TN Textile Mill: Custom fabric by the yard
After admiring the work of this wonderful weaving mill for some time on Instagram, it was a pleasure to speak with founder and creative director Allison Volek Shelton about her love of fabric and her dedication behind this ancient craft.
Who or what inspired you to get involved in weaving? Tell us a little bit about your personal journey and what lead you to start your own business, Shuttles & Shutters.
I had actually never even heard of weaving before I took an Intro to Fibers class at college. I went planning to major in glass blowing but jumped around a bit trying various crafts (and a brief spell majoring in herpetology). The first half of the semester was about dyeing and screen printing while the second half was devoted to weaving. I still can’t say what hooked me, but I knew I wanted to learn more. After college I was still feeling aimless until a summer camp I worked at posted an ad for a weaving instructor and I took it as a sign to get back into the craft. From there I bought a loom and started weaving! When I ran out of things to weave for myself I decided to open an Etsy shop to try and sell my work. I really came to love weaving—it stuck with me like nothing I had ever done before. I never set out to start a business, I just knew I loved weaving and that I wanted to do it for the rest of my life.
This year saw you launch TN Textile Mill to focus on producing long runs of fabric. How did the team come together and what is the ethos of the new mill?
This year has been quite the whirlwind! My business partner and I launched TN Textile Mill this summer as a way to fill a gap in the supply chain, both locally and throughout the US. So many new designers are launching brands and have no way of getting specific or custom fabrics made without having to meet 500-1000 yard minimums—something that isn’t feasible for a start-up. With both our new automated loom and our original hand looms, we have the ability to work directly with designers to come up with the perfect fabric. We are able to offer custom woven fabric at reasonable prices and with minimums as low as 50 yards.
We are a close-knit group here at the mill with myself and my business partner Jerry overseeing the business and day to day operations. We have Charlie who is our production weaver on the auto loom. She has been with me for two years now starting first as an intern at Shutters & Shuttles. After she graduated college she came on full time. Sadie is a newer employee who does a little bit of everything. She’s been around for several months now learning the in’s and out’s of weaving and setting up the looms. The four of us work really well together to keep things running smoothly!
What is the basic process behind creating fabric from scratch?
Fabric is one of those things you surround yourself with on a daily basis but don’t necessarily think twice about. For us it’s all about making the most of our materials. Every single aspect of cloth can be altered and tweaked to obtain a specific weight, shape, drape, etc. Fabric begins with the fiber. Once we know what we want the fiber content to be we mix and match yarn sizes to get the correct weight. From there we think about our pattern and colour options. The pattern can be subtle or incredibly bold and using different colours in different places can change the overall look drastically. Most patterns we use are pretty traditional—plain weave, twill, basket weave; these are the basics that we can adjust or shift to get the ultimate look we desire. So much of our design process is based on trial and error. We’ll have grand plans to set up the loom based on a particular idea and end up experimenting and changing the whole look!
From start to finish, setting up the loom takes a minimum of 25-30 hours, regardless of how much fabric we’re going to end up with. Most of the setup steps can be done in advance or while another project is being woven, so planning everything out is very important. Once the loom is set up we can usually weave about 5-6 yards a day on the hand looms and around 12-15 on the auto loom. We weave anywhere from 15-100 yards of fabric per project before cutting the finished cloth off and sending it off to the client!
Can you tell us a bit about your incredible looms? They are so beautiful to look at, but we would love to know more about how they work too!
We couldn’t do what we do without our looms! My two hand looms are 30 years old and both were made in California. They’ve had several different owners before me and have seen a decent amount of the country in their time—travelling from California to Indiana to the coast of Alabama before finally settling in Nashville, Tennessee! We also have a new semi-automatic loom that was made by the same company in California but she was custom built just for us!
The looms hold a series of warp, or vertical, yarns under tension while raising or lowering them in a pattern we threaded for during setup. The yarns alternate being raised or lowered and that opening between the upper and lower yarns is called the shed. This is where we pass a shuttle back and forth through carrying the weft yarn. The interlacement of the warp and weft yarns is what creates fabric.
What yarns do you like to use and where are they sourced?
Actually, sourcing unique and high quality materials is one of my favourite parts of this business. All of our cotton is grown and spun in the U.S. The wool we use is also grown and spun domestically. We import our linen from an amazing mill in Belgium and the quality is superb. The raw silks that we use are being spun for us in Eastern India by a company that employs local village women. Both the silks and the linen were the hardest to find and are just not something being produced domestically.
It’s been extremely difficult to find yarn that is not only well made and affordable, but that we can order in the quantities that we need. We’re not yet at a point where we can get cottons and wools custom spun, that requires really high minimums, but we’re well beyond the point where we can order a few pounds here and there from the usual online retail locations. We’ve learnt so much in these last several months about yarn counts, plys, twists per inch, fiber quality—among other things—and it’s definitely been a struggle, but I feel like we’re finally in a good place with our sourcing right now.
How is the mill approaching sustainability at present and what are some of your goals for the future?
All of our materials come from trusted sources—from the ranch in Oregon we get our wool from to the spinning mill in India employing women from the local villages and paying fair wages. I’ve personally cultivated relationships with all of our sources and hope to be able to visit each of them in the coming years as our business grows. We strive to support other small businesses and choose our suppliers based on the quality of their goods and their ethical work practices first and foremost. While keeping our fabrics affordable is ideal, knowing the materials we use to create them are manufactured in the best possible conditions means the most to us and our customers. In our own mill, we happily welcome visitors who want to come see the looms and meet our team. We can talk weaving all day long and love showing off the looms in action!
What would be your ideal brief to receive from a designer? How do you initially engage with brands and/or makers to create custom fabric for them?
We love our designers! Working with other creative people to develop fabric they can then use to sew and create beautiful garments is really rewarding. Even the most challenging of requests is a chance for us to flex our weaving muscles and create something we never could have imagined before.
When we hear from designers that are potentially interested in ordering fabric from us, we like to see pictures of fabric inspiration with regards to fiber content, weight, and pattern (doesn’t have to be specific, just a starting point). It’s helpful to know what the finished product will be as well. We also need to know approximately how much fabric you’re considering, doesn’t have to be set in stone, we just need to know if you’re thinking 10 yards or 100 yards! And lastly, most importantly, weaving takes time—as does sampling, sourcing, and dyeing—so what does your timeframe look like?
What is your hope for the future of weaving and textile design? What’s next for TN Textile Mill?
Our goal all along, from founding Shutters & Shuttles to then growing into TN Textile Mill, has been to provide high quality, affordable, hand woven fabric to anyone who may want it. The biggest problem we’ve found is that people don’t realise that sourcing woven fabric in the U.S. is even an option! We want to help people discover, or re-discover, weaving as not just an art form, but something they can use and enjoy in everyday life—whether it’s a woven kitchen towel or a dress from their favourite local designer. Handwoven fabric doesn’t have to be unattainable anymore! Looking toward the future, our goal is to create more fabric of our own designs to sell by the yard—and we couldn’t be more excited! We can’t wait to see what you create with our fabric!
TN Textile Mill has sadly since announced its closure. We want to thank Allison for her motivating vision, and wish the team all the best for the future. We applaud the beautiful work they accomplished together. Allison continues to weave under the name of Shutters & Shuttles.