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Mark Maker: Faribault Woolen Mill Co.

Founded in 1865, Faribault Woolen Mill Co. remains largely unchanged and that is very unique in this day and age. With all production processes taking place under one roof with century-old machinery in a building built in 1892, the commitment to American craftsmanship is strong. As “purveyors of comfort and quality,” what Faribault Woolen Mill creates is much more than a product.

We had the opportunity to speak with Paul Mooty, partner and chairman of Faribault Woolen Mill Co., about this great American company. With a rich history spanning well over a century, it’s easy to recognize that the longevity of the company is closely tied to products of superior quality as well as strong values. It’s a pleasure to designate Faribault Woolen Mill a Mark Maker.

For those unfamiliar with Faribault Woolen Mill Co., can you give us a brief history recap?

It’s a little hard to be brief when it’s 154 years, but I will try to give a quick overview. It started in 1865 with a German immigrant who bought a one-horse treadmill-powered carding machine to make batting for quilts. In fact, the horse’s name that walked that treadmill was Jenny and we have the harness that that horse wore, so it’s kind of cool to have something that is the point of beginning for such an old company. So, it started with this German immigrant and it was family-owned by his family, the Klemers, and then the Johnson family came alongside in the early 1900s and it was family-owned all the way into the 1990s. So it very much has a family feel.

When you consider that, starting in 1865, which is a unique year (end of the Civil War and the year Lincoln died) and then you think of all of what went on after that (the World Wars, the Great Depression, and many different cycles in the economy) and yet they were able to build quite a remarkable company in Faribault, MN that still stands. You know, family-ownership and staying focused on what they were good at. When we hit the 1990s, a lot of things started moving offshore and there were some different people who had come into majority ownership. Running into the current of things going offshore in favor of lower cost goods was hurtful and Faribault Woolen Mill ultimately closed in 2009. It sat idle for two years and then our family came along. I saw it in early 2011 and this was about the time, too, when there was a little more resurgence and a desire for “made in America” and bringing back manufacturing to this country. Everything was there; it was all in the building it has been in since the 1890s and we decided to give it a try.

There’s so much in between there and a lot that transpired in those years that they built the company. Again, from a one-horse treadmill-powered carding machine to a company that, at one point, produced half of the wool blankets made in the United States. During World Wars, the odds were very good that the blanket each soldier carried came from our mill. Really unique stuff.

Your site mentions the mill is woven into American history. Can you share about handcrafting throws and blankets for pioneers and our soldiers?

When Faribault Woolen Mill Co. first started in 1865, it wasn’t making blankets that year. I think they started making blankets in 1877 and, in fact, we still have one that I’m aware of. Initially, it was just a mode to deal with the local people with sheep and wool and how to process it and it was natural to take that market in the area and then it just grew. It evolved into blankets. During World War I, the mill produced 100,000 blankets and 250,000 for World War II. We have been the supplier to the Navy, Army, West Point Military Academy, we’ve done a little bit of Air Force, and had some other military opportunities. For us, it’s a really important part of our heritage for one thing and something that we’re proud to be able to have the opportunity to do. When you buy a blanket from us and you want an Army blanket or you want a Navy blanket, what I think is kind of cool about it is it’s not just somebody who says this is an “Army blanket”—no, it is the same blanket that our soldiers get. It’s the real deal. It’s the same specifications and it’s the same thing we do make for the military. It’s authentic; it’s real; it’s made here.

When you walk through the mill and think, that stuff was going on during 1914 and during the 1930s. This happened right there and it’s not like it’s just at a mythical place that these were made. No, they were made right here. That adds to it. We’ve stayed in that facility for a number of reasons, but Faribault Woolen Mill is not just a name, but it’s the place and the place is very unique. Maybe an industrial engineer would say, gosh, you could get by with half the space on one floor and make this a little more efficient. While probably true, but it wouldn’t be Faribault Woolen Mill—it wouldn’t have that extra special character to it that at least, in my view, is very important. The place is important. It’s part of who we are. Faribault is a name and a place. There’s still some very old equipment there; some we use and some we don’t use. It’s all there.

Can you explain what it means to be a vertical woolen mill?

We call ourselves a vertical mill in the sense that we start with a bale of wool and everything happens under our roof. We don’t send out things for processing elsewhere. You start with that bale of wool and you dye it, card it, spin it, weave it, and finish it. That’s unique in this country. It’s a lost art.

What old technology does the mill still use today?

Well, that’s a good question. With every piece of equipment in there, you could buy something newer, but weaving is weaving. Weaving goes back thousands of years, probably. The machines we have all work and, as we grow and evolve, we can replace with newer equipment that will do exactly the same thing—maybe a little faster or more efficiently. We always joke about this. It’s not like your iPhone where you have the latest model and someone is already drawing up the next one. With what we do, it’ll be colors or it’ll be patterns, but you’re not going to change weaving and you’re not going to change the machinery. There’s a craftsmanship to this and old processes. For instance, if you’re going to dye the wool and use the same color many, many times, you want that red to be the same red every time. When you watch our people that do that, they’re like chefs. You look at it, you test it. You use a little more of this, a little less of that. If you went by the book, you might not get it right every time. Every condition is a little different.

