Operation adapts to changing times by offering specialty quality products

By PATTY MAMULA

For the Capital Press

Pendleton Woolen Mills' connection with regional sheep ranchers goes back to 1909.

That's when the Bishop family opened the mill, formerly a wool scouring plant, in the major wool shipping center of Pendleton, Ore., and began making its signature trade blankets.

A hundred years later, with the addition of apparel and other specialty products and another mill in Washougal, Wash., the Pendleton company is succeeding amid a challenging retail market and shifting wool production.

As one of the few remaining mills in the United States, the vertically integrated company still buys domestic wool from several producers. It also buys wool from Australia, New Zealand and South America.

During a tour of the Washougal mill, plant manager and Vice President Charlie Bishop pointed out the computerized "regulator" that tracks and monitors all the dyeing, which is tightly controlled for color consistency, accuracy and reliability.

"That piece of equipment comes from Russia. Many of our newer, highly efficient machines are European," he said.

Linda Parker, from the women's wear division, said the modernization of the mill represented a $50 million investment.

"People come from all over the world to see our mill," she said.

Equally significant, said Bishop, are Pendleton's skilled employees, many with 25 years of experience or more. All fabric is hand-inspected and quality-control tests are done throughout the "fiber to fabric" process.

It takes about six weeks to make fabric from raw wool. After dyeing, the wool is dried, blended, carded, spun, dressed on the sample warper and woven on rapier looms in Washougal and jacquard looms in Pendleton, then finished.

The goal for trade blanket production is six weeks from scoured wool to finished, boxed blanket, ready for shipment. These colorful blankets are still made entirely in the United States.

"We're a specialty mill," Bishop said. "We custom-make small quantities. We're competitive because we offer our customers a wide range of products."

He pointed out an order for furniture maker Herman Miller that was ready to ship, per the client's specifications, on specially made palettes.

Dan Gutzman is only the third buyer in the history of the company. When he buys wool he says he sees all the way to the finished garment.

Gutzman inspects most of the raw, "greasy" wool he buys from South America and the United States. Because the wool from Australia and New Zealand is so thoroughly tested, he works with vendors who buy at auction there.

Several of the long-time Oregon sheep ranchers, like the Cunningham Sheep Co. and the Krebs family, ship their wool straight to Pendleton's warehouse in Portland, trusting that Gutzman will give them a fair price.

"We've done it for so many years, I know they will class and skirt the wool fairly and we can close the deal with a phone call or a handshake," he said.

Gutzman said 48 to 50 percent of the wool he purchases comes from the United States. On average, based on totals for 2002 to 2004, he buys 4.5 million to 4.7 million pounds of raw wool a year. That doesn't include Pendleton's worsted program, which represents an additional 500,000 to 700,000 pounds of cleaned wool for men's and women's suits.

Most of the U.S wool comes from states west of the Mississippi River -- Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah, Texas, New Mexico and California. Prices this year ranged from $0.85 to $1 for wool from white-faced sheep like Merinos and Rambouillets and $0.35 to $0.45 for wool from black-faced sheep.

"We're very focused on quality. The best way to achieve quality is to minimize the amount of seconds and that means starting with a great product," Gutzman said.

Freelance writer Patty Mamula is based in Portland, Oregon. E-mail: pattymamula@earthlink.net.

 

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