The Velvet Touch

Historic French firm is woven into the fabric of Leesville

Robert Clark

A 220,000-square-foot facility in rural Leesville, 34 miles from Columbia, manufactures a material that impacts the world. For the past 64 years in fact, the JB Martin Leesville factory has produced plush, high-pile velvet that has graced fashion runways, historic theaters, performing arts centers, luxury hotels, and even castles.

Why is velvet so special a textile? Velvet traces its history back to ancient times with “pile weaves” woven from silk and linen dating as early as 2000 BC in Egypt. The Middle East and Eastern Europe boasted the most skilled velvet weavers, with the very best existing in Turkey, Greece, and Cyprus. In China, between 400 BC and the first century, fabrics were developed that more closely resembled the modern notion of velvet. However, what is commonly known as velvet today wasn’t developed until around the time of the Renaissance when innovations in draw loom technology made production more economical and allowed it to boom in Italy and Spain.

Enter Jean Baptiste Martin to the textile scene of Lyon, France, in 1832. He invented a double shuttle weaving loom for the faster production of velvet. His innovative loom increased daily production from 30 inches per loom to 165 inches per loom. This meant that velvet could be manufactured five times faster. For many years, JB Martin Company thrived in France. Fine velvets were produced for fashions of the time period: top hats, moirés, and ribbons. The company became known throughout Europe and even America, and JB Martin received numerous awards, including the coveted gold medal at the 1876 World’s Fair Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was after this event that the company was sought after to establish a solid presence in America.

JB Martin’s first American plant was in Norwich, Connecticut. Velvet produced there was taken by boat from Connecticut to New York City, where it was sold for higher-end apparel goods. Other factories opened for a season in various spots in Europe and one in Canada. But in 1954, the family business owners — still Martins — decided that Leesville, South Carolina, would be an economically smart move. The plant was built on 300 acres. Although JB Martin’s headquarters, showroom, and sales offices are located in New York City, all product is made in Leesville.

In the 1980s, JB Martin finally ceased operations in France due to global economics and tough European velvet competition. JB Martin may have been a small fish in a big pond in Europe, but today it is known as one of the only quality velvet manufacturers in the United States.

JB Martin’s president, 41-year-old Ghislain de Kertanguy, is a sixth generation member of the family business. His grandmother was a Martin, and Jean Baptiste Martin was Ghislain’s great-great-great grandfather. His father, Loic, spent 45 years at JB Martin. Ghislain says it is fascinating to embrace such a legacy, and he grew up entranced by stories such as factory workers at the French facility hiding the factory’s metal embossing rollers that press images into the velvet from German Nazis; JB Martin workers buried them in the ground and dug them up after World War II ended. Today the rollers are company treasures.

Although Ghislain works out of the New York City offices with nine other colleagues, he is not out of touch with Leesville. He identifies with and appreciates Leesville employees who have dedicated 30, 40, and even 50 years with JB Martin. “JB Martin has a very talented, skilled, dedicated, and loyal work force in Leesville, and we are always looking for the next generation of employees,” he says.

Two hundred employees in Leesville are committed to the task of making fine velvets, many of whom also boast several generations of family service to this textile. Davis Taylor is director of quality control, and his father retired after a career as plant manager. “At any given time, there are at least two generations working there as well as family members, including brothers and sisters,” says Ghislain. “The JB Martin factory is very family oriented both in the ownership and also with the employees in Leesville. We like that. We try to encourage family members to learn the business.”

Even though technology has brought the looms and other machines into a realm far from Jean Baptiste’s original invention, much about the process of textile manufacturing persists. Some of the key roles include weavers, dye machine operators, finishing technicians, process engineers, shear operators, and lab technicians.

Explains Ghislain: “There is much skill involved. It’s not easy to make velvet, and it’s very labor intensive, which is why it’s expensive. It involves a lot of yarn as well as manual dexterity and precision. When you set up a velvet loom, 9,000 individual threads have to be pulled and drawn in a special way through the loom before the velvet weaving process can start. This task requires tremendous skill and focus to put each strand of yarn in the proper place.”

