Beacon blanket collection helps keep the legacy alive

Barbara Hootman

Kay Carter, a lifelong Swannanoa resident and 24-year employee of Beacon Manufacturing, has an impressive collection of Beacon blankets dating from the 1960s to the time the plant closed in 2002.

“I worked in research and development for Beacon,” Carter said. “I loved the blankets and had a lot of pride in the Beacon products that I helped create. I started collecting blankets from the time I started working at the plant. I simply loved textiles.

“I appreciate the quality and the beauty of the colors and designs. Beacon made some beautiful fabrics. I collected only the woven blankets. The needle punch ones came along to satisfy mass consumption and were less expensive.

“My favorite blankets are the cotton Jacquards. I liked the natural fibers because they took a lot of skill to create. The blankets that my mom had are probably my most sentimental favorites. We didn’t collect those blankets, we used them when I was growing up.”

Carter said that Beacon Manufacturing handled the entire process of creating a blanket, from the time the bales of cotton came in the plant to when the fibers were dyed, spun and converted into yarn. All fibers were carded, and warps were made for the looms. There were dozens of steps to take. Beacon made a top-notch product, with some of its blankets selling for as much as $125 in the ’70s. Today collectors are paying $500-$1,000 for early Beacon blankets with Native American designs.

Before 1932, Beacon Manufacturing used Native American images in its woven designs and its advertising. In the 1930s, the Federal Trade Commission and the Navajo Indian tribe filed a complaint, contending the advertising was misleading and injurious to Indian weavers. Beacon was ordered to stop using Indian images and had to make it clear in print that the blankets were not woven by Native Americans.

“The Native American designs were some of the most popular Beacon blankets, sought after by collectors,” Carter said. “They are all wool, as were all of the early blankets.”

During World War II, Beacon made wool and wool/cotton blend blankets for the soldiers. Women filled the jobs at the plant during this time, since so many of the men in the Swannanoa community were serving in the military.

When the soldiers came home from the war, Beacon made thousands of baby blankets and reverted to cotton blankets. Some of the weaves were discontinued because they couldn’t be woven on newly installed machines. When Beacon Manufacturing closed in 2002, it was making acrylic blankets.

“Beacon Manufacturing didn’t make just blankets,” Carter said. “They made fabrics and even robes from blanket material.”

The robes were not made by Beacon, but Beacon provided sewers with the fabric and labels that said “Genuine Beacon Fabric” or “Made of Beacon Blanket.” Home sewers could buy the fabric and a kit that contained everything needed to make a robe. Fabric for robes came in Art Deco prints and plaids. In the 1960s the material was discontinued. In the 1970s, Beacon manufactured a throw that had fringe knots.

“My daughter Heather, and others, would take home throws and tie knots in the fringe, bring them back to the plant and get paid for the work,” Carter said. “I’ve collected only blankets. The robes and throws never interested me as collector products. However, I’ve have had curtains and tablecloths made from Beacon fabric.”

Branding the blankets was sometimes just a simple “Beacon” label. Some of the blankets were not labeled at all.

Carter said it would not be hard to identify a Beacon blanket, especially if you had worked in creating it. Each blanket had beautiful colors and distinctive designs, especially in the early blankets.

Many of the early Beacon blankets had geometric designs. The ombre dyeing process added lots of shades and dimensions to the designs. The most collectible blankets were made before computers created the designs.

“Artists created the designs, and researchers developed the systems that were used to create the blankets,” Carter said. Most people don’t realize how intricate and detailed blanket-making is.”

The plant had a wholesale division that sold Beacon products to department and dry goods stores. It also made fabric for companies like Montgomery Ward and JC Penney.

“After the ’70s the blankets were not made from cotton yarn because of the cotton dust,” Carter said. “Beacon Manufacturing did not meet the federal guidelines and stopped using cotton. A resurgence of better quality blankets came about in the early ’80s with the Jacquards. Many of these carried the Indian designs and high pile used on the animal designs. They were very popular and collectible.”

Carter said she still uses Beacon blankets in her home.

“I feel by using my Beacon blankets that I am helping to preserve their history,” she said. “My biggest concern is that people writing books or scripts for television productions will lose sight of the real Beacon legacy which lies in the people who created the products and the products themselves.”