Carpet Cowboys Review | Meet the Community Creating the World’s Carpets


If you’ve ever visited a hotel, casino, or office building, there’s a high chance you’ve walked on a carpet produced in Dalton, Georgia. You wouldn’t know it, but the little-known city produces around 90% of the world’s functional carpets. From the plainest of the plain to gaudy and eclectic patterns, almost all the carpets you see out and about originate in Dalton. A small town in the south of the USA experiencing such a boom in job opportunities and wealth made the American dream a reality for those seeking their fortune. But what happens when the boom becomes more of a steady and expected growth rate and there’s no room for intrepid young carpet designers to make a name for themselves?

The documentary Carpet Cowboys explores just that. It covers both the ins and outs of the Dalton carpet industry as well as the more intricate personal details of some of the men in the business. Co-directors Emily Mackenzie and Noah Collier have a great eye for balancing these two components of the movie, which are equally fascinating.

With an interesting and undersung topic alongside subtle but beautiful visuals, Carpet Cowboys depicts its world with clarity. It’s essential for documentaries to get viewers who aren’t well acquainted with the subject on board just as much as those who were already interested, and this does so excellently.

The Cowboys in Question

Along the Carpet Cowboys journey, we meet a number of different people involved in the carpet industry. Some of the interviewees include Lee Phillips, a man whose company is devoted to testing the durability of carpets; Harry Ward, a Dalton native who turned away from the carpet industry; and most significantly, Roderick James, a Scotsman who moved to Dalton in search of his own American dream.

Roderick is given the most attention and screen-time, but all interviewees serve a significant purpose and are able to express their own idiosyncrasies. Harry, for example, talks about working in stone rather than carpet, the environmental impact of the carpet industry, and then discusses how he finds faces in rocks and believes humans hand-carved them long ago.

All moments, big and small, are given their time to shine, and because of this we get to see Lee going to a vet to pick up pet feces in order to see how well it stains a carpet. Also at the stress testing company, there are employees whose whole job is to walk in circles around different carpet samples to once again assess how the carpet holds up. The 20,000 passes they must do take about two weeks of work, and it’s amazing to learn the amount of stages that go into producing something that most people don’t give much thought to when they encounter it as consumers.

When it comes to Roderick, who sounds alarmingly like Brian Cox, he is the perfect subject for exploring the documentary’s central themes of industry and the American dream. Despite his Scottish background, Roderick is rarely seen without the American flag somewhere on his clothing, and he has a cowboy hat on at all times. He reveals that his friends in Dalton call him the Scottish Cowboy. Roderick is a man who talks a big game, boasting about the carpets he has designed and future projects that may or may not come to fruition. He has just the right level of unbridled self-confidence to always be chasing the next dream, believing everything to be achievable.

Careful Conflict

Lloyd and Doug Caldwell in Carpet Cowboys

To take the niche subject of carpet manufacturing and turn it into a character study and exploration of American mythmaking is no simple task. But with such attention to detail when it comes to both the interviewees and visual observations, the documentary is turned into more than just the sum of its parts.

Whether the filmmakers had any preconceived notions of their subjects or personal biases, nothing of the kind comes across in the depiction of Dalton and its residents. Each interviewee and their story is presented without judgment, which benefits them and the audience, who are able to make up their own mind on these interesting characters.

The same level of care has been given to the all-important visuals. Dalton has some beautiful and vast scenery, which Roderick compares to the Scottish Highlands, and is essential to represent faithfully. This is because it provides an interesting contrast with the interiors of the factories and warehouses used for the production of their carpets. Juxtaposing industrial facilities with rolling hills highlights the incongruity of this small Georgian town being such a significant part of the world’s buildings. You would never know or expect the carpets of a Las Vegas casino to originate from the same place as those in a hotel in New York City, but they do, and that place is the gorgeous Dalton.

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Carpet Is a Character in Itself

Roderick James in Carpet Cowboys

Given that carpets seem to permeate every aspect of Dalton, the reverence that most of the subjects have for them is unsurprising. Deep sincerity is given to the topic of carpets, whether the interviewee is speaking positively or negatively, there’s no avoiding how integral the subject is to each of their identities. One subject describes it as “the canvas on which all other art rests,” which provides a great image for the way they understand it as something bigger than flooring.

The industry provides countless jobs for those in and around the town, and the factories and warehouses are everywhere. Homes have had to be destroyed in order to make room for new carpet businesses. To make sense of the fact that his childhood home was one of those that was torn down, an interviewee says “it’s all part of the cycle,” because his home is gone, but new jobs were created.

In this way, carpets have become a kind of deity for the community in and around Dalton — the industry provides as well as destroys. This framing makes it easier to understand why the two sides of this documentary’s coin work so well together. Both thematically and visually, the movie is composed of contrasting elements, and this reflects the reality of Dalton. For the members of the community that are spoken to here, this contrast brews conflict and discontent, driving the need for a mythologization of the town and its carpets.

The All-Important American Dream

Roderick James in Carpet Cowboys

This is where the American dream comes into play. There is a dogged devotion that many of these men have to their industry that is inspiring and depressing at the same time. Roderick spends a significant chunk of Carpet Cowboys chasing after new design jobs and contracts, and none of them look hopeful. However, the way he speaks about finding inspiration all around him in nature shows that the work can still be fulfilling for him. When an industry has already peaked, is it still a viable place to seek your American dream?

The idea of this industry waning is a large presence in the documentary, and when it’s revealed that it was shot in 2019, another layer is added. With the benefit of hindsight, we know that the COVID-19 pandemic was right around the corner, and it was something that had an enormous impact on the global economy and wiped out countless businesses. So, there is an extra reason to be concerned for these people’s livelihoods.

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Here we have one of the documentary’s issues, which is that after the majority of the action has taken place, we receive a two years later update. Unfortunately, this doesn’t address the pandemic at all, and doesn’t provide a significant update on a number of key storylines. While it’s understandable that to tackle the impact of the pandemic on the carpet industry could have been too big of a task to squeeze into an epilogue, to ignore it entirely leaves an elephant in the room. The documentary would have been better closed without this epilogue, as it doesn’t provide a great sense of finality but rather just extends some of the action.

Coming in at 85 minutes, the movie is by no means baggy, and sticks tightly to its core themes and ideas. So, this closing issue is not one that hugely impacts the quality of the movie, it just means that the final section is not as concise as the rest of it. Carpet Cowboys successfully generates interest in Dalton and its carpet production by conveying clearly how the industry has become larger than life for this community, which feeds into the national proclivity for mythologization. It’s industrial yet pastoral, focused yet grand, and bleak yet inspiring.

From MEMORY, Carpet Cowboys opens in LA and NYC on August 25th, with more to come on September 15th.

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