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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Icy Norman, April 6 and 30, 1979. Interview H-0036. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

From frustration to a love of her work at a textile mill

Norman remember struggling to learn her way around the weaving room at Linksburg Mill. She cried when finally confronted with her lack of expertise, but an understanding boss explained the process. She was so frustrated with the learning process, and so uncomfortable with the drinking that went on at payday, that she would "go home and cry all night," but she kept waking up and returning to work, and with help and encouragement from her employers, she gradually mastered her craft. Eventually, she impressed the mill owner, Spencer Love, with her skill and ingenuity.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Icy Norman, April 6 and 30, 1979. Interview H-0036. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

It went on then, and then they took me off of my box and carried me over there and put me with Essie Gammons. Old man Smith told her, "You teach her everything about handling the yarn, how to tie it up, how to find the ends." Well, you know, she was on piecework. She was after making every penny. I could understand that. I could understand it. She wouldn't let me open a pack of yarn. She wouldn't let me touch that yarn. All she'd let me do, she let me take the full spools off and put the empty ones on. She never let me try to put up one end. Well, it went on there about the middle of the week. Mr. Smith and Dewey McBride come over there. Mr. Smith says, "Mr. Copland says to give you that little winder, that forty-three end winder over there. Come on." I thought to myself, I'm going out the other door. It scared me to death. Went on over there, Dewey, he weighed up. They was in ten-pound packages. And it was five skeins in a hank. They called them a hank. You'd pull a hank out and shake it out and you had five skeins there. Dewey marked me up ten pounds. I said, "There ain't no need to mark that up." He says, "Why? They give you a job." I says, "I can't help it. I don't know one thing about that. Old man Jim, he looked at me. He says, "What's the matter?" I says, "Well, you want me to tell you the truth, don't you? I don't know nothing about that. I've never fetched one of them packs. I've never opened a pack. I've never pulled a skein out. I've never put a skein on. I don't know how to cut the tie bands. I don't know which way the tie bands go." About that time Jim Copland come over. Old man Smith, I can see him. He had a wad of tobacco in his mouth. He yanked that old hat out. He throwed it down. He spit in it, jumped on it. He was just cussing up a storm. Mr. Copland come up. I was sitting there crying. I was scared to death. He sat down, he put his arm around me, "Honey, what's the matter?" I says, "They give me that pack of yarn and told me to go to work. Mr. Copland, I don't know nothing about it. I'm going home." He says, "No you ain't going home. I give you a job and you going to work on that job." I says, "You ain't give me nothing for I don't know nothing about it." He says, "Didn't that girl teach you?" I looked at him. I says, "You want me to tell you the truth? My daddy always told me to tell the truth if it hurt me." He says, "Yeah. I want you to tell me the truth. I'll believe what you'll tell me." I told him, I says, "All she ever let me done, she let me take the full spools off and put the empty ones on. She never let me cut a tie band, she never let me touch that yarn. She never let me open my pack of yarn. Mr. Copland, I don't know nothing about it." I was just a boo-hooing. Tears was just rolling. And he was trying to get me up. I says, "I'm not touching that I'm afraid of it." And Dewey McBride, he opened it up. He says, "Come here." I went over there and I stood. And he showed me how to open a pack up. Well, there lay it all. It was the prettiest whitest yarn, as white as snow. And five skeins in a hank. He took up a hank and ran his arm through it and kind of shook it. There was five skeins. He showed me how to put a skein on. You run your hand in it and kind of straighten it out. Then you pick this reel up and start and go over it. You've seen an old spinning wheel?
MARY MURPHY:
Ah-huh.
