Dyed in the Wool
Why the revival of a Minnesota heritage brand makes us feel all warm and fuzzy
Two years ago, Minnesota lost one of its most far-reaching and longest-lasting brand legacies. Faribault Woolen Mills, situated on the picturesque banks of the Cannon River, shut down its looms, ostensibly forever. It went out with a whimper, but at one point, Faribault was 300 employees strong, and its wool goods were recognized the world over. Chuck and Paul Mooty instantly recognized the value in reviving this heritage brand with its small-town values and big-city reach, so they snapped it up in 2011, and have reopened the mill with about 35 employees. Here are a few things that give the mill its magic.
Faribault is one of the only manufacturing plants in America that handles production from start to finish, save for raising and shearing the sheep. Wool comes to the factory fluffy and raw, and among other things is carded, dried, fluffed, spun, dyed, and woven on machines that have existed in the factory for a century or more (some contraptions are still powered by foot). And then there is quality control: one employee’s job is to inspect every inch of every blanket against a backlit table before finishing the hems.
Faribault Woolen Mills pioneered mothproofing, washable wool, and the thermal weave. The company also brought the United States its first Snuggie—the Park-A-Robe. Plus, the mills had pluck: volunteers filled the factories during World War II to keep the troops—and Minnesotans—warm.
Although there’s no documented proof, the Mootys have been told repeatedly that the Faribault Woolen Mills is the oldest manufacturing facility in the state (established in 1865). In one production room, shaky handwriting in a cement block reads: “Agnes Robertson 3/11/11.” That would not be 2011.
Dennis Melchert lives on the mill property and worked the factory floor for more than 36 years. The Mootys immediately brought him back as the vice president of research and product development because he holds the “recipes” for each design in his head and knows the process backward and forward.
“At one point, Faribault Woolen Mills was producing half the wool blankets in the United States,” Paul Mooty tells me. Probably true, considering that besides the popular consumer goods, the mill produced blankets for all branches of the military, hotel bedding, and airlines. Upon re-opening, two big orders came from the Waldorf and Plaza hotels in New York City. The Mootys hope to break into the healthcare industry with blankets manufactured from Ingeo, a corn-based fiber that’s biodegradable and inhibits bacterial growth.