The Shop

A Ceramics Studio Reviving the Economy of a North Carolina Town

August 28, 2017

With its flat, circular base and gradually sloping dome, an adobe mud hut is considered one of the strongest structures in architecture. It was only fitting that Erin Reitz, founder of The Shelter Collection, modeled her ceramics and glassware after the shape: The collection speaks to the strength of a struggling community and the power of art to help them find their footing once again.

The Shelter Collection's ceramics: mugs, glasses, pitchers, vases, crocks, and ramekins.

The Shelter Collection, proudly carried by our Shop, was born in Charleston, South Carolina, but the real heart and soul of the operation is in Star—a North Carolina town with a population just under 1,000, about 50 miles south of Greensboro.

Like many rural North Carolina towns, Star's economy was largely supported by the textile industry, specifically a hosiery factory that provided jobs for much of the town. North Carolina was the center of a booming textile industry that began in the 1820s—an ideal spot due to the state's mild climate, accessible water power, an abundance of raw materials like cotton and lumber, and plenty of cheap labor. The industry grew exponentially during World War I, when the demand rose for American-made textiles used for uniforms and blankets. By 1921, North Carolina was the leading textile-producing state in America. Towns like Star were essentially built around textile factories.

And then in the 1990s, the textile industry took a major downturn. Many attribute this change to the signing of NAFTA in 1994 and the resulting increase in and reliance on imported textiles. Upwards of 100,000 American textile workers lost their jobs during this time and many of North Carolina's factories began closing. In 2001, Star's hosiery factory closed and the company moved its operations to Mexico for cheaper labor and lower production costs.

Central Park NC is a nonprofit with a mission to revive the economies of towns such as Star, which have been affected by factory closings and resulting unemployment. It aims to "promote a new economy based on the sustainable use of the natural and cultural resources of the Central Park region," which includes Star's Montgomery County. An integral part of the program is STARworks, founded by Central Park NC's Executive Director, Nancy Gottovi.

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Top Comment:
“I was an employee of Fieldcrest Cannon/Pillowtex that also went under in 2003 due to NAFTA and the people of Kannapolis NC were very hard hit, as most knew only life at the mill. This is a testament to the resiliency of the people of the area and I wish them and this company well. ”
— Suzanne B.
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STARworks stands for Small Town Area Revitalization. Nancy's vision was to create a handful of jobs in a small Southern community and breathe life back into it by building an arts and design community in Star. Her vision became reality in 2005, when she set up shop in the empty hosiery factory and began to transform the massive space into a ceramics and glassblowing studio. STARworks is now home to artists from around the world, holds workshops, and teaches classes to local high school students. Wet Dog Glass, one of the premier suppliers of glass furnaces in the U.S., calls STARworks home.

STARworks' local clay, waiting to be mixed with collected rainwater. Photo by Artisanal Aperture

The revived space even boasts its own clay factory. Typically, North Carolina potters buy their clay from outside sources—including the potters in Seagrove, North Carolina, one of America's oldest pottery communities. But Nancy wanted everything sourced locally so she brought in a specialist from Japan to dig from local mines and produce a very special clay. Giant rain barrels catch the water that's mixed to make the clay and the old factory machinery was put back into use. It's grittier and earthier than other clays: "a nine-grain version of white bread," Erin says. It's completely unique to Star.

Erin Reitz, founder of The Shelter Collection. Photo by Artisanal Aperture

One state away in Charleston, South Carolina, Erin Reitz—along with her business partner Kerry Speake—was starting an online shopping destination for American-made goods. The shop initially sold only other artists' work, but Erin was itching to produce her own designs. Then Erin met Nancy Gottovi of STARworks. Erin hadn't been able to find anyone in the U.S. to produce glassware in a scalable way, and Nancy had the answer: the factory-turned-studio in Star. Erin had the designs she wanted to bring to life, and Nancy had the facilities to make it happen. Their collaboration would become The Shelter Collection.

A glassblower at STARworks. Photo by Artisanal Aperture

The Shelter Collection's pieces, both glass and ceramic, are all made at STARworks, which has been their sole producer since they launched two years ago. Each piece, always echoing that adobe mud hut shape, uses the local materials and is finished in-house. The Shelter Collection is a part of STARworks' burgeoning artists community and their designs a tangible, beautiful result of Nancy and Erin's vision. STARworks attracts artists-in-residence from all over the world, with the hope that the facility will draw young creatives to the area and in turn, the town will be able to create new businesses to support the influx of visitors.

A ceramic tumbler from The Shelter Collection mimics the shape and sturdiness of an adobe mud hut.

When you pick up one of The Shelter Collection's elegant glasses or tall pitchers, you may be surprised at how durable they feel. Though their appearance exudes an airy breathiness, they're meant for everyday use. Each has its own slight differences, a result of hand finishing. "It adds to the soulfulness of the experience," says Erin.

The Shelter Collection draws much of its inspiration from a road trip that Erin took to New Mexico. Photo by Artisanal Aperture

Erin compares investing in her pieces to the investment we put into eating thoughtfully, sustainably, and with integrity. “So many people understand the importance of ingredients and where food comes from. People are more willing to pay for higher quality food." So what of the plate on which you're eating, or the glass from which you're sipping? To Erin, that should be as much a part of the experience as where the vegetables were sourced. Like the organic chicken you buy and the farm where it was raised, the Shelter Collection is part of a bigger story. Think of it as a link to a community that's finding its way out of a dark time, and getting a little brighter every day.

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7 Comments

Elisabeth F. August 29, 2017
Beautiful story! It's wonderful to hear that communities like this can grow and gather around handmade craft, weaving themselves into a tapestry that tells a story of revival.
 
Suzanne B. August 28, 2017
So happy to hear about the rebirth of this town. I was an employee of Fieldcrest Cannon/Pillowtex that also went under in 2003 due to NAFTA and the people of Kannapolis NC were very hard hit, as most knew only life at the mill. This is a testament to the resiliency of the people of the area and I wish them and this company well.<br />
 
Noreen F. August 28, 2017
I was able to tour STARworks a few years ago on a visit to relatives who live in the area. What they're doing is really impressive.
 
amazinc August 28, 2017
These items are truly gorgeous and I would love to have them in sets, but neither I, nor anyone I know can shell out $52, plus $9 shipping, for a single small glass.
 
The B. August 28, 2017
Unfortunately, we are spoiled with cheap overseas labor. When things are made by hand in America, this is what they cost. Cheap disposable crap has tainted our perception of the worth of the things around us. $61 for something you will use and love everyday is hardly out of budget if you consider your clothing or the cost of a nice meal out. This article is very educational. Thank you Olivia and Star for reminding us of the value of our belongings!
 
P.R. G. August 29, 2017
I agree. I dont get to have nice meals out or buy nicer clothes. I wish they were more affordable because they are nice.
 
Kelsey B. August 28, 2017
I grew up about an hour from Star and never knew this rich history. Very proud! Can't wait to gift some of these products to North Carolina family (and myself, duh). Thanks for telling this story, Olivia!