Weaving America's Spirit for Over a Century

Weaving America’s Spirit for Over a Century

Sheep Industry News Editor

(Dec. 1, 2012) A pillar of the American wool industry and one that has endured the test of time for more than a century is Pendleton Woolen Mills. Just as a number of sheep operations have been handed down from generation to generation, the leadership at Pendleton has spanned that of six generations.

The legacy of the company started in 1863 with Thomas Kay, an English weaver, who headed westward for America’s newest state at the time – Oregon. Upon arrival, he helped organize a woolen mill in Brownsville and oversaw the weaving operation. As it is stated in the company’s history, “From these humble beginnings rose a dyed-in-the-wool American success story.”

Kay’s oldest daughter Fannie, who was working in the family mill, married C.P. Bishop, a retail merchant, and the couple had three sons, Clarence, Roy and Chauncey. It was in 1909 when the three sons started up an idle mill in Pendleton, Oregon. In September of that year is when the first products emerged from Pendleton Woolen Mills. 

Woolen Indian trading blankets were the main product line until 1912 when the Bishops added a weaving mill in Washougal, Wash., which broadened the company’s capability for fabric variety, such as men’s suiting.

 “Following the success of the brightly colored Indian blankets, the company began weaving woolen shirting fabrics for men in bright colors and patterns. This was at a time when men’s wool shirts were mostly utilitarian, mainly made of dull grays and navy. The company was successful in marketing and selling shirts because they were offering something different,” explains Charles Bishop, current vice president of mill production for Pendleton Woolen Mills.

By 1929, Pendleton was making a full line of men’s virgin wool sportswear and in 1949 the company started producing a womenswear line in which the 49er jacket gained instant popularity.

“The addition of the womenswear turned out to be really successful for the company and we have been able to grow and expand from there,” says Bishop. “The key to our brand over the years has been our quality and woolen fabrics.”

Wool Use
“We have an amazing history with our wool growers,” explains Bishop, who says Pendleton has been buying wool from some of the same growers for 100 years. “It is pretty extraordinary to be able to have that kind of relationship with our wool growers and have the ability to count on them for quality and delivery.”

Also integral to Pendleton’s success has been the person who purchases their wool. Currently, Dan Gutzman resides in this position. He followed in the footsteps of only two other men in the company’s more than 100-year history.

Due to demand and supply restrictions, Gutzman purchases about half of Pendleton’s woolen needs domestically. He states, “We really intend to stock our program with domestic wool if we can find it and if it’s within our parameters.”

Those parameters include a micron count of 21 to 26, although Gutzman relays that fashion is starting to require finer and lighter-weight fabrics which could shift their wool buying to the finer side. 

Lots that have been skirted and classed are also preferred. “Classing and skirting can be done at the ranch which will help us better understand what a grower is producing for the year. Wools can change a bit every year, so the ability to class and skirt those wools and sort them in qualities that we can better understand is important. We can better pay for these wools versus ones that are just thrown into a bag.”

Another important parameter for Gutzman when buying wool for Pendleton is the amount of paint or branding fluid found in the wool. Paint limits their ability to make different colored fabrics and has really become a focus of his over the past few years.
Once the scoured wool arrives at the Washougal mill, it is spun into yarn on the woolen system.  Yarn that is spun on the woolen system tends to be shorter and is used when making flannel or other fabrics with texture. Worsted yarns are longer, straighter and finer. They are combed and spun to make suiting and shirt fabrics. Pendleton has the ability to dye the fiber at different stages of development: in fiber form, as yarn or once it’s weaved into a fabric.

The finishing process is the final step in fabric development. It is then rolled up and shipped to a variety of customers and businesses, from those who purchase only a few rolls a year to Fortune 500 companies that have very specific shipping requirements. And in the case of blankets, they are cut, labeled and packaged for customers at the Washougal mill.

Staying Relevant with Customers
“We have a diverse customer base,” says Bishop. “We try to stay consumer driven and make products that our customers want to buy.” With the expansion of Pendleton Home products and The Portland Collection for men and women, the company has broadened its customer base even further over the past several years.

Also playing part in the Pendleton’s success is the collaborated efforts and relationship that the company has been able to build with other labels. This has helped the company develop new products and reach different consumer markets. Some of those collaborated efforts have been with Opening Ceremony, Nike, Levis, Hurley and most recently, Dr. Martens.

“We have been using social media and other tools to stay relevant and reach out to our consumers,” says Bishop, explaining that their efforts are really rooted in wool and the quality of the fiber. Pendleton blogs help the company build a strong sense of community and interaction with their customers. 

“Consumers, and particularly younger consumers, are interested in sustainable products; they want to know where it came from and how it is made. As a vertically integrated company, we are in a unique position in which people can see how the product is made through a mill tour. This provides value and something that our competitors cannot, especially the mass-produced product coming out of Asia.”

Moving Beyond the Challenges
Just as the producers of wool are challenged with increased costs associated with business, so too are those at Pendleton. Bishop says that the price and volatility of the wool market is a challenge to work with; however, they are in the market to purchase more wool.

“We understand the challenges growers are faced with but we would love to see more wool available,” explains Bishop, further saying that he would like to see production increases worldwide, but especially in the United States. “Whether you are a wool and textile manufacturer or a wool grower, I think there are real opportunities for younger people to get involved in the industry.”

Gutzman says he is seeing some generational shifts in the sheep operations that he buys wool from, which is encouraging for him as forecasting for Pendleton’s wool purchases with a decreasing clip is difficult.

Bishop echoed the importance of the wool grower in the success of their business, saying, “Wool growers are a critical partner and we couldn’t run without them.”

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