ICY NORMAN:
Well, that's the way they was except they had spokes up here on the side and it was empty here in the middle. But it had a band from this leg to this leg. That helped the yarn up. Then you would pull them bands up and tighten the yarn and hitch it on to the spool. It would go around and around. He showed me how to do that. He says, "Now here's one tie band that's got the end to it. It's a different color. Be sure to put your knots, all your knots will be on the right side. Cut all your other bands and then come back to this here certain band with the end to it." He showed me how to start it up. Says, "Now you try it." I says, "I ain't going to do it. I'm scared of it. I'll mess it up." He says, "No you won't." I says, "No, uh-uh. I'm going home." So he turned around and walked off. Mr. Copland was still sitting there. He says, "You come down here and sit down. I want to talk to you. Now, honey, I give you this winder. You going to make a good hand. I says, "Mr. Copland, I can't do that, for I don't know how." He says, "Well, I'm going to help you." He rolled his sleeves up and he helped me get that side of yarn on. He went down to the next one, Ethel Glenn, now Ethel Smith. Her sister was working on that other frame. They told both of them, "If you see her can't find an end, you go down there and help her." Well, here was the end broke. I seen they would run their fingers around and turn this swift until the end would come up. But I was afraid I'd mess it up. I'd roll the wheel, the swift around, but I couldn't see no end. Mr. Spivey, he come by. He stopped and was talking. Some of the yarn had run out, the empty swifts were standing there. I was still crying and I told him all about it. He helped me get it straightened out. Put it on. Just like Mr. Copland did. He says, "Look, if an end breaks, you just let it go. Then me or Dewey McBride or somebody they'll come and help you find it." I says, "Well, I'm scared I'll mess it up." He says, "We'll help you." So it went on. I'd go home and I'd cry all night long. I'd get up the next morning and my eyes swelled shut. Mama just talked to me. She was so patient. So it went on.
MARY MURPHY:
Were you getting paid now?
ICY NORMAN:
I was getting paid for what little I done. That wasn't much. I think I made a quarter one day. So it went on there. I think I made a quarter one day and one day I made fifteen cents. Anyway, I didn't draw but a dollar. And I just cried. I told mama, I says, "I wish I was back in Linksburg. I was making two dollars a day. I ain't making nothing. I won't never make a winder." All of them girls, they was on piecework, they'd make anywhere from twelve, fourteen, fifteen dollars a week. I knowed I never could. So I'd just cry about it. And poor Mr. Copland would come and sit and talk to me. Well, everyone of them was so nice to me. They didn't talk hateful to me. If they had I'd a went running out of that mill. one day Mr. Love, he come by and he sit down. He says, "Well little girl, how you doing?" When he first sit down, I didn't know who he was. I didn't know he owned that mill. Him and his daddy, you know. He was goodlooking. He was young then. He says, "You look like you been crying." I sat down and I says, "You know I hate this place." And I started crying. He put his arm around my neck. He says, "Don't cry. We all have to go through this." I says, "Yeah. I got a mama and a little sister to take care of. I ain't making nothing." He says, "You know one thing. Thems the ones that make the best hands."
MARY MURPHY:
What did he mean by that?
ICY NORMAN:
I didn't know, I didn't know what he meant. He says, "Thems the ones that make the best hands. Honey, don't cry. You'll catch on to it." Oh, all the rest of them was just working up a storm and making money and me doing nothing. Well, Ethel and her sister, I really did like them. If I got messed up, both of them would help, they'd have their side a running. Well, they wouldn't have nothing to do until it run out and they'd start putting on more. They'd come down there and they'd help me. They'd help me find my ends. And they'd show me. They showed more about winding than Essie Gammons. Essie Gammons didn't show me nothing. Old man Smith went up there and carried her in the office and what he said to her, Lord knows I don't know. But I told the truth because mama and papa always told me, "Tell the truth if it means it's going to hurt you. Don't never tell a lie about nothing." I was raised to tell the truth and I told the truth. From that day until the day she left the mill she never spoke to me. Well it went on, Ethel and her sister would help me. Finally I got to the place I'd keep my side up pretty good. The first big check—it wasn't a check, it was money in a little envelope—I drawed five dollars. I thought, well that's better than drawing a dollar. I went home but I was still crying. Because I knowed what was