The slow death of the textile industry in the U.S. was underscored last December by the closure of the last operating mill in Connecticut, the historic Warren Mills in Stafford Springs. That same mill is celebrating its re-opening under new owners.
How does the American Woolen Company expect to buck the trend?
In early 2013, investment banker Jacob Harrison Long bought the American Woolen Company. Once one of the nation’s most recognized textile companies, when Long arrived, it was little more than a trademark.
When he thought about the relaunch, Long said he had initially been thinking about outsourcing the supply chain. It would have allowed the company to focus on design and marketing, and remain asset-light while starting out.
"It became obvious," Long said, "that by owning and operating our own supply chain, that was going to be the true asset of American Woolen Company."
While researching mills, Long met Jennifer Knight, now American Woolen's president, who grew up and had made her career in the textile manufacturing industry. Knight said, "What was funny at the time: when we met, he said, 'I've been running all around the industry talking to a bunch of old guys. They've been telling me I'm crazy that I want to get into this business.' So I said, well you are crazy, but you might have an idea here, and your timing might be right."
Long's idea was to break away from the high-volume trade that the American textile industry has struggled with, and focus instead on creating a very high end product competing with European textiles rather than cheap Asian goods.
"It's a little bit of a smaller play ground," Knight said, "but it's one where we can compete, and we can have manufacturing in the state of Connecticut."
There were just two available mills in the country that manufacture woolen and worsted fabrics. Long said only one was capable of producing at the caliber they're aiming for. "Anybody can buy machinery," he said, "but not anybody can utilize that machinery in the correct way, and that's one thing that we really knew. So I'd say if we wanted to do that kind of product, the only destination was going to be Stafford Springs."
Walking into the finishing department of the Warren Mills in Stafford Springs, with finishing and dying manager Jay Oelrich, we stopped in front of an industrial dryer around the size of a bus. About to go through it was a giant roll of dark blue fabric.
"This, that you're looking at, is the famous navy pea coat," Oelrich said. "That's a heavy, heavy piece of fabric."
Oelrich and his colleagues produced and finished fabrics like this for decades until the mill was shut down by its previous owner last December. In June, after months of preparations, it was purchased and reopened by the American Woolen Company. The difference here is the skills of the available work force.
"The people are the backbone," said Guy Burkhead, the general manager of Warren Mill for 33 years, who is now American Woolen's vice president. "It's absolutely essential to be able to start this business with the type of people who were here before, [with their] incredible work ethic and skill level. When we finished, the average length of service was 18 years. There were some 40-year employees and some five-year employees, but you can see to get 18, you have to have a pretty high average."
There were 86 jobs lost when the mill closed last year, and so far, 21 have been hired back.
Day 1 - Reintroducing: Excellence. Made in America - American Woolen Company's Warren Mills in Stafford Springs, CT. pic.twitter.com/5YopBIQJ5z
— American Woolen (@americanwoolen) July 18, 2014
Oelrich is a 23-year veteran of Warren. He said the working relationships are important, as they have developed over so many years. "Also," he said, "their personal talents in the work force right now address the type of cloth we're trying to make. I think that if you went to a mill in another area that was making something else, you wouldn't be able to bring those people back, and have that degree of artistry for this product."
Since the late 1980s, the Warren Mills had been producing some of the finest woolen and worsted fabrics in the U.S. for their European owner, Loro Piana. The fabrics being developed will build on that experience, but be tailored to the American textile market.
"We want to be a beacon for the rest of America, for people to come to Stafford Springs, look at what we're doing, and understand that textile manufacturing can exist, and can prosper, and can thrive," Long said. "It takes a different approach."
American Woolen already has two dozen designs in their portfolio this season, which Long and Knight are shopping around to potential clients. They anticipate hiring back eleven more employees in October and November. This week, they celebrate their launch in downtown Stafford Springs.