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With These Hands - Textile workers then & now

Steve Dunwell | United States

Hockanum Stone Mill, Rockville, CT 1975

Textile manufacturing dominated the New England economy for 120 years. Then it declined, but did not disappear. This exhibit tracks that history, in two parts. Part 1: Portraits of textile workers, 1973 -1977.  Part 2: Textile workers today, in various mills around New England, 2012 - 2022.   

Woven fabric made New England a success. Textile workers made that fabric. Dominating the New England landscape for over a century, textile manufacturing jobs peaked at 440,000 in 1920. Half a century later, when these photographs were made, six out of seven of those jobs were gone. Companies failed and this once-thriving industry contracted.

Yet thousands of mill workers remained in the 1970s, keeping the machines running in factories throughout New England. The workers shown here - spinners and weavers, millwrights and loom fixers, carders and menders – brought their skills and tenacity to the mill every day. Their jobs were sometimes difficult, often dangerous, and always noisy. Each had an immigration story to tell. Most of them started young and continued for decades.

“With These Hands” captures a special time in a unique environment. The portraits shown here are selected from dozens of mills, spread over five states, usually alongside modest rivers with waterfalls. Most of the mills shown here have closed, and many have disappeared.

    This industry continues, with smaller mills in niche sectors.  Recent color photographs capture this changing, yet familiar environment today.  Even in this vestigial condition, the underlying skeleton of water-powered manufacturing is still visible.  Not gone, and not forgotten.   


Steve Dunwell

20 Winchester St., Boston, MA 



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