A Delicate Proposition
Photography by Steve Mason
Gene Waldroup and Liberio Cortes arrive at the factory shortly before 4 a.m. They’re the first workers on the early shift at the Leavers Lace Corporation in West Greenwich, one of the last mills of its kind in Rhode Island.
They flip on the lights and quickly make their way to the factory floor, with its imposing ten-foot-tall black iron machines that harken back to Victorian days. Cortes, who is seventy-two and started out as a hand mender in Mexico, ascends to the wooden platform between machines one and two, starts them up, and the early-morning hush is replaced with rhythmic clanking.
Waldroup is a seventy-three-year-old veteran of a lace mill in North Carolina before its operations moved to Japan. He puts on his glasses and uses a feather duster to lubricate a machine with Teflon, to keep it from getting too dry.
“Every little thing’s got to be just about perfect on them to run good,” Waldroup says.
Known as weavers or “twist hands,” Waldroup and Cortes are two of the few remaining workers in an industry that used to be robust. With decades of expertise behind them, they quickly spot holes in the lace or tiny technical malfunctions on the machines. Using a special hook, Waldroup reconnects thread on machines five and seven.
“Six used to be here, but it went to China,” he says.
The same can be said for much of the lace industry. Rhode Island was once the center for the making of high-end fabric named for the machines that produce it, Leavers Lace.
Demand for it was once so high that salesmen from New York would drive up to Rhode Island in their Cadillacs, says York Roberts, a fourth-generation lace man who is the longtime plant manager at the factory.
“They would buy webs [of lace] right off of the machines in the ’50s,” he says.
But competition from more modern lace-making machines caused most of Rhode Island’s Leavers Lace mills to shut down. These days, their high-end lace is a niche product, claiming less than 5 percent of the world market, Roberts says. Only two other small mills, which are both in Coventry, are still in operation in Rhode Island.
“In the world today there are probably only 300 machines tops,” Roberts says. “And Rhode Island had 431 in 1962.” Today, just twenty-two remain, he says, thirteen of them at his mill.
The globalization of the fashion business has undoubtedly contributed to the decline in the Leavers Lace business. But it’s also part of what has helped the factory stay afloat.
Fashion is notoriously fickle, and trends like Calvin Klein’s spare underwear during the 1990s affect the business more than the economy. But Kate Middleton’s choice to get married in a dress featuring Leavers Lace, for example, spawned a flurry of knockoffs that have been a boon to the mill, which counts BCBG and J.Crew among its customers.
The factory turns out an average of about 50,000 pounds of what is known as gray lace each year, that is then washed, dyed, cut and rolled in other locations before it goes out to customers for manufacture. Though Roberts’s machines require special expertise to maintain, he believes they — and by extension, his business — will endure, despite the changing whims of fashion.
“There is a future in it,” York says. “As long as we continue doing what we’re doing. It’s a niche that won’t be filled by other machinery. The only way it will be filled is when people aren’t around to do it anymore.”
Lace dates back to ancient times, and by the sixteenth century, handmade lace had become a major industry in Europe. But it was time-consuming and expensive to make, and unless you were royalty, it was typically only used to trim collars and cuffs.
By the 1700s, Englishmen were working to mechanize the process. In 1813, John Leavers invented a loom that changed the lace business forever. His version placed all the carriages on one tier of the machine, so they worked in one constant motion and produced plain nets of lace. Then the invention of the Jacquard a few years later allowed the lace to be woven into an endless array of patterns.
“When Leavers Lace comes along, all of a sudden it means that a greater group of women have accessibility to look like a different social class,” says Laurie Brewer, assistant curator of costume and textiles at the RISD Museum.
The English fiercely protected the burgeoning lace industry, threatening to punish anyone who exported the looms with death. But many Englishmen who worked in the lace trade decided to take their skills and seek their fortune in the United States.
York Roberts’s great-grandfather, Samuel Roberts, was one of those men. In 1906, he was hired to help set up a new lace mill called Richmond Lace in Alton. A few years later, England lifted the tariff on the machines, which led to the proliferation of the Leavers Lace industry here.
Samuel Roberts eventually struck out on his own with his son, setting up operations in their barn. They commissioned draftsmen to craft their first designs, which were transferred onto pattern cards and woven into what was known as baby lace, which was still mostly used for trim on cuffs and collars.
By the 1920s and ’30s, delicate gowns trimmed with lace were replaced with full garments made out of the material. Business was so good for Samuel Roberts and his son that in 1921, they were asked to set up operations on Long Island. They supplied the lingerie market; Olga and Playtex were big customers.
