“Michael Borek’s Laceworks photographs were shot in a ghost-like atmosphere of a decommissioned factory in Pennsylvania. With laces still in the looms, chairs on the stage of the company’s theater, the images capture dissonance between quiet beauty and troubling reality.”
Milena Kalinovska, Hirshhorn Museum
One Friday, in May 2002, Robert Hine, vice president of Scranton Lace Co., called all employees together in the middle of their shift to break the news that the factory was closing, effective immediately. “People were shocked,” said Robert Christy, a weaver at the plant. “Since I’ve been there, I heard the rumors about closing, but you never think today will be the day.”
This day came 105 years after the company was founded in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1897. At its heyday, in the early 20th century, Scranton Lace employed over 1,400 people. Its looms, made in Nottingham, England, stood two-and-a-half stories tall, were over 50 feet long, and weighed over 20 tons. At one time, Scranton Lace had bowling alleys, a gymnasium, a fully staffed infirmary, and a staff barber. It owned its own cotton field and a coal mine. Its clock tower was a city landmark.
During the World War II, the company expanded its production line to include mosquito and camouflage netting, bomb parachutes, and tarpaulins. After the war, the production returned to cotton yarn, shower curtains and textile laminates used for umbrellas, patio furniture, and pool liners. But, as mechanized looms replaced manual ones, production dwindled. Scranton Lace, once the largest producer of Nottingham lace in the United States, downsized, but ultimately joined the ranks of other craft-style textile manufacturers and shut its doors for good.
Michael Borek explains the genesis of Scranton Lace project. “Friends of friends, after seeing my photographs of deteriorating signs and understanding my affinity for things that are not what they used to be, put me in touch with the current owner of Scranton Lace. In February 2010, I spent two days shooting, in what I thought would be my first and last visit to Scranton. But when I processed the pictures, I realized that I was only just getting acquainted with the factory. I returned to Scranton several times and I finished my shooting in October 2010. I was fascinated by this place where time literally stood still, and one could walk through different areas like an archeologist sifting through the layers of history. The magnificent old Nottingham looms with unfinished lace still in them. The old Singer sewing machines pushed together under large plastic sheets, like ships in a bay waiting for a storm to pass. Huge sheets of punch cards hanging from the racks or stored in many layers, predecessors of now obsolete computer punch-card technology.”
The last workers, sent home in the middle of their shift, left behind some personal belongings, adding a contemporary strata of visual archeology. Some of the resulting juxtapositions embodied Andre Breton’s definition of surrealism as “the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella,” says Michael Borek. He continues: “In another section of the factory, one room had four huge windows. While seemingly identical, sections of these windows were in various stages of disrepair. Behind the glass, nature had taken charge and reclaimed the place. The backlit plants outside created random patterns that contrasted with the geometric structure of the window frames. In spite of the decay, the scene felt majestic and gave me the sense of being in a cathedral with beautiful stained glass windows .”