The original cord maker among the stacks at the Archives.
I enjoyed the article in News Notes on the cord machine and the couple now making cords. I also have a history with those machines, and everything written about them having “minds of their own” is exactly how I experienced them, too.
I was part of the candidate class who entered St. Joseph’s Brothers School at Mt. Airy in 1967. We were a unique “transition” group, as we were the first group not to first have to become tertiaries before entering the First Order novitiate. So, we spent two years as candidates before entering the novitiate in August of 1969. And I was one of the candidates who spent just about every day of those two years making habits and running those cord machines.
There were four cord machines in the tailor shop that needed to be operating eight hours a day in order to fill the orders we had. Br. Bernie Jennings hated to run them because of their constant breakdowns and their noise. When all four were running, we could not hear ourselves think in that tailor shop above the garage at Mt. Airy. I was the one assigned to fill the many orders we received and so I was always begging Bernie to let us run the machines, but he would often turn them off after two hours because he could not stand the noise.
You might be interested in knowing that the machines were designed to run with wool fiber, not cotton. The wool is filled with natural lanolin, which acted as a lubricant and allowed the shuttle to move around easily. When we first went to cotton, the machines absolutely refused to work. Finally, we focused on one machine alone and eventually, after several years of breakdowns every 10 minutes, it began to accept the cotton fiber. If we were to return to using wool once again, the machine would actually run much better. But as you know, the cotton is much easier to care for…and can be bleached!
Here are some other facts that you and the cord-making couple might find interesting:
- Our largest client for cords was a company called Jamison out of Chicago. Many religious orders (especially women religious) contracted with Jamison to make habit parts. They also provided cords for hundreds of communities. At our peak, we were sending Jamison 300 to 500 yards of cord a month!
- Two more companies, The Snow White Habit Co. and Fitzgerald, also provided habit parts. When the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati changed from their black habit to their first modification (long blue habit) in 1964, they had 1,600 Sisters. Each Sister required two habits, and the transition happened all at once…on Easter Sunday. There was no way their Sisters could make that many new habits that quickly. They contracted with Snow White Habit Co. to make this transition – at a HUGE cost. They wore that habit for only four years!
- Did you also know we made blue cords for the Marist Missionary Sisters and a few other groups, black cords for the Holy Cross Order, brown cords for some group somewhere, and red cords for the Franciscan Sisters of the Poor, the Hartwell Sisters?
- We originally made a very unique linen cord for the Poor Clare Colletines. It was a beautiful cord and the sturdiest ever made. The Clares at that time were buried in the same cord they were invested with, and so for some of the Sisters that had to last 70-plus years! Bernie eventually got them to switch to wool and later to cotton. He hated stringing the machines with linen. The machines really hated that fiber!
- Did the couple making cords ever see our original, foot-treadled cord machine in the Archives? For many years it sat at Oldenburg and then later in Mt. Airy’s attic!
Just thought you might enjoy some fun cord machine trivia!
Read the story that inspired Br. Mark about the current volunteer cord-makers, Joni and Gary Mataitis.