Lace had become big business in Rhode Island, too. In the mid-twentieth century, about 60 percent of the Leavers Lace machines in America operated in thirty-five such Rhode Island mills, providing jobs for about 5,000 people, the Providence Journal reported.
The business was centered in Coventry, West Warwick and West Greenwich, with big companies also in Pawtucket and Barrington. Workers were represented by unions and being a twist hand was a prestigious job. “Back in the 1960s, a lace weaver made more than a teacher or a policeman,” York says. “Everyone wanted to be a weaver.”
But much of the textile industry migrated to the South, and later, overseas. York still went into the family business on Long Island. He completed an apprenticeship and even spent a year in England to learn the ropes. And he met Laurie, the woman who would become his wife, at the Long Island factory. She also descended from generations of Rhode Island lace weavers.
By the early 1980s, the Leavers Lace business in New York was tanking, York says, thanks to competition from another industry innovation. “Raschel machines had just priced them out of the market,” York says. “They were making it too fast, too cheap, too much, flooding the market.”
So when a well-established New York lace sales company called the Klauber Brothers asked York if he would head to Rhode Island to run the Leavers Lace mill they had just bought, he jumped at the chance. Klauber Brothers owns thousands of patterns, and together they expanded the factory’s operations, buying up machines and parts as other Leavers Lace manufacturers went out of business in Rhode Island, Alabama and Mexico City.
Some of the roughly twenty-five people who now work at the factory are originally from Mexico, which also used to have a thriving lace trade. The remainder have ancestors from England or France.
George Young is one of those people, and he’s a big part of the reason the machines run so well and the mill produces such high-quality lace. The seventy-three-year-old used to build Leavers Lace machines in England. Now he repairs them with parts they’ve collected. On one such trip, York said to him, “George, these machines, they’re a piece of crap. And he said, ‘Oh no, I can make them work again.’ ”
And he has. Working in the factory’s metal shop, he’s reconditioned every one of their thirteen, twelve-ton machines. His pride is a former rust bucket he restored that’s now painted green and red in honor of Nottingham’s most famous son, Robin Hood.
But unlike the heyday of the lace business, when young people spent three years in apprenticeship, the population of people who know how to work and repair the machines is dwindling. “There’s nobody else here to do it,” Young says. “You either make the part, or you find the machines.”
York is optimistic, though. While he had to lay people off during the recession in 2008, by the next May, they were hiring again. The work can be cyclical, but he has several families that work for him.
“You can’t have too much help, so when you’re slow, you tell the people just go along at a nice pace. I’m going to carry you. But when we’re busy, you’re going to work really hard. It seems to be a good combination.”
Working conditions have changed, too. When unions were in place, a weaver could just work one machine. Now, Waldroup and Cortes get paid more because they can run two machines at once.
The global trade has undoubtedly damaged the domestic lace business, but it also acts as a supplier. York buys nylon from Concordia Manufacturing in Coventry, but cotton from Pakistan and Egypt.
Novelty yarns with metallics are imported from China, Korea and India. “It comes from all over. And then we weave it here,” York says.
Their customers operate internationally as well. Most of the mill’s clients are American companies, but they have the lace sewn onto their garments in China, Sri Lanka and India. Then it’s shipped back to the United States.
“J.Crew has been one of our biggest customers. They never were, and now they’re in it big over the last five years,” York says. “They still have the U.S. label here. It gives them a little bit of cachet that this is made in the United States.”
J.Crew is willing to spend a little more for its lace, and it seems to have worked out for the company, York says. (They recently opened stores in London.) That’s part of the reason he believes his factory is still in business in a market filled with less expensive options.
York credits three generations of the Klauber Brothers with keeping the Leavers Lace industry — and its associated jobs — alive in Rhode Island. “The Klaubers’ concept was not to compete, but to make what they can’t make,” he says.
The machines may have gone from revolutionary to almost historic, but once again, lace is in. Brewer points to a recent feature in Elle magazine called “Immaculate Confections,” about how designers channeled Stevie Nicks and her famous lyric, “Take from me/my lace” that season. That translated into creations ranging from a Givenchy lace ankle boot at Neiman Marcus to a lace dress by Guess at Macy’s.
Posted near the fire escape plan on a bulletin board at the mill is a torn-out picture from a magazine. Actress Hayden Panettiere grins at the NBC All-Star Party in Beverly Hills as she shows off her dress, which is overlaid with black lace. Someone has written on it: “Hey look at me. I’m wearing #658!!”
Meanwhile, back on the factory floor, the machines keep clanking as Waldroup and Cortes continue weaving lace for spring 2014.