Faribault Woolen Mill Co. Blankets

While road-trippers have reliably flooded Minnesota’s handful of small town all-stars each fall, Faribault’s been quietly honing its getaway worthiness, one gift shop and sushi restaurant at a time. The historic downtown, including your requisite theater-turned-arts-center and homespun sweets store, certainly deserves a visitor’s afternoon. But it’s the Faribault Woolen Mill that makes folks from around the world pay attention to this town of some 23,000, rising out of southern Minnesota’s patchwork farmland.

Thursday is tour day at mill HQ, and from the parking lot, this looks like textbook small-town life: The squat, brick building borders a rushing ribbon of a dam in the Cannon River, where old-timers spend post-lunch hours with bait and tackle, catching, then releasing.

PHOTO COURTESY OF FARIBAULT WOOLEN MILL

Inside, the lights are low, and genial jazz fills the Mill Store. Exposed ceiling joists and worn floorboards act as a pitch-perfect backdrop for a selection of woolen scarves and blankets, draped meticulously over metal pipes, fanned out under an antique industrial sewing machine, and piled in sparse stacks. The store’s connected to the corporate offices, so shoppers sometimes mingle with employees who’d look just as at-home in a boutique digital agency in the North Loop.

Photo by Andy Richter

Classic-meets-modern sums up Faribault, the heritage brand that almost wasn’t. After operating continuously since 1865, the mill went bankrupt in 2009. The massive machines sat still for two years and were about to be sold off when Paul and Chuck Mooty, cousins and successful businessmen, swooped in and bought them, including brand and building. Three years after reopening, the company puts a contemporary-design spin on its age-old process to make blankets and scarves now sold in high-design shops, featured in high-end hotels, and custom created for clients. (George Clooney recently ordered a run for the cast and crew of The Monuments Men.)

Faribault’s is the only remaining mill in America to go from raw wool to finished product under one roof, and the tour walks visitors through the process, past piles of earthy-smelling raw wool you can reach out and touch; past 50-year-old machines wheezing and clanging as they twist cloud-like masses into yarn; past people playing spider, midway through the days-long process of threading the industrial-green electric loom; and back by the wash and dye tanks, which smell just faintly of vinegar. In places, it feels as if it could be any day in the past 50-some decades—until your eye lands upon your guide, on-trend in black leggings, chunky specs, and a topknot.

Jana’s father worked at the mill before her, back when conversations about making woolen blankets were pretty much the most boring thing ever. Now, she leads them twice a day on Thursdays and takes pride in learning tour-goers’ stories about their Faribault blankets, handed down through generations, our throw-away society be damned. She talks about the 137-year-old heirloom that the owners regularly pull out of the safe. “I’m like, ‘Guys, just leave it alone. It’s going to be a rag next year.’ But they’re too excited,” she says. Who wouldn’t be, after saving a nearly 150-year-old brand from extinction?

Photo by Andy Richter

Faribault Woolen Mill Co. tours are typically Thursdays at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. They start in the Mill Store, and tour-goers get 15% off products except factory seconds (which are always 40% off). Call ahead to ensure a space, 507-412-5534.

faribaultmill.com

 


 

 

Where to stay

 

The Vintage Ballroom & Suites offers apartment-style accommodations right downtown, all with full kitchens, wi-fi, and cable.
vintageballroom.net

Photo by Andy Richter

Where to eat

Cheese lovers, try the Cheese Cave, the downtown café/outlet store for Amablu, America’s only cave-aged bleu cheese. FYI, even if the place isn’t packed, long waits are typical.
cheesecave.net


 

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Berit Thorkelson
Berit Thorkelson, a longtime freelance writer specializing in home and travel topics, is basically a professional adventuring snoopy person. Her own interior style tends towards the eclectic and original—a salvaged church cabinet and a pair of checkout-lane lamps grace her own living area. She always wants the extended version of your home tour.