ACC lecture slated on textiles as art and industry

With many of today’s clothes made in countries overseas, people can’t help but wonder whether fabric production could ever again be a sustainable industry in the United States. Or how about even closer to home in Northeast Michigan?

Guest speaker Shanna Robinson will address those concerns as well as textiles as art during a program Friday at Alpena Community College. An art professor at North Central Michigan College, Robinson comes to Alpena as the fourth in a series of Global Awareness Consortium programs held during the 2013-14 school year at ACC.

She recently spoke at Sow to Sew, a sustainable textiles symposium held at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax, where farmers, weavers, fabric artists, educators and industry leaders are working together to reestablish Nova Scotia as a textile center.

“What we’ve been trying to draw attention to is textiles have been an art form and the foundation for our nation’s industrial development,” said ACC instructor Tim Kuehnlein, who works with the Global Awareness Consortium to bring in programs such as Robinson’s.

In addition to being a guest speaker, Robinson’s textile work and that of her students currently is on display at Thunder Bay Arts Council Gallery, where she is the Artist of the Month for April. The work includes dresses, scarves, pillows and framed artworks created from naturally grown, dyed and processed fibers.

While at ACC, Robinson will explain the historical importance of textiles from cotton and linen to wool and silk and the status of the market today. She will discuss growing fibers and dyes, processing them and creating great textile products in local communities.

Textiles as an industry was not a foreign concept in Alpena several decades ago. The Alpena Garment Company, founded in 1920 by two entrepreneurs from Detroit, once operated in a factory building at the corner of Chisholm and Sixth. According to late Alpena historian Robert Haltiner, in his book “The Town That Wouldn’t Die,” around 1936 the plant occupied more than 100,000 square feet of floor space with 820 machines. Approximately 1,200 women and over 100 men were steadily employed there.

“That year’s output was 4,500,000 garments and wages paid were three quarters of a million dollars, all occurring during the depths of the Great Depression,” wrote Haltiner.

Another historical source, Robert Laymen, who was a student rabbi serving the Alpena Jewish community during the summers of 1957-58, wrote in a detailed report that Alpena Garment Company “became known as the largest manufacturer of popular-priced women’s dresses in the world, shipping the amazing total of 7 million dresses annually at peak production.”

Laymen also wrote that the main plant was in Alpena, but branches were established in Rogers City, Onaway and Cheboygan. Old newspaper clippings show that ultimately, beset by labor problems, management closed the plant in 1940.

While textiles may or may not ever be a viable industry again in the Alpena area, Kuehnlein said it speaks to the need for diversification.

“The Alpena Garment Company is yet one more dimension of our local economy that’s kind of been lost,” Kuehnlein said. “It’s something to think about. How do we keep our local economy diversified so it can sustain the ebbs and flows of the volatile economic market? We know that communities that invest in only one or two industries are invariably going to struggle. We can keep our eye on what has sustained us in the past. The answer now may not be textiles, but the moral of the story is looking at other ways to diversify the local economy.”

Along with Robinson’s creative use of textiles featured at TBAC Gallery, the history of the Alpena Garment Company also is on display there through a special exhibit arranged by the Besser Museum for Northeast Michigan.

Friday’s Global Awareness Consortium program, titled Textiles in the World Economy and at Home, is at 12:30 p.m. in ACC’s Center Building, Room 114. The program is open to the public.

TBAC Gallery’s textile exhibit put together by Robinson and the local garment factory exhibit arranged by the Besser Museum will be available for viewing Wednesdays through Saturdays from 11 a.m.-5 p.m. The gallery is located at 127 W. Chisholm.