So, the old school stuff is not just the machine that can squirt in the exact amounts of this or that—it’s the knowledge and the abilities of the people that do the work. There’s some older machinery, but I would say it’s just as much the craft that continues. It’s not the “set it and forget it” type of machinery. There’s a person that needs to be there to observe, to adjust, and participate in the process. I think this is really key to what we make. There are a lot of hands that touch each item and that is so important. If it were just a fancy machine where you were to dump your raw materials in on one end and out popped your product on the other, it wouldn’t have as much value—at least for me. It’s great to think about those whose hands touched the item, cared about it, wanted to make it right, looked at each item, and made sure that it’s good.

What is the town of Faribault like today?

Faribault is about 45 miles south of Minneapolis, so the Twin Cities area. It’s close enough to be accessible and it’s on a main artery of freeway that runs from Minneapolis through Texas, so it’s in a great location. It’s about a 25,000-person community and, in just 10 miles to the north and 10 miles to the south, there are other communities of similar size. It’s a great community. I think, in the day, the mill was the job of choice in that town and you had to wait for somebody to die to get a job there. There are some bigger industries here; there’s an amazing amount of industry for a town of 25,000. While we’re not the biggest employer in town, we’re probably the most beloved. Even when the mill was closed for those two years that I mentioned, the Chamber of Commerce would tell you that the #1 call they got was about the mill: Was it open? Were they doing tours? Everyone in the community has been remarkably kind to us and supportive. In fact, in 2012, my cousin and I were named Citizens of the Year for Faribault, which was humbling to say the least. That’s how they feel about it. That’s what they feel about the mill. It’s that near and dear to them. In just the eight years that my family has been around it, it is equally as dear to us.

Do you have any upcoming product launches you’re excited about and can share with us?

In September we will be launching a new reversible blanket line, the Summit. It is one of the warmest blankets in our collection. The Summit is made from a Merino wool blend, creating a soft and luxurious feel. This reversible blanket line includes solid blankets with complementing solid and striped throws and oversized pillows.

Also in September, we are pleased to launch product collaborations with three American-made partners: Tellason, Bradley Mountain, and Ebbets Field. These collaborations integrate Faribault wool within the products that these partners expertly create. Faribault Woolen Mill is proud to collaborate with brands that share our love for quality manufacturing and timeless style.

Do you have a throw or blanket that has been a classic, timeless design?

We do. In fact, when we reopened the mill, the very first item we made was the Revival. We called it Revival because we were reviving the mill. The mill made a red, blue, and yellow three-stripe blanket that goes back to the early 1900s. This was the classic and it’s really our signature piece. We’ve done it in a few different colors, but the old classic is really the bone white with the red, blue, and yellow stripes.

Do you have a personal favorite design from the entire collection?

The Revival is certainly one of my favorites because, to me, it speaks to the history and heritage of the mill. In terms of something newer and bit more unique, we make map throws. For instance, we have one of the Minneapolis/St. Paul streetcar map from 1913, I believe. It’s really unique and shows a creative side beyond stripes and I like that one a lot.

What are some of Faribault Woolen Mill's company values?

The topline company value is “do the right thing,” with also a core value as “win as one.” There’s also “embrace learning and change.” You can imagine over the generations there have been a lot of ways to do things. We want to embrace the past, but we also want to embrace learning and change and how we can do better. “Do the right thing,” whether it’s for your fellow employee, the customer, the community, whatever it may be. We always need to do the right thing. We also have to remember that we win as one—all of us. Everyone in the company. If we have successes, we are doing it as one. It’s not about “me” and it’s not about the next person. It’s about “us.” I think that’s one of the things that the Klemers and the Johnsons brought to the mill for generations: family values and working together. People wanted to work there; they wanted that culture. Those are some of the key values that we have.

What do you hope to instill in your community?

There are a lot of people who looked at the mill while it was closed and chose not to take a run at it and try to revive it. This was something where you might scratch your head and ask why try to revive an old woolen mill in times where things have left and gone offshore. For us, there was a mission here. Obviously we wanted it to work as a business, but it’s also something good to do for the community. Let’s show them that you can do these things. It is a worthy endeavor to try and bring back something that seems to be either a lost craft or a lost art or gone overseas for cheaper. We want to be an enduring business that people can be proud of and proud to work for.

How does one go about touring the historic Faribault Woolen Mill Co.?

You can just go to our website and sign up for a tour. We do Fridays and Saturdays, typically. If we have a unique situation where a group wants to come in on a different day, we will accommodate that. Our building is listed on the National Register of Historical Places. We did that when we reopened the mill. We’re proud to show it and there’s a tremendous amount of charm.

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We’d like to thank Paul for setting aside time to tell us about this remarkable company with such a rich history. You can follow Faribault Woolen Mill Co. on Instagram and check out the product we collaborated on together here.

Do you have a Mark Maker in mind? We’d love to hear about how they’re making an impact in their community. Let us know here.