Five Day Road Trip in the Tennessee Valley – Huntsville to Chattanooga
Fourth Stop – Lowe Mill Arts and Entertainment
The Yarn Crawl
Lowe Mill ARTS & Entertainment, with its looming water tower and fenced perimeter, was unexpectedly industrial-looking, but this was the yarn store’s address. I intended to step into one shop of this old cotton mill building, capture my validation stamp for the North Alabama Yarn Crawl, and hurry to my next destination.
A yarn crawl is something like a pub crawl, but substitutes crafting yarns (delicate, vibrant, soft, exotic, intoxicating yarns) for the alcohol. Validation stamps certify that I visited the participating stores.
Handmade Saori Weaving Studio was one of several participating yarn shops near Huntsville, Alabama. The studio’s website explains that the Saori weaving process is a “no mistakes” technique, encouraging a free flow of individual creativity. I’m not a weaver but am competent in such textile arts as crochet, knitting, needlework, machine embroidery, and sewing. I was torn between my urgency to finish my crawl activities and my growing curiosity.
I entered Lowe Mill ARTS & Entertainment through a bright orange door boasting a hand-drawn “OPEN” sign on neon pink paper. I walked into a vast open space with concrete floors, towering glass paned windows, and exposed metal ducts and pipes overhead.
In the distance, I hear activity – voices, laughter, and the rhythmic movements of human productivity. Not sure which way to turn, I paused in the open room but was soon greeted and led through hallways, corridors, and ramps to a compact office space on the next level. The staff was eager to help. Quickly reoriented, I headed off to gulp the pub-like libations offered in the yarn shop.
The Party of Peacocks
When I stepped into the first broad corridor of studios, I felt the vibe. I don’t get it often, but when I do, it’s powerful. Like a muster of peacocks, artists and crafters recognize one another not only by our clever resourcefulness but by the intensely brilliant colors around us, often of our own making. I heard the call of more than 200 working artists and skilled crafters, along with some of their furry four-legged friends. The party gathers. (Yes, a group of peafowl is collectively known as a “party.”) I was in my element. Colors burst from each open doorway, pulling me deeper into this renovated cotton mill.
Handmade Saori Weaving Studio
I soon found myself seated at a weaving loom. A young girl willingly shares a cone of cerulean blue yarn so that my work would be bright and cheerful like hers. My unskilled hands pass yarn from right to left and back to the right again as my feet find a similar rhythm on the loom pedals near the floor. The movement creates energy, releases energy, and calms the core of my being.
Cotton Mill History
In the early 19th century, raw cotton arrived at the Lowe Mill facility and was transformed on 25,000 spindles into woven fabric. Through the years, the mill was bought and sold several times. At the end of World War II, a shoe factory opened inside the building. A few years later, this facility supplied boots to Vietnam soldiers. Today, artists stand in the same places as the manufacturing laborers and transform raw ideas into works of art. Imagine 148 working studios, six art galleries, banquet rooms, and even live performances stages sharing more than 170,000 square feet in a single location.
Happily wandering among my “party” of peacock-like artisans, I explored studio spaces. The Lowe Mill ARTS & Entertainment studios have an open door policy. When an artist is available for guests, the open door is the signal for visitors to enter for a tour, to browse, to watch the artists’ creative process, or to purchase finished products. Respecting the closed doors, I window shopped.
Inside the open-door workspaces, I chatted with the artists. Painters, photographers, screen printers, jewelers, and other (somewhat) expected artists were hard at work. Then the unexpected appeared in the form of cigar box guitar makers, a film co-op, a printmaker, a cartoonist, and even a custom cabinet-maker. Hungry? There are seven businesses classified as culinary arts, including one distillery.
I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived at Lowe Mill ARTS & Entertainment, which was a good thing. With my yarn crawl visit completed, I resolved to return to my party of peacocks soon. This old mill, with more than 115 years of history, is oddly comforting. It is a historic sanctuary in the midst of a city filled with rockets, outer space references, and edgy technology. This place and my “party” of artisans are connected deeply to the past as if those threads from the original cotton mill of 1901 are holding us in place, bringing truth to our art.
Find more about Gwyn’s journey through the Tennessee Valley at Small Towns, Big Stories on MilesGeek.