by J. CLAYTON BARBOUR
photography by RICH-JOSEPH FACUN
AS MEN WORLDWIDE WEAR HIS FABRICS, A CRAFTSMAN FACES THE FUTURE AND THE PAST WITH A QUESTION: WHO WILL KEEP HIS TRADITION ALIVE?
HIWASSEE | Rain clouds in this part of the world get trapped between hilltops and empty themselves in an almost biblical manner. The showers can last all afternoon, filling creeks and washing earth down onto the roads. Drenched trees bend from the weight. The air is rich, and thick.
Here, such weather is seen as more a respite than an inconvenience, a chance to appreciate simple things like the company of friends, or the patter of rain on a tin roof.
The gray-haired man muses out loud about this. The antique table in front of him looks strong enough to support an engine block but holds only a half-eaten rum cake and five jars of chilled moonshine.
He wears a tan shirt, unbuttoned enough to show the scar on his breastbone, a jagged reminder of recent open-heart surgery. Bell’s palsy causes him to speak from the corner of his mouth, but his words are clear and his voice strong. He smiles as I slide my phone across the table and press record.
My name is Robert Harman. Robert Harman. H-A-R-M-A-N.
There are Harmans with M-O-N, but we call those Yankees.
On that side I am descended from some early Germanic settlers from 1759. And they are given credit for saving the little Ingles girl that was stolen by the Indians and the movie and the book that came out called “Follow the River.” *
I was born in Richlands, Virginia, April the 9th, 1944.
My father was Robert Harman, same name I have. My mother was Edith Goodwin, G-DOUBLE-O-D-W-I-N. It was on the Goodwin side that we were textile people.
I’m 69 years old. I’ll be 70 in April. And it bothers me a little bit, even though I’ve had some surgery and I’m feeling better and better and better.
I still ain’t getting any younger. You know what I’m saying?
So … one thing that is on my mind – and I’ll just interject this, you can do what you want to with it – if there is a reader who reads your story, or might be interested – I’m not saying the place is for sale, but there may be somebody who wants to come in here and learn this and can someday take it over.
’Cause I don’t have heirs. And I’m the last of six generations.
Bob Harman, as friends know him, has worked his entire life in textiles. The industry has given him everything. And it has taken it away. Twice.
Bob is one of the country’s few remaining experts on shuttle looming, and thanks to a Brooklyn-based clothier he is experiencing renewed success late in life.
But this story is as much about Bob’s life as it is about fashion. It’s about a man who has lived fully, a joyous storyteller incapable of a simple answer, an old weaver nervously approaching the end of his last tapestry, wondering who will carry on the family tradition.
Where Bob’s story begins depends on which thread you pull first. One takes you to the mountains of North Carolina. Another, the streets of Brooklyn. And yet another stretches clear across the Atlantic Ocean.
Macclesfield, in northwest England, was once the world’s largest producer of finished silk. There were 71 mills operating in that city during the mid-1800s. One of them belonged to James Cash Goodwin, Bob’s great-great-great-grandfather.
James Goodwin was a stern man. He believed in work and discipline and little else. But his son, Charles Eugene Goodwin, was a romantic.
Bob laughs as he tells the story.
Well, my great-great-grandfather had himself a girlfriend and he cut some of the old man’s prize roses to give to her. The old man got so mad he took a cane and beat him. So Charles got mad and ran off to America.
He was on a ship that sank about two days out of New York. A lot of things were floating in the water. He spotted a trunk and he grabbed it. Then he spotted a pretty girl floating in the water and grabbed her too.
She was from Scotland and her name was Janie Dowa. It was spelled D-O-W-A, but it was pronounced “Dowee.”
A ship came along and saved them and by the time they reached land, by the closeness of them being together, I don’t know how it happened, but they got together, fell in love and got married. There ya go.
Charles Goodwin worked in printing and tanning before eventually returning to textiles. He and Janie moved around through the early years. His expertise was in demand, so they followed the best offers and eventually settled in Cedar Bluff, Virginia, taking over Clinch Valley Blanket Mills.
