Inside Springs Creative’s Baxter Mill Archive, designers seeking inspiration for their latest collections can explore a treasure trove of one-of-a-kind fabrics, hand-painted design boards and vintage art books spanning three or more centuries, from nearly every corner of the world.
By Lisa Rubenson
Walk past the giant sculpture of a fabric loom in front of a renovated cotton mill in Rock Hill, South Carolina, and enter the headquarters for Springs Creative. A sign stamped with the words “Baxter Mill Archive™” directs you to the right. But it’s the tagline beneath the graphic that really tells you where you are: “ENTER THE VAULT.”
Prepare yourself. You’re about to journey back in time through a 600,000-plus piece collection of fabric swatches, garments, hand-painted art and antique books that you might expect to see only in a world-class museum or on the back lot of a movie studio.
An Archive For The Ages
The Baxter Mill Archive is more than a place to house artifacts and material treasure. It’s an immersive sensory experience. Every swatch, page or painted board has a backstory that yearns to be told, something you feel each time you move in for a closer look. It’s impossible to run your hands over a piece of fabric or garment without imagining the artisans who made it and the people who wore it.
The archive is a living tribute to time, place and world culture. It’s also what Kathy Phillips, vice president of design for Springs Creative, calls a “candy store” for designers looking for inspiration. And if Springs built the store, a woman named Ilene in a Park Avenue apartment more than 600 miles away helped supply the candy.
A Common Thread
“Some people collect diamonds, darling, but I collect fabrics.”
Of all the topics covered in her early conversations with Ilene Danchig, it’s this Elizabeth Taylor-esque line that stands out for Phillips. Danchig, a well-known doyenne of design who for years ran a celebrated fabric studio in Manhattan’s fashion district, connected with Phillips in 2016 over the possibility of Springs purchasing Danchig’s extensive, 100,000-plus-piece textile collection.
It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
“Ilene and I hit it off right away,” says Phillips, who not only oversees creative decisions at Springs, but is also a textile designer, painter, fiber artist and expert seamstress. She and Danchig soon realized they had much in common, including the fact that they each had found ways to channel a love of texture, color and fabric into their life’s work.
“Ilene reminds me of my mother,” adds Phillips, “who was so creative and passionate about everything she did. Ilene is the same way. She sees potential wherever she looks.”
Danchig spent decades traveling the world collecting fabrics—either going directly to the artisans who hand-crafted them or outbidding her competition in Europe’s most prestigious auction houses.
“I was a high-end buyer,” says Danchig. “Other bidders would see I was there and knew I wouldn’t drop out. I once spent $60,000 at Sotheby’s buying up all the tartan plaids. I was determined.”
Kathy Phillips (left) and Victoria Smith (right) with one of their favorite pieces from the collection: a Turkish, calflength, hand-embroidered vest from the 1920s – likely a stage costume.
Destined For Design
Danchig studied weaving at the prestigious Haystack Mountain School of Crafts at 17, then attended the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City before working as a handweaver for several mills. She earned her BFA at the California College of Arts and Crafts, where she studied weaving and textiles.
As a young woman entering the design business, she traveled extensively seeking inspiration, especially throughout Mexico, Central America and South America. She met artisans, stayed in their villages and purchased their authentic, hand-made designs—learning about their craft and culture along the way.
Returning to New York, Danchig’s early days in the fashion district involved curating samples from her collection, filling two rolling suitcases and zigzagging across Manhattan from designer to designer. As her reputation and collection grew, Danchig opened her own studio on West 40th Street. There, she’d welcome designers from big-name brands—Michael Kors, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Liz Claiborne and J. Crew (to name drop a few). “Sometimes they’d come in knowing exactly what they needed, and I’d pull it for them,” says Danchig. “Other times, I’d order in lunch, and we’d take our time going through the stacks.” One gets the sense that Danchig has as many stories to tell about people as she does about her collection.
At the time she met Phillips, Danchig was ready to retire and sell her collection—but not to just anyone. She wanted to be as discerning in seeking a buyer as she was in selecting the right pieces in the first place. Phillips assured Danchig that Springs Creative would never sell or dismantle her collection. A visit to her studio by Springs’ founder and CEO, Derick Close, clinched the deal.
“He was genuinely interested in the history of the pieces,” says Danchig, “not just in the business. We share a love of textiles and know that you often have to go back to historic textiles to move designs forward.”
“Derick has the textile industry in his DNA,” says Phillips. “When we arrived at Ilene’s studio, he was fascinated by her knowledge of the industry and how she grew her collection. He just sat back and listened.”
“I knew there were only one or two textile collections like Ilene’s in the world,” says Close. “Having her collection as part of our collective creative tool box for future generations was too big of an opportunity to pass up.”
The appeal of the archive, says Phillips, is to be able to “take something old and historical and place it in the current generation. The designer comes in, sees something they like, and we can use our technology to remaster it.”
