Frozen in Time

Thirty-six years ago the Biltmore Industries shut down all of its textile production machinery, turned off the lights and padlocked the door.  In celebration of its 100 year anniversary at the Grovewood Village, the Homespun Museum decided in April 2017 to reopen the time capsule that housed the dye vats, carding machines, mule spinners and handcrafted looms that once was the largest hand-weaving industry in the world. Once a day, visitors can glean a peek into the past.  It’s both eerie and extraordinary.

I must admit that I’ve known about this free tour for four months and kept finding reasons N-O-T to visit.  Call me crazy, but really how interesting could an old tweed factory be?  I freely admit that my expectations were wildly exceeded.

Visitors to the Grove Park Inn are often not even aware that the Grovewood Village exists.  At one time, this 11-acre property housed the weaving and woodworking complex of Biltmore Industries.  Now,  it is home to working artist studios, a sculpture garden, restaurant, antique car museum, the Homespun museum and occasionally visitors can enter through the Dye House doors and wander through the production factory floors of the historic homespun fabric center.

Biltmore Industries Asheville tweeds

The tour begins promptly at 1pm, Wednesday-Saturday, April-December, in the Homespun Museum. The museum itself is a simple one-room showcase of the fine tweeds and other historical items that made the Biltmore Industires Handwoven Homespun fabrics sought after by such dignitaries as Presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt, first ladies Eleanor Roosevelt and Grace Coolidge and America icons Thomas Edison and Henry Ford.  Letters of praise from John D. Rockefeller and others are on display along with photographs and artifacts. One of the original looms sits in the corner at the ready, but few people today know how to operate these beautiful and intimidating contraptions.

Biltmore Industries Asheville loom

Our docent and author, Stuart Cotterill, regaled us with a colorful story of how Biltmore Industries came to be sold to Fred Seely and moved to its current location nested along side the Grove Park Inn ( and currently owned by the Blomberg family).  This was followed by a short (low quality) film repeating many of the same historic points and showing original footage of the artisans and machinery in motion.  At this point, all of the other visitors took leave of the tour, but my family made the wise decision to hang in there.

The real magic began when Stuart led us to the Dye House which is normally locked. Upon entering, it appeared that perhaps all the workers had just stepped out for a coffee break.  Nothing much had been touched in over 30 years.  Visitors are free to walk through and inspect the impressive operation that was left frozen in time.  This was more than just a weaving operation – the wool came straight off the sheep and was washed, dyed, carded, spun and threaded.  Then began the intricate process of weaving, washing, and drying so that the fabric was pre-shrunk before it was sent to the tailor.

Biltmore Industries Asheville dye vats

Stuart obviously has a love for history and has personally labelled many of the artifacts that were abandoned so long ago.  Even bits of dyed wool remain in the bottom of the vats from the last batch that was mixed decades ago.

Biltmore Industries Asheville

The high quality wool hangs suspending in time, left in midstream as it was being prepared and spooled before it would be artistically woven into some of the finest quality cloth available at the time.

Biltmore Industries Asheville machines
Biltmore Industries Early Carding Machine

Venturing upstairs visitors can see the actual mule spinning machines that were featured in the short historical video shown earlier in the tour.  These are so impressive in size to see (pictured is just one of several) sprawling a major portion of the upstairs work area. Once again, seemingly abandoned in the middle of a day’s work…waiting for the next shift to arrive.

Biltmore Industries Asheville mule spinner
Biltmore Industries mule spinners

In the internet era, it is easy to read about history, view photos or watch snippets of videos, but it is rare to actually step back into a historical period and smell and touch that world first hand.  I hope you will find time to visit this hidden gem in Asheville.

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