Genius, Explained: Paris, Milan, London…Lowell?

Standing for decades on the periphery of cultural haute-ness, Lowell is pursuing its latest bid to rebrand itself as a hip, cutting-edge town. The PR blitz begins this month with the reopening (5/17) of the American Textile History Museum, which has spent the past two years transforming its staid display cases into a dynamic, interactive playground. Although spotlights are trained on splashy crowd-pleasers (latter-day technology like fireproof gear and astronaut garb), Lowell’s edgiest claim to fame is embodied in a series of unassuming fabric samples, which recount a fascinating tale of the city’s trend-setting era.

In much of 19th-century America, wardrobe options were fairly bleak. Fabric with vivid colors and intricate patterns was all the rage in Europe, but the laborious hand-production it required made it prohibitively expensive. Then Lowell-based Merrimack Manufacturing pioneered the inking of cloth by roller printer, and suddenly even middle-class housewives could afford stylish, colorful dresses, not just the Isabella Stewart Gardners who could jaunt off to Paris for fittings. Lowell and the surrounding region became, for a spell, the epicenter of a fashion revolution, the reverberations of which we still feel today. Not the worst heritage for a city on the rebound.

INVENTION Merrimack and New Hampshire–based Cocheco introduced roller printers to the U.S. in the 1820s; the machines ran fabric continuously through a series of engraved copper cylinders inked with as many as 20 colors.

PRODUCTION Previously, cloth was printed by hand with wooden blocks, requiring legions of stampers and inkers. Sixty yards of a four-color print could take more than 15 work hours. The same job on a roller printer: two minutes. Price per yard dropped from 22 cents in the 1820s to five cents 60 years later.

VARIATION Companies saved swatches for sales purposes as well as for internal records. The American Textile History Museum owns 5 million such samples, 10,000 from Cocheco alone.

NEW GENERATION Roller printing’s heyday ended when even-cheaper silkscreening arrived in the 1930s. But the museum’s new exhibits also explore how Massachusetts companies today are turning recycled bottles into performance fleece and making inflatable tents for troops in Iraq—proving our fabled textile industry is far from dead.

In addition to its permanent displays, the American Textile History Museum resumes its schedule of changing exhibits this month. With any luck, it will repeat the success it had in 1998, when crowds flocked to its showing of Princess Diana’s dresses. 491 Dutton St., Lowell, 978-441-0400,

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