Artisans weave skills and family into a viable business

``You have to be careful when you get to Westdale, you can go right through and never know it,'' Allen Fannin said as he gave us last-minute directions over the phone for reaching the small weaving mill he and his wife, Dorothy, own and operate in Oneida County, N.Y. Later, after the directions had brought us to our goal, we found the mill in a country setting, more notable for the apple trees growing in abundance around it than for its industrial character. Nonetheless, the Fannin mill is serious business.

``What we've done here is far more unique in the United States than in the United Kingdom or in other parts of the world,'' Mr. Fannin explains. He points out that mills similar to the Fannins' in their scale of operation are often found in various locations throughout England, Scotland, and Wales.

``We literally built this business, as well as the physical plant, from the ground up, and it was designed from the beginning as an intermediate-scale operation,'' Fannin says. ``It was never intended to grow into a giant of an animal out of control of the owners, namely us.

``But in the craft field in this country, weavers especially don't make a living,'' he notes. ``Our goal has always been to remain economically viable and to support ourselves from our work.''

The Fannins have a solid reputation for excellence in both handspinning and weaving, gained over the years they lived and worked in Brooklyn, N.Y. During that time they supported themselves through the yarn designs and sample weaves they did for New England woolen mills.

But Allen was always interested in machines and in intermediate technology. To this end the Fannins made their move from Brooklyn to Westdale in 1973 because less expensive space had become increasingly important. Allen's collection of castoff industrial equipment had been growing, along with his desire to set it up and put it into use. Both Fannins were also anxious to become more self-sufficient in other ways and escape city prices.

``I don't believe in using repetitive hand labor if there's a choice,'' Allen says. ``If I can adapt a machine to make the work easier and faster, while maintaining the quality, then I'm all for it. It's not machines but the factory system that I'm opposed to.''

Allen is also responsible for two highly regarded books in the fields of hand weaving and spinning: ``Handspinning, Art and Technique'' and ``Handloom Weaving Technology'' (both published by Van Nostrand Rheinhold). He currently writes a column carried in several weaving magazines, and he and Dorothy conduct frequent workshops and seminars.

``Land here was reasonable,'' he explains, ``and we were able to buy enough so we wouldn't be suburbanized. United Parcel comes right to our door, so as far as receiving materials and shipping out orders, we're at the hub of everything we need.''

The Fannins manufacture an extensive, moderately priced line of women's and men's woven accessories consisting of scarves, mufflers, shawls, sashes, and the like, with the fabric woven on the place and the finishing done there, too. The number of individual units they produce runs into the thousands. They market directly to several hundred stores and through catalogs.

They also sell yard goods to fabric stores offering high-quality sewing goods and do commission weaving for small garment manufacturers who want specialty fabrics. Their piece goods yardage also runs into the thousands. Concerning the latter, Allen explains that there are some 14,000 different garment manufacturing plants in the US, many quite small; but the production of fabric is primarily concentrated in the hands of a few tremendous mills that sell only in large quantities. This situation has forced small garment manufacturers to buy imported fabrics from smaller foreign mills in order to get variety and limited amounts.

``There's definitely a place for small-scale fabric producers,'' Allen explains. ``We're part of a slowly developing underground of smaller textile businesses,'' he says, ``and the biggest reason for our success is the flexibility that an operation this size can offer. If changes are required in either design or production, we can make them easily. When things get too big they get rigid, cumbersome -- hard to change.''

``Our work is almost evenly divided between piece goods and manufactured, finished articles,'' says Dorothy. ``Our business is 99 percent wholesale.'' Their selling is done through sales representatives.

The half-dozen or so other people working the mill are Westdale neighbors -- trained for their jobs since the Fannins began their operation. ``They're equivalent to a lot more people,'' Dorothy says, ``because they can all handle several different jobs. It also makes their work more interesting.''

The mill, which sits across the road from the family's farmhouse, is located in a two-story building that was constructed above an already existing foundation. It's made of wood cut on the Fannin property, with much of the actual construction done by the Fannins themselves. Yarn preparation takes place downstairs, and the weaving -- on four large looms -- is done upstairs.

Allen Fannin's penchant for machinery has made much of this possible. The remarkable assortment of castoff industrial machinery that he picked up inexpensively, renovated, and adapted to his own use bears visible testimony to this. Fashioning his own machinery was not only enjoyable for him, but necessary, as there is almost no ready-made equipment for small-scale weaving mills. ``It's either made for volume -- for millions of yards -- or for hobbyists,'' he maintains. ``Nothing in between.''

The Fannins' view of their work -- and their life -- is both pragmatic and visionary. This approach can be seen in the mill and in the decision several years ago to adopt two children -- Terrence Joseph, ``T.J.,'' and Eli Michael. Both fit comfortably into the philosophy the adult Fannins have concerning the responsibility each family member shares, both in rewards as well as duties.

As we sat at the kitchen table eating apple fritters, T.J. pointed out that he and Eli had helped gather the apples from the Fannins' own trees and pull them to the house in his wagon. The syrup that sweetened them came from their own maples.

``There are days when I hate this place,'' Allen says, with a wry grin, ``but there are days when I love it -- it pretty much evens out.''

Both Fannins express confidence in the future. ``Our overhead is low so we can afford to be flexible,'' Dorothy says. ``This makes it possible for us to sit through `bad times' -- if they come.''

``We own the building outright and all the machinery in it. We have a building full of spare parts that we own, and we borrow only what we can pay back every year,'' Allen adds. Then he identifies the particular kind of fuel that's necessary to keep their mill running at the right speed: ``The common denominator is work,'' he explains.

So saying, Allen and Dorothy Fannin excuse themselves and head back to work.

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