The Early Years of D.C. Churchill

David Carroll Churchill was born in 1873 and enjoyed tinkering with mechanics ever since he was big enough to do so.  In 1899, he graduated from MIT and began work for Westinghouse in 1900 where he first engineered a special wrench to be used for work on gas engines that would be sold to hotels to create electricity when unreliable public power failed.  The engineering of the special wrench by Churchill earned him recognition from his employer.  Next he helped create a marine-type steam engine to run the New York City subways.  These were the first engines to be made from solid steel instead of iron.

D. C. Churchill was interviewed by Rev. Edward Fairbanks, who was exploring ways to solve the economic problem of famine in India.  Alice Harding, a missionary with Fairbanks, recommended Churchill, a former classmate.  Ms. Harding and Churchill fell in love while attending school, but Alice returned to India after graduation.  Churchill answered the call to serve as a missionary in India, marrying Alice Harding on October 3, 1901 while there.  As a missionary, D. C. Churchill took over an unused machine shop to train his students at the Sir D. M. Pettit School in Ahmednagar, India.  He taught students practical engineering classes.

During his study of the Indian culture, he found hand-weaving to be the largest industry, after agriculture.  The old-fashioned hand looms used by the weavers of India, however, were much less efficient than power looms.   Churchill went to the homes to study how the looms were being used by the people of India, analyzing the way the work was completed.  He noted a great deal of time was lost due to the breakdown of the loom, and poor processing also slowed down production.  The design and function of the loom had hardly been changed since ancient time.  He began to closely analyze the loom itself and started working on ways to improve its features.  It took him three years to engineer a new loom.  He applied Newton’s principles of mass and motion to minimize the effects of friction and weight during the loom operation.

Churchill was able to create the fastest hand loom operating in India.  His new loom was demonstrated at an Industrial Exhibit in Bombay in 1904 by the Indian National Congress.  He received a gold medal for winning first place in an open competition.  The medal is now in the archives of Churchill Weavers with the Kentucky Historical Society.  Before leaving India in 1910 on furlough for America, Churchill had founded the American Deccan Institute that contained a hand-weaving shop, carpenter shop, machine shop, blacksmithing and other trades.  During World War I, Churchill’s American Deccan Institute shop was turned into a munitions factory, charged with making 84,000 mule shackles for General Allenby’s Mesopotamia Campaign.

By 1911, Churchill had returned to India and had engineered a new type of loom that could weave up to the speed of a power loom.  The new loom allowed 36 people to do the work that formerly required 200 people.  The loom was capable of producing 1,000 yards of Gandhi cloth a day.  He then introduced a loom with replaceable parts such as new heddles, new reeds, and new shuttles.

Churchill’s wife, Alice, died in India in April of 1912.  On May 5, 1914, D. C. Churchill had married another missionary teacher in India, Anna Eleanor Franzen.  Eleanor was the director of a boy’s school.  In 1917, Churchill returned to America, his sons Alfred and Charles, ready for high school.

Upon the return of the Churchills to America, D.C. soon took the position of consulting and aviation engineer at the Garford Manufacturing Company in Elyria, Ohio.  His first accomplishment at the Garford plant was the improvement in stabilizers for airplanes.  While there, DC also constructed the first satisfactory retractable landing gear for the Kitten III, a World War I biplane that has been preserved at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.  The plane was designed to be an altitude fighter by Captain James V. Martin.

In 1920, Churchill left Garford after being invited to Berea College by Dr. William J. Hutchins- a childhood next-door neighbor- who wanted him to start a “Little MIT” for the mountain region.  D. C. Churchill agreed to move his family to Kentucky, which would become their permanent home.  He took the position as chair of the Physics Department, developing new mechanics courses.  It was decided Berea College was not ready for the broad development of the Physics Department.  At the end of the 1921-1922 school year, he resigned.

The Founding of Churchill Weavers

Churchill and Eleanor decided to further develop the hand-weaving craft already in the mountain region, hoping to produce fine hand-woven fabrics.  Churchill went to work in Berea College’s carpenter shop crafting a new fly-shuttle loom.  Eleanor became fascinated by weaving.  She learned the complete process—setting up the warp, laying out the design, choosing the yarns, colors, and finishes.  The Churchills soon discovered they could easily sell their products.  A friend of Eleanor’s urged the couple to send woven articles north for consignment.  They discovered a market for their woven products.

Eleanor originally set up one of the looms at the Boone Tavern Hotel in Berea.  In a third floor room of the hotel is where she first started designing patterns that would eventually become the product line for Churchill Weavers.  D.C. and Eleanor made the decision to build a hand-weaving industrial plant from the ground up.  Once the loom house was built, Eleanor was the marketing manager and designer.  D.C. supervised production and built the looms.  As product manager, Eleanor was able to sell the Churchill Weavers product line to department stores in larger cities—quite a feat for an industrial plant in Berea.

The Churchills trained warpers, winders, finishers, menders, inspectors, loom supervisors, carpenters, mechanics, and weavers.  With the starting of the industrial plant, the Churchills were able to bring much-needed jobs to the town of Berea, employing 50 to 150 people.  D. C. Churchill continued to make improvements to the fly-shuttle loom for the remainder of his life.  The loom itself has been recognized as the best hand loom in existence.

