The Guild Institute

Self Portraits in Newport (SPIN)

About SPIN

The Self Portraits in Newport (SPIN) Project is presented as overview of the last workers at the Dorr Woolen Mill. It is currently a complementary exhibit to Biennial V to highlight the region’s manufacturing heritage. Patryc Wiggins works closely with Vermont poet Verandah Porche and Newport native Bill Hackwell, an international photographer living in Oakland, to plan and carry out the SPIN Project through several phases. The SPIN Project was selected to represent New Hampshire in the White House project, Artists & Communities: America Creates for the Millennium, with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. For more information contact Patryc Wiggins.

Dorr Mill Founder

George Dorr, Jr., President Dorr Woolen Mills

When I was 15 or 16, I was allowed into the mill to work. Even as a younger child, I’d always felt welcome, and was fascinated by the machinery. People looked after me, and if I had any questions, they told me the answers. The fixers kept the machines running and made repairs. They were taught on the job. If you were mechanical you could pick it up fairly quickly. These fixers were skilled and earned a high rate of pay.

One of the first jobs I had in the office was to pay off the workers. I got to know their names and back then, I could remember them. I remember Bertha Colby was a drawing-in girl, and she was the union rep. Later, we would have many earnest conversations about conditions and pay, and she was always very straightforward. We never lost our temper. It was a great time. During the early days of the union at the mill, the average worker didn’t realize there were obligations on both sides; both sides had to be trained on how to relate to each other.

Bertha Colby, Drawing In

They needed another girl in drawing in in 1940. I put my name in. My husband’s grandmother Mary Buswell taught me. I can tell you, when I learned to draw in, the pay was $9.75 a week, forty hours. George, Jr. was the paymaster and they paid in cash. He would come around with this leather contraption with straps and slots, not a flat table. He’d go around to each room and pay on Fridays. He was Junior, then, and he’s still Junior now… When Junior come back from being in the Service, in Africa, I’m not sure where, he more or less took over from his dad. When I got up and had more seniority and was talking for the drawing line, you could go and talk to him. He was not about to give out money but we persuaded him. Let me just say, Where there’s a will there’s a way.

After I lost my husband work was my salvation. They needed overtime back then and I would go in at four a.m. and work till three in the afternoon. They had three shifts with a couple on second, and one on third. It was my second home. I was happier there than anywhere else. My mind could not wander. With a straight draw, I could say a Novena nine times a day if necessary but when it came to the cross draw, no way.

Dottie Thornton, Winding Room, Textile Union Sergeant at Arms

Growing up without a father or mother, I didn’t want to see anyone abused or picked on in any way, shape or manner. Common courtesy doesn’t cost a dime…

After two years of Utility, in ‘67, I started full time in the Winding Room. At that time, the union was the Textile Workers of America. At first, I started out as a Steward. Besides, wool was going out, was on its way out. Dorr wasn’t geared for the synthetics. The wool leaving has affected most of the garment industries in one way or another. Our Plant Manager Henry Johnson, he made a statement after he retired. He said, I don’t know why people don’t want to buy wool. He was sitting there in a fine wool sport coat. Nothing’s quite as satisfying as a wool jacket.

I never liked wool myself. To begin with it’s expensive. My finances didn’t entitle me to it and the maintenance of a nice woolen skirt, the moths and the dry cleaning: it was too much. Wool’s hard to work with. It dried out your hands so they itched. It was dusty, dirty, smelly. I never went out of there clean when we were running wool.

The synthetics had to be purchased overseas. People said, This will be the wave of the future. We didn’t have the technology to deal with it, but I’d seen it coming and coming and coming for, say, 20 years, slowly. This company, I admire their ability to adjust. It’s such a drastic change to work with the synthetics, rayon, nylon, Orlon. We had to turn the company around and adapt ourselves. You’ve got to admire the brains behind the outfit, most everyone in Management. If they didn’t know what they needed to, they utilized knowledge from somebody else. It was a complete changeover and so far, I believe, it’s been profitable.

Dorr was more civilized than most places. George Dorr used to say that he couldn’t sell material without the union, because the buyers, the customers, wanted the union label. So the union was a necessary evil to contend with and he did the best he could. It didn’t buck him. Of course, he looked out for number one first. But he was an honest man. You could take what he said to the bank.