Northwest Woolen Mill

Back to the Work: Tom Bouckaert

Back to the Work, our project with Lippitt House Museum, aims to reveal the human fingerprints that cover our world, specifically because of work concerning construction (read: houses), manufacturing (read: textiles), and maintenance (read: cleaning). We are also connecting the past to the present by revealing history to be the accumulation of practices that have brought us here, rather than a tidy timeline of isolated events. In order to do all that, we're both researching who labored in the house at the time of its construction in 1865, and interviewing the people who labor in Lippitt House today. 

On Monday we had the distinct pleasure of talking with Tom Bouckaert, Vice President at Bouckaert Industrial Textiles. We found Tom through Ann Conway, the Director of the Museum of Work and Culture in Woonsocket, which honors the industrial history of Woonsocket, historically centered in the French Canadian culture. (For more on the Museum and our interest in it, you can read an older blog post here.)

We met with Tom on a Monday afternoon in the Museum, which is closed on Mondays, allowing us to have a cozy chat in the display of a classic triple decker.

Tom spent years on the floor of textile mills -- first his father's in Chicago and eventually his own in Woonsocket. Along the way he teamed up with Northwest Woolen Mill, which is one of the last textile mill in Rhode Island.

Talking with Tom for this project was a treat. Just like Marie and Dave, Tom is passionate and articulate about his work. He had incredible things to say about listening to the machines, mentoring future generations of American workers, and seeing the textiles -- made by humans! -- everywhere. From dollar bills to Kleenex, textiles are in more places than you can imagine. Though he hasn't officially worked on the floor for a long time, it's clear that his never-ending curiosity about how to improve and tinker and make better these sophisticated pieces of machinery is what keeps him going. Not surprising for a guy who went to school for aerospace engineering. . .

What struck me most in the interview is how specialized our lives are; how expert we become in things if we work at it. Sharing this expertise changes the way I see the objects all around me. I hope we communicate that to all the people who come experience the final product. This built environment was made because of people like Tom who have devoted their lives to the tireless work of figuring out the next solution.