The family made the area their home for more than 50 years. Bob was born just five miles down the road.
Clinch Valley was known for making coverlets – small blankets with patterns brought over by European settlers. But its biggest contract was with the Army. At the height of World War II, the mill made 10,000 scratchy wool blankets a month.
The war ended and the government canceled the contract. Clinch Valley went bankrupt. That was 1949. Bob was 5. He still remembers the pall that fell over the family. He also remembers the day three men came to visit with the promise of better days ahead.
There were two businessmen – from Blowing Rock, North Carolina, and Gatlinburg, Tennessee – and a chief from the Cherokee Nation, located in the mountains of North Carolina. They wanted Bob’s grandfather to produce coverlets for them.
And my grandfather said, “Well, I’m gone under.”
And they said, “What’s it going to take to get you going again.”
So Granddad told ’em what he wanted, and all of them came back in about a month and made him an offer.
Bob’s grandfather settled on Blowing Rock. The family moved there in 1951 and started Goodwin Family Weavers. It was in that factory that Bob learned the business. “I started winding the bobbins and making warps, and by the time I was 15, I was pretty well trained.”
Bob is in the middle of telling a story on his teenage years, full of rebellion and general mischief, when Cely Harman makes her way into the mill, carrying a pot of fresh corn.
The couple’s house sits beside the 1,500-square-foot workspace, on hill property so steep you can’t help but feel sorry for the pioneers who tried to plow it.
Cely is his fourth wife. They were introduced on a blind date and have been together 19 years. She is a tiny Filipino perpetual-motion machine who has made it her life’s work to keep him alive. Just seven months ago he underwent open-heart surgery. That, along with his palsy, offers challenges.
But on this day Cely is more concerned with his diabetes. Bob has lost 35 pounds and is on medication, but as she places the corn on the table she explains, “If he doesn’t eat, he will just drop out.” She takes out a kitchen knife and starts cutting kernels off the cob.
“Don’t know what I’d do without her,” he says, winking.
With his concentration broken, Bob turns to the loom sitting a few feet away. Known as a sample loom, it’s smaller than the ones used in mass production. It is an intricate mechanism, with 42 separate places to oil. Modern versions have maybe two. Bob picked this one up from a farmer in South Carolina for $800. He has been offered as much as $7,000 to part with it, but refuses.
Bob jumps up from the table and flips the mill’s power switch. He walks behind the loom and coos “C’mon darlin’ ” as he fires it up. The machine
answers with a steady “click-clack, click-clack, click-clack, click-clack, click-clack,” the rhythmic sound of the shuttle as it shoots back and forth. In the hands of a skilled weaver, the machine can produce 35 to 40 yards of material a day.
He has gotten so good at timing the shuttle that he can stop the loom almost exactly when the bobbin runs out of thread. It’s the kind of expertise that comes only from a lifetime of pulling lint from your hair. It’s funny now to think that a younger Bob once ran from his calling.
His teen years, as he tells it, were tough. His father left the family when he was 5, right before they moved to North Carolina. “Ran off with a gypsy woman” is how Bob describes it. So as he grew up, he drifted toward the rough crowd. Mill life held no appeal for him.
And by the time he was 17, he was forced in a different direction.
I’m going to tell this, whether you write it or don’t write it. I got caught hauling white liquor. Some of my old buddies I hung out with was moonshiners. It was cool, man. I was invincible. I wasn’t going to get wrecked or anything. We hauled most of it down the Blue Ridge Parkway at 2 o’clock in the morning.
I had a beige ’58 Ford with a Cadillac motor and three four-barrel carburetors, and I didn’t have a bit of trouble driving that, ’cause I was wild. When I gave it gas, something happened.
They got me in a roadblock. One of ’em came up behind me. Took two hours. I was going up goat trails and back alleys and cutting through fields. A fox knows his country, but you can’t outrun that radio.