A signed contract, more visits from the Springs team and a moving truck later, and all 179 boxes of the Ilene Danchig Documentary Textile Collection were headed from New York City to the loading dock in Rock Hill.
Archival swatches, shibori indigos and geometrica designs from the early 1900s; Ilene Danchig (center) visits the Cuna Indians in the San Blas islands; wall-sized displays that highlighted curated pieces of her collection.
The Springs Connection
The Springs name has been associated with textile manufacturing since its first cotton mill opened in 1887. For over a century, the Springs and Close families were instrumental in establishing the region as a hub for U.S. textile manufacturing. First as Springs Cotton Mills and then as Springs Global, the company created iconic brands, such as Wamsutta and Springmaid, that filled linen closets all over the world.
During this time, Derick Close started a commercial design and licensing arm of the company called Springs Creative. When Springs Global was sold in 2007, Springs Creative was privatized. This included the archive of more than 500,000 fabric swatches and original art from the company’s manufacturing operation. It has served as a design resource and research library for innovation in manufacturing ever since.
Traditional Fabrics, Transformed
At Springs Creative, vintage fabrics are scanned, reworked and then presented in new color combinations before printing. The company has a state-of-the-art digital printing facility on-site that allows them to print small-batch runs on a variety of textured substrates and ship them quickly. The alternative is a more traditional route: sending art to their printing partners in China.
“It’s a soup-to-nuts fabrication process,” adds Phillips. “Each iteration of the journey is based on what’s come before.”
Danchig sees it the same way, noting what makes her collection special are the stories that inspired the pieces and the intentional, original way she’s pulled them together.
“A lot of people collect pretty things,” says Danchig. “But you have to be able to look beyond the surface and think about the transformation process. You must look at one thing and see it as something else. Imagine a bathing suit from the 1950s as the lining of a raincoat. Or think about traditional patterns in new colors printed on new textures.”
The pairings of disparate pieces are, to her, a way to honor the unique places of origin. Everything old becomes new again. At the same time, it sparks a larger conversation about staying connected in the world.
A Global Reach
One way Springs does this is to play a role in helping to set industry trends. For example, Phillips reached out to WGSN, the world’s leading trend forecasting and analysis service, to form a relationship providing archival images for their trend reports. The trends outlined by WGSN form the basis for many of the designs that go to market seasonally in the home and apparel markets. Now, ahead of publishing their report, WGSN looks to Springs Creative and the Baxter Mill Archive to pull fabrics that fit the trends they’ve identified.
And as of April 1, 2019, Springs announced a partnership with the Martha Stewart Home Collection to create fabric-by-the-yard collections based on Martha’s Four Lifestyles. Many of the designs were created utilizing the Baxter Mill Archives. (The fabric is available on Fabric.com.) Victoria Smith is the archivist for Springs Creative and part of the team that catalogued the Danchig collection, both in New York and upon arrival in Rock Hill. She not only manages all the materials included in the “vault,” but she is also keeper of the “Ilene” stories that come with it. “It would do designers a disservice not to know some of the stories behind these fabrics,” she says. “Otherwise, they’d be looking at just another shibori print. They need to connect the piece to others like it, in order to get the full experience.” It’s part of the Smith’s job to be consistent with style.
When asked if the word is out in the industry about the many resources offered at Springs Creative and its Baxter Mill Archive, Phillips smiles. “Some people say this is the best-kept secret in the business, and maybe it should stay that way. I say, no, that’s okay. With more than 600,000 pieces, we have plenty to share.” ■
A CREATIVE DIRECTOR RECREATES HER BROTHER’S ART
Kathy Phillips and her team spend their days looking for—and helping others find—inspiration in the stacks of fabrics and art-filled drawers throughout Springs Creative and the Baxter Mill Archive. Then, they turn that inspiration into fresh, reimagined designs that both forecast trends and honor a storied past.
Pry a little further into Phillips’ own backstory, and you find she does something similar in her own art. While she paints, quilts and thread-paints original works, she is also in the process of interpreting the illustrations left behind by her brother, who died at 59 from lung cancer.
“My brother Rick [Foust] was a wonderful artist,” says Phillips. “He also suffered with mental illness and was diagnosed at age 21 as schizophrenic. Before he was diagnosed, he created the most beautiful, colorful abstract art. Once he became highly medicated, he gave up on color and turned entirely to pen-and-ink, figurative works. In his honor, I’ve been recreating his drawings with thread.”
Using a traditional sewing machine, a free-motion technique and a range of substrates, Phillips uses thread to “paint” the same lines her brother once created with pen and ink.
By bringing new life to her brother’s art, Phillips finds a way to express herself artistically while also extending her brother’s legacy. Even after hours, Phillips can’t help but shine new light on the artistic treasures of the past. (Find her work at artsyfibers.com.)
Featured image: French toile and indigo. African shiboris. Uzbek ikat robes. Mexican serapes alongside Scottish plaids. Rich velvet brocades from the Italian Renaissance next to delicate lace collars and silk jacquards.