December 12, 2014

Made in America Series: The Faribault Mills

The Faribault Mills are known for producing woolens of superior comfort and quality, having supplied blankets for pioneers heading westward to our troops through two world wars.  Sitting on the banks of the Cannon River in Faribault, MN, the Faribault Woolen Mill is a living testament to American craftsmanship with over five generations of skilled craftsmen elevating the art of weaving.

Founded in 1865, the year Lincoln died and the Civil War ended, The Faribault Mills remains as one of the last vertical woolen mill in the USA. The mill was originally powered by horses, transforming local wool into wool batting but quickly evolved to offer cloth, flannel and wool blankets.  In 1917, America entered WWI and Faribault supplied over 100,000 blankets to the army, learning to take on mass production.  In 1925, the original double fold all wool blanket was created and by 1937, every major department store in the country began carrying the Faribault line.  Faribault continued to innovate the market with such technology as permanent moth proofing, “carefree” (the first washable wool product), and America’s first “thermal weave” blanket.

Today, with century old machinery and a continually evolving product line, The Faribault Mills endures as part of American heritage creating luxurious blankets, throws, scarves and accessories for over 150 years.

We were lucky enough to sit down with the CMO of The Fairbault Woolen Mill, Bruce Bildsten, for an exclusive interview about the brand’s history, its estimable American heritage, and what the next century of the company might look like.

Can you speak to the importance of domestic manufacturing for The Faribault Mills?
Domestic manufacturing is all we do: It’s our mission. We even look at things like our bags and boxes and make sure we produce them domestically.

Many American brands moved their production overseas during the early 1990’s.  Were you ever tempted to do so?  What was your reason for remaining stolidly American made?
Our ownership group bought the mill out of bankruptcy in 2011 after it closed in 2009 and brought it back to life. At the time all of the machinery was tagged to be shipped to a buyer in Pakistan and the building was facing the bulldozer. The previous ownership group had tried to survive by buying other defunct domestic cotton blanket mills. They also were chasing price by making a lot of inexpensive acrylic blankets. But that only distracted them from focusing on the mill’s core competency: Making the country’s finest wool blankets. When the mill came back to life in 2011 we focused on quality and wool and invested in new machinery to supplement the irreplaceable machinery already in the mill, much dating from 1905.

Where does your manufacturing happen?  What are the facilities like?
All of our manufacturing happens in our mill in Faribault, Minnesota. We do everything here: starting from a raw bale of wool to dyeing, to carding and spinning yarn, to weaving, to finishing and sewing. We are one of the last –if not the last- truly vertical woolen mills left in America.

Our Mill itself is our “new” mill: Made in 1892. (We were founded in 1865.) Although the building has been added onto many times, the old character remains. The mill was originally powered by our dam on the Cannon River, so it is nestled in a very picturesque setting. It’s a small town, a beautiful brick mill next to a park and a damn on a gorgeous river. We have fishermen out in front of our mill daily and bald eagles flying overhead. We are on the National Register of Historic Places.

Inside the mill we have much vintage and irreplaceable machinery, like the dozen carding machines that stretch for nearly half a block long, some dating from 1905 and none newer than 1925. We also have some new technology, especially in our looms, which can be computer controlled. At each station (there are 22 steps) is a true craftsperson who cares. It’s an incredibly inspiring place. We also have a beautiful mill store and offices, which were just renovated with a mix of modern and historic. It looks like a great store in Soho.

Today, brands are expected to develop brand awareness through a deep engagement with social media.  As a heritage brand deeply connected to its early 19th century origins, how have you adapted to these modern forms of marketing?
We use social media extensively. We have an amazing library of historic and current images. We highlight our craftspeople and we tell our stories. People are deeply engaged with us. We also celebrate our retailers and they do the same in return.

At Oak73, our motto is Original, American, Kind.  Do you have a motto or mantra that defines the ethos of The Faribault Company?
Rather than create a new slogan we choose to use the historic tagline of the mill: Loomed in the Land of Lakes. The Land of Lakes is a description of Minnesota and is found on our license plates. After all, so much of this mill is about the place we come from. The hard winters gave birth to necessity of making warm wool blankets. Our mill is in a picture-perfect small town, nestled on a river and surrounded by the lakes that define our state.

How do you see The Faribault Mill’s original mission manifest itself in the company today?
Another line from our past that is found on our larger label is “Purveyors of Comfort & Quality.” That’s what we do everyday: We make beautiful woolens of the highest quality that provide comfort to people for generations.

The Faribault Mills has been in business for over 150 years!  That’s quite an achievement—can you envision the projection of the company through the next 150?
Our mission is to lay the foundation to keep this mill humming for another 150 years. Our product is timeless. After flirting with synthetics, the world is coming back to wool and we believe it will stay with it. Wool is a renewable resource that endures for decades. And our designs are just as timeless. They never go out of style.

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