From your coat to your socks, wool keeps you warm and dry. Textile mills have long been a part of Oregon’s history beginning in the mid-1800s, when woolen mills popped up across the state. This fiber-industry boom played a significant role in the state’s early economy and continues to have a big impact.
Spinning a Yarn
“The woolen industry was hugely important to Oregon’s economy. As early as the 1850s, the mills provided dual economic benefits, both a market for local farmers raising sheep and jobs for local workers,” says Kylie Pine, curator and collections manager, Willamette Heritage Center in Salem. “We estimate that the Thomas Kay Woolen Mill employed at one point in its operations one- fifth of the non-farming population of the city of Salem.”
The Thomas Kay Woolen Mill operated from 1889 to 1962, and was Salem’s second mill after the Willamette Woolen Mill burned in 1875. Pine says these mills became the centers of industry, with towns built around them. During the 19th century, Ashland Woolen Mills and Oregon Woolen Mills were the largest employers in Ashland and Oregon City, respectively. The Portland Woolen Mills opened in the St. Johns neighborhood in 1904. By 1950, the company had become the largest wool manufacturer west of the Mississippi.
Fleece to Fabric
While there are far fewer mills operating today, Oregon still enjoys a solid reputation within the textile industry. Pendleton Woolen Mills specializes in classic wool clothing, accessories, blankets and home decor, and has become an international powerhouse.
Linda Parker, head of corporate communications and public relations for Pendleton Woolen Mills, says among the secrets of the company’s 150-year success are “a commitment to quality and craftsmanship, authenticity, and family ownership – the company is in the sixth generation of ownership – and a vision for the long pull, not the short haul.” Parker believes it goes back to understanding their target market and loyal customers.
“We look for opportunities to extend the Pendleton lifestyle brand in surprising ways through collaborations and licensee products in apparel, home, and accessories,” she says. Part of Pendleton’s success is due to a resurgence in the popularity of wool. Pendleton purchases about 40 percent of its fleece from Pacific Northwest growers, many of whom have worked with Pendleton for nearly 100 years.
“The desire and need for wool products has increased worldwide with the ‘rediscovery’ of wool as best-in-class for technical and athleisure apparel, outdoor sports and activities, home and work apparel, and home furnishings and blankets,” Parker says.
Imperial Stock Ranch near Shaniko has been raising sheep, cattle, hay and grains for more than 146 years. The historic ranch was able to survive dramatic shifts in commodity markets in the late 1990s by adapting to demand. They explored new ways to do business, connecting with U.S. textile manufacturers to convert the ranch’s raw wool harvests to premium wool yarns, fabrics and finished goods. The Responsible Wool Standard is a voluntary global standard that addresses the welfare of sheep and of the land they graze on.
“While more companies outsourced, we set out to prove you don’t have to cross an ocean to make clothing,” says Jeanne Carver, who owns and operates the ranch with her husband, Dan. “Similar to the farm-to-fork, ‘slow food’ movement that reconnects us to our food, we led a ranch-to- runway ‘slow wear’ movement that reconnects us to the source of the fibers we wear.”
The ranch partnered with designer label Ralph Lauren to provide yarn for the Team USA uniforms worn during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics, and in 2017, Imperial Stock Ranch was the first ranch in the world to be fully certified under the Responsible Wool Standard.
“We were able to maintain our ranching heritage and operations, and, at the same time, successfully transition from selling unprocessed wool to creating and selling retail products made from the raw wool,” Carver says. “From yarn and fabric to finished goods in both apparel and home products, we delivered traceable, sustainable options made exclusively in the United States into multiple markets and to a variety of brand partners.”