on me. There was mama and Florence and myself. So I was so disheartened. Mama says, "It's all going to work out, the Lord's going to help you. He's going to be with you. I have prayed that the Lord's going to help you." I says, "I ain't getting no help now." Back then I was a sinner, you know. My poor mama, she was a good Christian woman, her and my daddy both. So I kept on working. First thing you know, back then they had a board. They'd put each day, where your name was, how many pounds you run, production. There was a production sheet, that's what they called it. Well, I never would look at mine for mine was so pitiful. Everybody else, they was it. And I felt I was nothing. I think that was one reason I cried so, because I couldn't compete with them. So one day it seemed just like something spoke to me, "You can do it. Get in there and do it." Just as plain. I thought, I says, "Well, there's all of them girls working making good money. If they can do it, I can, too." After whatever it was, I don't know what it was, but it just seemed like something just spoke, "You can do it. Get in there and do it." I looked around and I didn't see nobody. Well, that got me to studying. I thought, "Well, maybe I can do it." I went to work and I worked, oh brother, I worked fighting fire. I got so I could put the yarn on real good. I'd cut a leave blank and I'd wet it and flip it up on the spool. It would go just a flying. First things you know I run two packs of yarn that day. I was so tickled because I hadn't been running sometimes a half a pack a day. I run two packs. Dewey McBride says, "You getting a little better, ain't you?" I didn't say nothing. He made me mad because he thought when he put me over there I already knowed all about it. And I still carried that in my mind. I never spoke to him. I went on there, ripped that old pack open and I went to putting it on. I went to tying it up. Well, I got them all going. Ethel come down there, she says, "Bless your heart. You're getting better, ain't you. I noticed on the board you're hitting around two packs." I says, "What?" I didn't let on. I knowed I run two packs. I says, "I didn't even look at that old board." She says, "Honey, you ought to look at it every day." I says, "I did. I'm so downhearted. I hate this place." She says, "Don't feel that way about it. You doing good." She and her sister would brag on me. So I run two that day. I run two more packs. I said, "I'm running two packs a day." Next day I worked just as hard as I could work. Next day I run my two packs. I went down to the scales and I said, "Dewey, I want another pack of yarn." He says, "WHAT!" just like that. I says, "I want another pack of yarn." He says, "What have you done with that other one, put it in the waste can?" I says, "No. I run every skein of it." He give me another pack and I run half of it. That was two packs and a half. Well it was a little bit better than the other two days. I kept on going but I never would go on over and look at that production sheet. Here come Mr. Love and his daddy. They sit down there and got to talking. Spence says, "Honey, come on over here. I want my daddy to talk to you." I drawed up. I knowed he owned the mill, him and Spence together. But I'd been talking to Spence but I didn't know that was his name. I just talked plain to him. Come to find out him and his daddy own that mill. You could have pushed me over with a feather when I found it out. I went over there, his daddy slid down on the box. He says, "I want you to sit down right here." I sat down right between them. He got to talking, he says, "Spence has been telling me what a hard time you had. Honey, don't feel bad about it. Everybody has to learn. I had to learn. It was hard for me to learn. Spence there had to learn." When he said "Spence" then I knowed they was the ones that owned the mill. I could have went through that box. He says, "He had to learn." I looked up at him and I says, "Are you all Mr. Loves? Lord mercy, here I've been talking to your boy telling him all my troubles and a crying. Telling him how bad I hated my job. And he owned the mill. I apologize. But I do hate it." He says, "Little girl, you're doing fine. Mr. Copland is real proud of you." I says, "Mr. Copland's been knowing me ever since I was a baby." Him and his daddy sat there and talked to me. Every time they'd come through the mill—we'd have boxes back here at the back of us to put our yarn in— they'd sit down there. They'd say, "Come here, I want to talk to you a little bit." If they hadn't encouraged me like they did. And Mr. Copland. I wouldn't have stayed in that mill as long as water would have got hot. I hated it. And on payday, them men, especially on second shift and a lot of them on daytime, they'd slip out, I don't know where they'd get it, they'd bring the stuff in there and get started drinking and they wouldn't know one end from the other.
