When the Industrial Revolution came to New England factories sprang up in towns and cities across the region and, Stonington Borough was no exception. By the middle of the 20th-century industry started to move to the south where cheaper labor was available and many of the old mills in New England sat empty, slowly deteriorating. Instead of tearing the old mills down the idea of converting these mills into malls, craft centers, condos, and business parks became popular. One such success story is the Velvet Mill in Stonington, Connecticut.
The Velvet Mill was built in 1888 by the town of Stonington to try and entice new industry to the area and it found a tenant in A. Wimpfheimer & Bro., Inc. The company imported velvet from abroad and sold it to merchants and consumers. This was before the advent of synthetic fabrics and velvet was a lot more popular than it is today. Britain had a monopoly on the manufacture of velvet until the passage of the McKinley Act in 1891which made it possible to start competitively manufacturing velvet in this country.
The Wimpfheimer family opened the American Velvet Company in 1892, transforming the sleepy fishing village of Stonington into a manufacturing center. At its peak, in the 1950s, the Mill was the largest producer of velvet in the United States operating approximately 300 broad looms and employing 450 workers. By the end of the 20th century, rising labor and manufacturing costs in New England prompted A. Wimpfheimer & Bro., Inc. to move its operations to Virginia.
In 2010 the Velvet Mill was put up for auction and a group of three investors from Westerly bought the property. A year later they sold it to Velvet Mill Equities LLC. The managing partner, Eric Pivco, told me of his vision for the Velvet Mill, of it becoming a relevant and active part of the local community. His vision was for the mill to be home to artists’ studios, craftsmen, retail operations, restaurants, galleries, and personal service companies. The mill has come a long way in the last 11 years from when it was used primarily for industrial and boat storage. The Velvet Mill management continues to develop its adapted reuse with the goal of making it more of a daily operation rather than just a weekend destination.
As you wander through the old mill building you’ll find an incredible variety of businesses, shops, and artists’ studios offering visual arts, design, unique crafts, creative classes, health & healing services, fitness classes, and professional services. The Mill is also home to an artisanal bakery, an award-winning nano-brewery, a wood-fired pizza restaurant, an espresso bar, and a new bistro-style restaurant.
Once, the walls of this old mill echoed with the sound of manufacturing. Today the Velvet Mill has been reimagined and serves a new purpose. If you’re looking for something more than cookie-cutter malls, a place where you can shop at really unique stores, watch artists and craftsman at work, have a massage or do yoga, get a cold beer and a meal, and visit the popular farmer’s market give the Velvet Mill a try.