The judge said you have a choice: reform school and then prison, or you can go in the Army now. My mother signed the paper, ’cause I wasn’t quite 18. I went in March of ’63.
After his tour ended, Bob returned home ready to take part in the family business. But when his grandfather died in 1975, the remaining family members fought over the direction of the company. Several wanted to modernize. Bob didn’t.
He left the company in 1984 and opened Old Abingdon Weavers in Abingdon. The mill operated in the old way, like his grandfather taught him. Bob sold his products to Ethan Allen, Colonial Williamsburg, even the Smithsonian.
He sold the company in 1992 and retired at the age of 49.
He and Cely lived on a 14-acre farm. He drove a tractor around and played the gentleman farmer. But by 1998 he was bored, so he settled on a new project. He lobbied local and state officials to help him start a textile museum in Pulaski, about six miles from where he and Cely live now.
It was his biggest, most ambitious endeavor. It was also his biggest mistake. No one came. He had signed a contract with the city to stay open six days a week, regardless of business. Some months they’d take in $300 and pay out $1,500. By the end, they were surviving on credit cards.
When their contract ended, they sold nearly everything and moved to Hiwassee. Just Bob, his wife, and his loom.
By the time we return to the interview from an impromptu tour of his mill, Bob is too distracted to focus. He has a house full of company and the rain has finally stopped. He fires up his wood grill to prepare for the feast of Cornish hens and short ribs planned for the evening.
As he stokes the fire, Doug Stanley and Sandy Corsillo stand nearby, talking shop. Both men work in fabric. Stanley is a longtime textile executive. Corsillo is the co-owner of a fashion company.
Sandy Corsillo and his brother, Emil, started Hickoree’s Hard Goods in 2009. The company, based in Brooklyn, specializes in classic, well-made clothing. As a part of their business, the brothers also launched The Hill-Side, an American-made accessories line sold in more than 160 stores worldwide. Hill-Side focuses on ties, scarves and handkerchiefs inspired by fabrics used in classic work wear.
In 2011, a Hill-Side employee named Mitch Frank searched for American experts of handmade crafts. He found Bob Harman.
It had been a long, humbling climb back from the failure of the textile museum. Bob in 2000 joined the Southern Highland Craft Guild, opening him to hundreds of shops across the region. But landing a deal with Hill-Side would guarantee him six months of work every year.
The only problem was he traditionally worked in blankets, towels and tablecloths. Fashion seemed an odd fit. He sent Hill-Side a collection of hand towels in a pattern he called Broken Herringbone.
The Corsillo brothers loved them. They imagined all the different items they could make with the fabric. “We felt like we had stumbled onto this little hidden gem,” Sandy Corsillo says. “Like you could smell the wood-burning stove used to keep the mill warm. It was real.”
The Corsillos made a deal with Bob for 3,000 yards a year of Broken Herringbone. They started out using it for scarves, ties and pocket squares, and are now working to expand into bowties and even shoes. The company’s website features examples of people from Paris, Italy and Japan wearing the pattern.
The work keeps Bob busy. Too busy. Between Hill-Side and the guild, he has more work than he can handle. Which is why the old weaver finds himself newly concerned with his legacy.
He never had children. Never really wanted them, he says. He liked having his own time to fish and hunt. He’s known to take trips on a whim. He has lived a long, fun life. But now he worries about his work. His grandfather’s work. His family’s work.
It’s gonna be sad, this thing. One day I’ll be gone. I was raised in it. And now most people who know what I do are dead and buried. How sad would that be, if this kind of work disappeared? I’m still capable of teaching. I would be thrilled to do it. None of us are promised tomorrow and I’d hate to think this would die with me.
* Adam Harman and his two sons rescued Mary (Draper) Ingles after she escaped from captivity by the Indians. The whole tale was detailed in a book by James Alexander Thom.
View The Hill-Side’s Video on Bob Harman
[vimeo 55053653 nolink]