MARY MURPHY:
Did the supervisors…
ICY NORMAN:
No, they went home. They'd get drunk. They'd have a ball. And the supervisor went home. Now the supervisors didn't drink, it was the help. Well it went on then, old Odell come in there. Did he take Mr. Copland's place? But, anyway, went on, and boy I was just working up a storm. First thing you know, old man Smith come over there and says, "Come over here." I thought, "Oh, what have I done?" Went over there, he says, "I want to talk to you and I want to show you something." I thought I had done something that he was going to fire me. He was worser than Mr. Copland. Boy, now he was an old bear, an old tyrant when he was mad. I went over there and thought, "Lord, mercy, what have I done?" He carried me over there to that production sheet, he says, "You see that production sheet?" I says, "Well, Mr. Smith, that's the first time I ever looked at it." He says, "Why?" I says, "Well, because I knowed there wasn't no need to me a looking to see what I done for I didn't do nothing much. Wasn't no need of me coming over here and looking at it." He says, "Well, from now on I want you to look at that production sheet. Look up there at your name." I looked. I says, "Yeah, I see my name up there." He says, "I'm going to tell you one thing. I'm really proud of you. Mr. Copland's coming here and he's going to talk to you. I'm really proud of you. You know, this end of this week—that was on Monday morning—you was the top winder." I backed away and I says, "No." He says, "Well, there it is on the board. You is the top." You know one thing, it wasn't long before Mr. Copland come down there. And he had Spencer Love with him. They was talking to me about how proud they was of me. Well that made me feel good. If you do anything and anybody admires you, it boosts you up, don't it. Well, that boosted me up. And they says, "Well, I'm really proud of you. You're the top winder." Well, it went on, I guess about six months after that. The truck brought in some yarn and it was damaged. He turned over somewhere or other. Anyway, he had damaged the yarn, busted the boxes open. Them old wooden boxes hitting that yarn and just made it matted, you know. They wanted us to try to run it. It wasn't no way, every time it come around to that matted place it would stop. I put it up on my post, I beat it, but that old matted place wouldn't come out, wouldn't come out for nobody. Finally I got to looking at it. I put it on the reel and I cut one, the end and everything, pulled the tie bands out. I got to turning that thing, got to looking at it. It looked like it was a way you could save some of it. Dewey McBride said they was going to have to make waste out of every bit of that truckload. It was just all matted. Looked like you just took it and rubbed it. I got to looking at that thing and running my finger under there. I kept running my finger until my finger would go all the way around the reel. And it wouldn't hit that fuzzy place. [END OF TAPE 3, SIDE A] [TAPE 3, SIDE B] [START OF TAPE 3, SIDE B]
ICY NORMAN:
I didn't know Jim Copland and Spence Love was back up there. Well, I seen them, too. I take that back. I seen them up there talking, but I thought they was talking about, you know. But they was watching me, come to find out they was watching me. I kept running my finger around there and it was all smooth. I took my scissors and went through there and whacked it off. I pulled it off. My end come up in my hand. I put that old matted place in the waste can. Started it up and it run just as pretty as you please. Well, I put another skein on and I done it the same way. And they was up there watching me. I was on my third skein. I was running around, my finger was running smooth around, and would run into that mat. I started to make a whack. Mr. Copland says, "Honey, wait just a minute." I thought, "Lord, I done it this time." For you supposed to run every inch of that yarn. But it wasn't no way you could do that yarn, because they done said they was going to have to make waste out of it. He says, "I want to see that." I says, "Well, Mr. Copland, I thought it was better to save a little bit than throw it all away." Mr. Love spoke up and said, "You're right. I want to know how you figured that out." I says, "I just figured it out. I thought that maybe we could save some of it." So I whacked it. They was standing there seeing me. I throwed it in the trash. He says, "I want to see that yarn after you start it up." I started it up. He run around and looked, he says, "You got every bit of the fuzz. You know that is really good. I'm proud that you thought of that. We can save part of that truckload. Why aren't them other winders doing that?" I says, "I don't know." I went on and I had mine just… They come down there and say, "How you getting that matted stuff to run?" I says, "The matted places ain't going to run. You got to cut them out." "I wouldn't cut one out for nothing. You'll ruin the whole skein." I says, "Well, you see mine's running." It went to running out and I put on another matted and they stood there and watched me. I cut it out and started it up. They said, "I'm going back and I'm going to try it." They went back and they cut too deep. They ruined the whole skein. They come down there and wanted me to come up there and show them how I done it. I said, "I showed you with that skein there I put on." "Yeah, but I want you to show me on my winder." I says, "Alright." I went up there. They put a skein on. They pulled the bands out. I started where that fuzz was, I picked it up. I run my finger under it. I kept bringing the swift over, my finger was going on around. It come to where it was smooth. "Now cut it," I says, "right there where my finger is at." And they did. By me doing that we saved part of that truck. I forget how many hundred dollars that was going to cost.
MARY MURPHY:
Did the company ever give people rewards when they thought of ways to do things better?
ICY NORMAN:
No, well that ain't been over eight or nine years ago. If you wrote a slogan they would give you a silver dollar if they put—no. I sure did make plenty of suggestions in that mill. Sometimes they would work out. They would fix it and they was real proud. Sometimes they paid no attention to it. After I got used to be in there. And I really loved my work.