Accurate fiber content is not as important to movies as it is for a historic house or museum looking for a historic reproduction. But Thistle Hill always uses natural fibers when creating movie textiles, so that the fabric can be dyed and aged by the costumers.
“Sometimes we hardly recognize our fabrics because they’ve been so aged,” says Maney. “For [the 2007 film] No Country for Old Men we made plaid cowboy shirts from the 1970s – doesn’t sound like a project for us – but the designer found a shirt she liked but couldn’t find enough of them so we provided yardage. Then the shirts had be aged in all different ways – sun-faded, torn, tattered, and soiled – and that’s the kind of detail that makes the movie believable.”
Six weavers work at Thistle Hill although Goody is the only one who does the design work. Everyone performs multiple tasks, from running power looms to spinning thread to making trim. Rabbit’s power looms are all at least 100 years old – there are a couple of nonworking looms sitting out behind the mill that are cannibalized for parts when the old looms break down.
The bulk of the mill is one big room with weavers either setting up or running huge looms. The noise is so deafening the weavers wear ear protectors. Everywhere you look big metal machines are creating gorgeous lengths of fabric, including striped Venetian carpet and white cotton dimity and soft, cream-colored cloth from Peruvian alpaca thread. One weaver sits at a bench before a loom pulling 3,300 threads through heddles – they keep the warp threads separate from each other. She then threads them through the sley, which resembles the teeth of a giant comb. The entire painstaking process takes her three days to complete.
Leftover yardage from past projects sits in an adjacent fitting room. Thistle Hill mixes in movie work with weaving for museums and historic houses so Goody can point to fabric used for George Washington’s bed at his historic headquarters in Newburgh, New York, as well as Brad Pitt’s trousers from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
Clothing for John Adams and the other founding fathers kept Goody and her weavers busy for half a year. “Thistle Hill wove such beautiful fabrics,” remembers Michael Sharpe, first assistant costume designer for the miniseries. “They recreated fabrics that would have been ‘homespun’ by settlers in the New World. Thistle Hill fabrics allowed us to set the tone of ‘America’s’ fibers versus that of the fine English and French silks and woolens.”
Sharpe liked the fabric so much that as Maney sent him boxes of period-appropriate textiles from the finishing room, he kept wanting more. “I was frequently asked by our costume makers in the United States, London, Canada and Hungary where we’d found such incredible fabrics,” says Sharpe. “I happily replied – ‘We made them!’”