During the first three years of operation, Churchill Weavers reached sales of $17,000, $35,000, and $50,000.  Within the first 25 years, Churchill Weavers was grossing over $500,000 a year.  When the operation first began, other hand-weavers would copy traditional patterns.  Eleanor Churchill’s patterns were original designs that combined colors and textures in new ways.

World War II Efforts and the Invention of Wing Covers

At the age of 72, Churchill once again helped in the war efforts—this time in World War II.  In July 1945, he left Berea for Detroit, but didn’t make it past Wright Field, in Dayton Ohio, where he applied for a job.  He was hired due to his knowledge of physics and textiles.  His task was to produce an efficient wing cover.  Planes were being grounded at the time in the Aleutians due to ice on the wings.  Churchill was able to solve the problem of the covers fitting tightly to the wing.  He also developed a quick release system on the underside of the wing, so the cover could be pulled tight.  A rope was then left to dangle that could be jerked, allowing the quick release attachments to open within ten seconds.  The propellers were then able to blow the wing covers off.  The covers could be put on the wings and fastened in twelve minutes by only two men.  Churchill spent three years at Wright Field in Dayton, working as a civilian research engineer.  During this time, he spent a few weeks in Alaska to test his wing covers under Arctic conditions.

Answering the Call for Space Suits

In 1960, Churchill worked on the development of anti-thermal coveralls, worn under a pressurized high altitude suit by the first astronauts.  B. F. Goodrich approached Churchill about producing the fabric that would be made of glass and rayon.  The anti-thermal coveralls made by Churchill Weavers are now preserved at the Kentucky Historical Society.

The retirement of D. C. Churchill

D.C. Churchill retired in 1967, after 45 years as president from Churchill Weavers.  He was then 93.  Upon his retirement, he was voted honorary chairman and his wife Eleanor took over as president.  During his 45 years as president of Churchill Weavers, the company has seen many major accomplishments.  One such accomplishment was seat covers woven by the weavers of Churchill in 1935 that were used at the Toledo Museum of Art.  In 1969, Churchill passed away at the age of 96.  Eleanor continued to run Churchill Weavers alone until 1973.

The Bellandos Take Over Churchill Weavers

Eleanor Churchill chose Lila and Richard Bellando as her successors.  The Bellandos worked hard to continue the tradition of Churchill Weavers.  It became a tourist destination for visitors to Berea.  Products crafted in the loom house of Churchill Weavers were shipped all over the world.

Crown Crafts Buys Churchill Weavers

Churchill Weavers was sold to Crown Crafts of Atlanta Georgia in 1996 by the Bellandos.  The agreement was made with Crown Crafts that the company would still be operated by Lila and Richard Bellando.  The Bellandos made the decision to sell the company to Crown Crafts in order for their employees to receive benefits that they could not offer them.  With this agreement also came corporate expertise and additional resources for production.   Churchill Weavers permanently closed its doors in 2007, unable to compete with foreign producers.  The Churchill building remained empty from 2007 until 2013, when Bill and Mary Ann West bought the building from Crown Crafts.

Churchill Weavers Accolades

Among its many achievements was seat covers woven by the weavers of Churchill in 1935 that were used at the Toledo Museum of Art.  The most recent well known achievement of Churchill Weavers is their work with Gerhardt Knodel, a world renowned fiber designer, for an eight-story high fiber piece called “Free Fall” used as a focal point in the Renaissance Center of Detroit, Michigan in 1977.  A few awards won by Churchill Weavers in the years preceding its closure include the prestigious ARTS Award for Manufacturer of the Year in home textiles in 1998.  Churchill Weavers won the Portman TOP Award in Atlanta for Best New Design in 1997.  In 2001, Churchill Weavers received a Life Member Award from the Southern Highland Craft Guild.  In March 2002, they were given The Kentucky Crafted Emeritus Award for recognition of their dedication to personal craft development and their exemplary level of accomplishments as well as the Booth Award for Best of Show at the Kentucky Craft Market.

Churchill Weavers as a Business

Churchill Weavers was the first industrial plant not associated with Berea College, bringing much needed jobs to the mountain area of Berea, Kentucky.  Churchill Weavers employed 50 to 150 people at a time.  Churchill Weavers was founded by David Carroll Churchill and his wife Eleanor in 1922 when they decided to develop the hand-weaving craft already active in the mountain region.  The company started after the engineering of a new fly-shuttle loom by D.C. Churchill himself.  The Churchill Weavers industry thrived and additional loom houses had to be added to keep up with the demand for its product line.   As the business grew, additions were made to the building.  The original building was used as a loom house.   A gift shop for Churchill Weavers product line was originally located two blocks from the loom house on what was at that time a major highway.  Two more wings were soon added to house more looms between the years of 1922 and 1930.  The downstairs of the building was used as a wood working shop, boiler room, break room, and storage for the finished product line.  The main level was used as a loom house and the upstairs used for office space.  The gift shop was added to the front of the original building in 1954 to sell Churchill Weavers product line as well as crafts made by artisans from around the country.

Churchill Weavers was in business from 1922 until it closed its doors in 2007.  D.C. Churchill applied engineering skills to the mechanical process of weaving, a tradition-bound craft. Churchill constructed better and more efficient hand looms while working as a missionary in India, years before he founded Churchill Weavers.  He offered these skills to improve the lives of people in India, then found an area in the United States to do the same, again, innovating the production of traditional fabrics.