisanal factory, a dynamic, creative environment where everyone works together to create works of textile art to be worn and used for generations.



The Oriole Mill uses mercerized, extra-long staple Egyptian Giza cotton for its superior length and strength, which outperforms and outlasts other cotton. “Only the best quality cotton is mercerized. Only mercerized cotton is strong enough to be a warp yarn, without coating the yarn before weaving,” Bethanne Knudson explains.

In other yarns, the coating (a latex- type material) must be removed before the cloth can be dyed or wished. During the process

of warping and wefting on the large textile loom, where yarn is woven vertically and horizontally to create intricate patterns of fabric, strength is key to keeping the slender threads from breaking. Inferior thread requires chemical coating and, aside from covering the fabric, transfers onto the loom, causing jamming and slippage.

Using extra-long staple Egyptian Giza allows The Oriole Mill to save water, electricity, and time, Knudson explains. But beyond that, “It is better for our consumers, our workers, and the environment.”

The cotton has a high luster and sheen and feels as good as it looks, more akin to silk than cotton. When it’s dying time, it colors well to produce deeper, more brilliant shades of fabric. It naturally repels dirt, Knudson explains, and, even in its raw form, is cooler to the touch— smooth and firm with less air.

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