Tim Heller, current plant manager, shares that velvet is a three-dimensional pile fabric that includes a ground, a warp, and a third yarn. “What a pile does is give a sense of sight that is different than what a flat fabric does. With a flat fabric, you can look at it basically from any direction, and it looks the same. But when you look at a velvet, you see variations in light reflection, which creates a completely different visual sense.” He adds that velvet also has a different feel; it invites touch.

Davis has an even loftier take on velvet: “It’s an art.” The third-dimensional element in the craftsmanship provides the distinction in rich color, feel, and look.

The finest raw materials — yarns — must be sought and purchased to construct a quality velvet with enough appeal to turn the heads of fashion and furnishing designers alike. Producing velvet has been likened to making a fine wine. A batch of bad grapes can spoil the wine, and similarly, lower quality yarns would result in a less-than-desirable velvet. Yarns and woven goods are inspected thoroughly and meticulously from start to finish.

Every process in the mill, in fact, is an inspection process, Davis explains, even the dyeing and drying of finished goods. Customers expect the highest quality, so tedious testing and attention to detail is paramount.

That velvet is delicate is a misconception. Due to the three-dimensional weave, it is actually highly durable. The product is so luxurious that many consumers assume that, like fine art, it should be viewed and not touched. Any markings and bruising that velvet endures over its lifetime, on a sofa for example, is actually a good thing. “It’s all part of the patina that one appreciates,” says JB Martin’s vice president, Robert Lachow, who is based in New York City.

Liquid spills on velvet bead up and can be blotted away. A dry cleaning detergent can be added to a sponge and the stain blotted repeatedly until it disappears. Also, wrinkle and sit marks vanish easily with a little steam or soft brushing.

While JB Martin unveils new velvets bi-annually at the International Textile Alliance Showtime Market in High Point, North Carolina, and at Proposte in Lake Como, Italy, as do others in global textile manufacturing, some of its current best selling items have been in its line for 20 years and remain sought after and known as the standard in the industry.

“We have a black apparel velvet, called ‘Fidelio,’ that has been in the line 50 years,” says Ghislain. “We’ve see photography blogs that ask, ‘What is the darkest richest black fabric?’ And the answer is: Fidelio by JB Martin. We historically made velvets for apparel, but in the late 1980s we transitioned to heavier velvets for furnishings and theaters as well.”

He adds, “Once a year, at least, we add a new velvet. It all depends on the research and development cycle. So much labor goes into developing a new product. Mostly, it’s important for us to stay relevant via color … to have the ability to come up with new color trends bi-annually.”

Past JB Martin velvets have made their mark. For example, the Queen of England wore a JB Martin velvet dress to the Royal Opera in the 1950s. JB Martin velvet was also used to collect lunar samples in NASA’s 1972 Apollo 16 mission to the moon.

Says Ghislain, “Throughout 186 years, we have endured a lot of global and domestic disruptions, but we have always tried to stay true to ourselves and focus on what we do best by being conservative, and we try to make prudent decisions for the company and our employees. We’ve had to take a conservative approach to withstand economic turns. But we also always have to look at what’s next and innovate. And, because we are able to innovate, we’ve become important in more than one area.”

Ghislain credits JB Martin’s success to the people in the Midlands who make the product. “We’re proud of our employees who make the finest velvets in the world.”

Because making velvet requires, as Ghislain expresses, more than just turning a wrench on an assembly line, they offer formal training programs to provide distinct career opportunities for people willing to learning something unique. Recruitment to JB Martin in Leesville is ongoing.

Part of the focus at the factory in Leesville is community connectedness. Employees have worked together in the past with March of Dimes, and an employee family fun day took place in September. JB Martin will also sponsor local theater groups and contribute velvet if needed.

“Recently, Davis and I went to the Chamber of Commerce to communicate more about the JB Martin Leesville factory,” says Ghislain. “We want to always be open to community-driven ideas.”

Even though JB Martin’s velvets are now produced more than 4,000 miles from France, Ghislain expects his great-great-great grandfather would approve. The company statement opines to the world that Jean Baptiste would certainly be flattered to know that, well over a century and a half later, his name is still associated with innovation, expertise, and quality.

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