Pendleton Woolen Mills prepares for the next 150 years

Innovation and collaboration drive fabric manufacturer to new heights

Pendleton Mill

You might think that after 150 years in the same business there’d be nothing new under the sun for Pendleton Woolen Mills, but nothing could be further from the truth.

“Today we are positioning our company beyond the concept of being a woolen mill to being a lifestyle brand,” said Mark Korros, Pendleton CEO.

Korros characterized the evolution of the company in three broad strokes. Beginning as a woolen fabric manufacturer in 1863, the company now designs and manufactures apparel made of various fabrics as well as blankets and other items for the home. They have expanded from a few outlet stores to become a multi-channel retailer and distributor to some of the world’s best specialty department stores. And, a company with its roots firmly embedded in Oregon and Washington has blossomed into a global brand distributing products to more than 30 countries around the world.

According to Korros, 2014 will be “one of the biggest years for innovations” in the company’s history. Leading the pack, said Korros, is a “wonderful stretch wool” that he believes (based on early consumer response) will “help raise the bar for everything we’re doing.”

Another major fabric innovation, already previewed at a major tradeshow, is a wool denim created from 100 percent wool and a special indigo blue dye. Korros said the new fabric will be available in a variety of weights, ranging from chambray shirts to heavy blankets.

“We have a handful of major companies knocking on our door who want to collaborate with us to launch this in late 2014,” said Korros.

Pendleton is also partnering with another company to bring to market a new “wool down” fill for blankets and outerwear. This unique combination of wool clusters blended with down, he said, doesn’t get heavy or clumpy when it gets wet, and transfers heat better than pure down. Plans call for launching this fill for quilted bedding in the fall of 2014, then for apparel items in 2015.

Part of implementing the lifestyle brand is moving beyond wool. Korros said that Pendleton makes apparel from a multitude of fabrics, for a variety of lifestyle uses. Examples include tailored clothing for women and novelty tops and jeans for going to the kids’ soccer game. Just a few months ago, Pendleton hired designer Gretchen Jones, a 2010 Project Runway winner.

“We want to increase our share of closet with the end consumer and continue to provide the best in quality,” said Korros. But on the other hand, he continued, “we want to expand in a strategic way so customers don’t think we have lost sight of who we are.”

Korros pointed out that marketing plays a big part in establishing their new company image. Because the company makes a “broad assortment” of products other than apparel, they produce two catalogs – an apparel book and a home book. Korros said they mail a catalog about every three to four weeks, and mailed a total of 17 million in 2013. Social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest also play a part in Pendleton’s marketing efforts.

“We dramatically increased our PR efforts last year,” said Korros. “We created 180 million impressions in the marketplace in the last five months of 2013.”

Catalogs and social media pale in importance compared to what Korros called Pendleton’s “biggest and most exciting” marketing strategy – collaboration. He said the company has many past and present collaborations, with retail brands such as Opening Ceremony, Levis and Nike; Portland-based snowboard gear maker Bonfire, and internationally-based companies such as Bugaboo (high-end strollers from Denmark) and UrbanEars (headphones from Scandinavia).

“Collaborations are a major part of our marketing strategy,” said Korros. “They marry us up with another high-end brand or market leader, and provide additional distribution and excitement in the marketplace.”

Licensing the Pendleton brand to other companies is another option. Korros said that their biggest licensing agreement is with Hood River Distillers, for Pendleton Whiskey – reputedly the fastest growing whiskey brand in the United States.

First launched in 2003 at the Pendleton Roundup, Pendleton Whiskey has become the “backbone” of Hood River Distillers, according to Ron Dodge, company president and CEO. Such collaboration, said Dodge, enables each company to promote what it is best at, while forging a “bond through history and tradition that binds us all together.”

“We’re working on several other complementary [collaboration] categories to further bring [the Pendleton brand] to life and expand our accessibility and visibility in the marketplace,” said Korros.

Of course, all the fabrics and yarn used by Pendleton doesn’t happen by magic – the company’s two mills (in Washougal and Pendleton, Oregon) are the scene of much washing, spinning, weaving and dyeing – all done by complicated machinery.

“The basic technology to spin yarn and weave fabric is pretty much the same as it was 150 years ago,” said Korros.

But hand looms have given way to programmable motor-driven looms, and digital programming and lighter-weight materials increase the speed of each operation. Korros said that the company focuses their manufacturing innovation efforts on process improvement – increasing efficiency and throughput, using lean manufacturing principles and the “Toyota sewing system.” This system uses cross-training of individuals so they can perform a multitude of functions, reducing the amount of handling and increasing efficiency and quality of product.

Examples of recent efficiency improvements include a pending change to the soap the company uses in the wool finishing process to remove oils and impurities. The new soap, said Korros, will “substantially reduce our waste water.” He said the company is also evaluating replacing its 50-year-old yarn manufacturing equipment with new machinery that is faster and takes up less space, enabling Pendleton’s labor pool to “do more with less.”

Speaking of the labor pool, Pendleton faces some of the same problems as other manufacturers in the region, including a quickly aging workforce – many employees have been with the company for 25 years or more. Korros lamented that most home economics classes don’t teach sewing any more, calling it a “lost art.” Therefore, he said, the company is making a concerted effort to provide internal training to create new talent that can “support our growth and future needs, and perpetuate skills for the next 150 years.”

That’s a lot of sheep to count…

In 2013, 427,000 sheep were shorn to provide the 4.25 million pounds of raw wool needed by Pendleton Woolen Mills. The company transformed this wool into 18.2 million square feet of fabric and 7.6 billion yards of yarn.

A little Pendleton history

Thomas Kay, a British pioneer in the woolen mill industry, came to Oregon in 1863. Today, his family continues to own 100 percent of Pendleton Woolen Mills, with several members of the fifth generation working in the company.

There is, perhaps, no company quite like Pendleton in the world. Its Washougal and Pendleton, Oregon mills are two of the last four standing woolen mills in the United States. In many ways, Pendleton is woven throughout a vivid tapestry of U.S. history. Here are just a few examples:

What “Kleenex” is to tissues, “a Pendleton” became to Indian trade blankets starting in 1909 – still given at birth today to members of the Indian Nation, and treasured until death, when it lines the casket.

Western novelist Zane Grey was one of the first purchasers of Pendleton’s new colorful plaid men’s shirts (which up to 1924 were available only in gray).

In the 1960s, a garage band called “The Pendletones” was known for wearing Pendleton wool shirts. Later, this band would become known as the Beach Boys.

When Disneyland opened in 1955, Pendleton was one of the founding tenants, with a retail store in “Frontierland.”

In recognition of the historic contributions of the company, the Oregon Historical Society awarded its Oregon History Maker’s award to the company in 2013 – the first time a company (as opposed to an individual) has ever won the award.

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Jodie Gilmore’s journalistic background includes more than 15 years of writing for the Vancouver Business Journal as well as other publications such as Northwest Women’s Journal, North Bank Magazine, American Builders Quarterly and The New American. A Master’s in Technical & Professional Writing and 20+ years in the trenches as a technical writer and online help developer round out her writing background. When not writing, she enjoys gardening and working on her small farm in the Cascade foothills.