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
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.
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:
- 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
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
I says, "Well, I'm scared I'll mess it
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
- 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
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
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
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
She says, "Honey, you ought to look at it every day."
I says, "I did. I'm so downhearted. I hate this
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
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
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
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
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
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
- MARY MURPHY:
Did the company ever give people rewards when they thought of ways to do
- 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.