Places That Matter | Latinos in Rhode Island

Lyon Silk Works | Central Falls, RI

The Lyon Fabrics textile mill building pictured above in 1940s, still stands on the corner of Roosevelt Avenue and Cross Street in Central Falls. While it is part of the Central Falls Historic Mill District, it remained a working mill until 2018.

Lyon Fabrics | 469 Roosevelt Avenue | Central Falls, RI 02863

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This photo shows some updates to the entrance on Roosevelt Avenue. Lyon Silk Works, Inc. was a working mill and still employed descendents of the original Colombian workers until it closed in 2018.

- Photo Courtesy of Marta V. Martinez, 2016

The Colombian population in Rhode Island owes its beginnings to one gentleman who, in the early 1960s, had an insightful idea: Jay Giuttari, whose father owned Lyon Silk Works, Inc, a textile mill in Central Falls, was aware that his father, like other mill owners at that time were having a hard time attracting young people to work in textiles.

At the turn of the century there were many textile mills and an abundance of workers in the textile business in Rhode Island, but by the early 1960s that was changing. Many of the workers at the mills in Central Falls were aging into their 60s and 70s, and it was rare to see a 20-year-old weaver.
Weaving and loom fixing and working in the textile mill were very difficult jobs, and young people preferred jobs that were not so physically demanding. In the early 1960s, Giuttari was living and working in Colombia and it was then that he saw first-hand the highly skilled work of the textile workers in Barranquilla. Because he understood his father’s predicament and because he understood textiles, he knew where to find weavers and loom fixers in Colombia. He visited one of the mills across from his job site in Barranquilla and recruited three men to work in his father’s mill back in Central Falls. The three men were Gustavo Carreño, Valentín Ríos both in their 20s, and factory supervisor Horacio Gil. All three arrived in Rhode Island in March of 1965. Because these men were already skilled workers who had been working in the textile industry in Colombia, they proved to be excellent workers. According to Giuttari, the idea quickly caught on and many other mills in Central Falls and the Blackstone Valley began to recruit Colombian workers to fill the labor shortage in Rhode Island. In the years that followed, business owners from other mills, such as Pontiac and Cadillac (Cumberland, RI) traveled to Medellín and Barranquilla to recruit more workers. It was these men and other workers who followed that stopped the textile business in Rhode Island from fading away in the 1960s.

By the mid-70s, the textile factories stopped recruiting Colombian labor. However, a steady flow of family and friends from Colombia continued to make their way to Rhode Island for the next ten years. Many Colombians began to come to Rhode Island from New York in search of a more peaceful life. Employment opportunities here were good and the promise of a good education, the opportunity to start a business and reunification with family were many reasons for coming to Rhode Island. The promise of jobs were always available to the Colombians who came to Central Falls, and many of the mills employed generations of families because they proved to be hard working and dedicated workers.

In the mid-1980s, however, all that changed when most of the mills and factories began to slow production and the owners were forced to lay off hundreds of workers as they prepared for the businesses to shut down for good. This posed an especially difficult problem for Colombians employed at these factories. Many workers began moving to North Carolina, where it was rumored that the textile mills there were looking for workers. It was especially difficult for those who had come in the early years, because they did not feel like uprooting their families for a second time.

Many families did not, however, believe that their lives were over when the mills began to close down. Instead, they saw this as an opportunity to seek new skills, including the learning of the English language. Many of today's Colombian families who grew up in Central Falls saw this as an opportunity to enroll in a school of higher learning, and to seek better opportunities for themselves and their families.

Lyon Fabrics, still stands at 469 Roosevelt (on the corner of Roosevelt Avenue and Cross Street) and is part of the Central Falls Historic Mill District.

In 2019, Lyon Fabrics closed as a working mill and countless workers lost their job. In 2020, work was begun to convert this historic site into condominiums. ◼︎
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Above: Vanna Giuttari, Jay's mother, managed the Retail Sales Room at Lyon Fabrics, selling piece goods and creating beautiful custom clothing for her loyal clients. The retail store closed in the 1990s, but the mill continued to operate until 2018, when it was sold to a local developer who has plans to convert it into condominiums.

Below: After it closed in 2018, the mill stood empty and the sign above the Cross Street entrance to the Fabric Retail Room was the only hint left behind revealing its history until 2021, when it was taken down and donated to Rhode Island Latino Arts. With the help of Lori Giutarri, Jay's daughter (pictured below) it was restored and is now part of Nuestras Raíces @RILA's museum collections.

Above: Photo courtesy of Lori Giuttari | Below: Photos by Marta V. Martinez

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