From Loom to Lookbook: Pendleton Fabrics and Fifteen Decades of “Weaving America’s Spirit”

6.3 / Dimensions: Expanded Measures of Textiles

From Loom to Lookbook: Pendleton Fabrics and Fifteen Decades of “Weaving America’s Spirit”

By Susan Beal February 26, 2015

I first became fascinated with the textile producer Pendleton through discovering their wool coats and skirts in vintage and secondhand shops when I was a teenager and in my twenties. And in 2009, my husband Andrew gave me the stunning Oregon Sesquicentennial blanket for my birthday. At the time, I was halfway through writing my fourth craft book (Modern Log Cabin Quilting) and thinking I would love to design a wool quilt. My first visit to the Pendleton Woolen Mills store in Portland, Oregon, was a revelation. I chose three different wools from the hundreds of jacquards, plaids, and solids, on huge rolls straight from the mills, and created a geometric quilt inspired by the Timberline Lodge on Oregon’s Mount Hood. From that moment, I fell in love with sewing with Pendleton wools.

After a few years designing more quilts and patchwork projects to teach at the Woolen Mills store, I had the chance to write my dream book: a collaboration with Pendleton. Hand-Stitched Home gave me, and some of my favorite makers, the chance to design original projects using a broad range of Pendleton’s wools, from tiny blanket-stitched nesting boxes in calm solids and vintage plaids to vivid improvisational patchwork quilts drawing on some of the boldest jacquards in the line. I hope the book brings Pendleton’s fabrics to life for a new audience, as well as teaches readers how to work with all weights, patterns, and combinations of these beautiful wools.

My book Hand-Stitched Home—the first book written in collaboration with Pendleton Woolen Mills—includes more than two dozen projects to sew in their wool fabrics, as well as a history of the company illustrated through beautiful archival photographs. Photograph by Susan Beal.

To prepare for writing the book, I spent three days researching in Pendleton’s vast company archives, which contain everything from their earliest trade blankets to their postmodern collaborations with the companies Vans and Opening Ceremony. This opportunity—to see so many treasures in person and to access original documents, photographs, and ephemera—gave the book a deeper and more meaningful context in relationship to craft history. The book presents Pendleton’s history from its earliest days to the present, a survey I’ve adapted and expanded here.

It seems like almost everyone has a Pendleton story

It seems like almost everyone has a Pendleton story, whether it’s about a blanket passed down through generations, a plaid shirt handed down from father to son, or a skirt given by a mother to her daughter. The story of the venerable company, whose “Warranted to be a Pendleton” label is instantly recognizable, in many ways mirrors the tumultuous history of the United States, through decades of economic booms and busts, wars, and peacetime. Innovation, tenacity, and risk-taking, along with a respectful relationship with the Native American customers who inspired Pendleton’s iconic blankets, mark the company’s century and a half of weaving fabrics in the Pacific Northwest. Today, the company’s heirloom-quality garments are still as useful on a camping trip as they are beautiful on a runway, and anyone who’s owned and worn one knows the brand retains a special resonance of meaning.

The story of Pendleton began thousands of miles away and more than one hundred fifty years ago, with the life of a young English immigrant, Thomas Lister Kay. Kay was born in West Yorkshire in 1837 and began working as a so-called bobbin boy at a mill in the heavily polluted, industrial city of Shipley at the age of nine or ten, during an era without laws to prevent child labor or protect workers. By the time Kay was twelve, he became a full spinner’s apprentice, and over the next few years he learned all facets of the craft of weaving, from meticulous handwork to the intricacies of machinery, and came up with his own inventions as well.

Pendleton's original mill in Eastern Oregon used cutting-edge jacquard looms to weave intricate, symmetrical blanket designs.

At twenty, married to fellow Yorkshire native Ann Slingsby and the new father of a baby daughter, Fannie, Kay left England for New York and enticing prospects in the United States. The Industrial Revolution had brought fresh opportunities to the young country, and hundreds of new textile mills were being built. These mills offered the possibility of huge profits, but they were also vulnerable to devastating losses (particularly from fires) as well as poor management and volatile markets. Skilled weavers were desperately needed, and Kay immediately found work at mills in New York and then Pennsylvania. His family joined him in New Jersey, where he rose to the position of foreman of a large operation of twenty-one looms; one year later, the mill burned to the ground.

Kay managed and oversaw woolen mills in western and southern Oregon for more than two decades

When a new enterprise was planned three thousand miles away in Oregon (only the second woolen mill in the state), Kay, well known in the industry, was personally recruited as the loom boss. He made the arduous journey to the distant Pacific Northwest: sailing south to Panama, crossing the isthmus on the back of a burro, sailing up the Pacific coast to San Francisco and then Portland, finally arriving in the tiny town of Brownsville in the Willamette Valley in the summer of 1863. Kay managed and oversaw woolen mills in western and southern Oregon for more than two decades, always at the forefront of textile innovation. In 1889, in the state capital of Salem, he built and opened his own namesake company, the Thomas Kay Woolen Mill, the largest and most modern mill in Oregon.

Kay’s oldest daughter, Fannie, was his closest confidant; Kay never learned to read, so Fannie’s day-to-day assistance with the business was essential. Fannie married a merchant and businessman named C.P. Bishop, who expanded the enterprise to include a wholesale shop in Portland, among other endeavors. After Kay passed away in 1900, his three Bishop grandsons—Clarence (also known as C.M.), Roy, and Chauncey—took on every aspect of the family’s textile business.

The distinctive blue and gold "Warranted to be a Pendleton" tag is instantly recognizable on blankets and clothing.

The Kay mill thrived in Salem at the same time as the Pendleton Woolen Mill, a once-robust factory in eastern Oregon, began failing. Originally a busy wool-scouring operation, processing nearly four million pounds in its first year—one thousand pounds of raw wool yielded a mere three hundred usable pounds after being thoroughly cleaned and processed to be ready for carding and spinning—the Pendleton mill gradually expanded into more profitable manufacturing. Its first products were round-cornered, Native American trade blankets, which the Bishops carried in their Salem and Portland stores. Though the town of Pendleton offered excellent railroad and river access, a large supply of wool from local farms and ranches, and plenty of workers, the mill faltered and then closed in the early 1900s, hampered by tariffs, absentee owners, a leaking roof, and outdated equipment.

Impressed by the Bishop family’s business acumen and statewide reputation, the citizens of Pendleton asked them to consider buying and taking over the troubled mill operation. Seventy-five local businessmen joined forces to finance the company, and Fannie and C.P. Bishop met the challenge with their own investments, paving the way for their family to move east and assume the ownership, trademark, and goodwill of the Pendleton Woolen Mill in 1909.

A sturdy new factory was quickly constructed on the south bank of the Umatilla River in Pendleton. “Sheep to Shawl” manufacturing operations officially began on September 1, 1909, with a line of Native trade blankets of “the highest degree of perfection in manufacture,” with the “finest and purest colorings,” using the “finest Oregon fleece wool.” The Bishops worked with a talented craftsman and weaver named Joe Rawnsley, who designed striking trade blankets for the company for nearly three decades. Rawnsley traveled to Native tribes all over the West to learn what designs or motifs appealed to them most, drawing inspiration from and paying respect to these artists and weavers.

In January 1910, a group of Eastern bankers visited the Pendleton mill on a brief tour of the city. Twenty-eight men, including co-owner C. M. Bishop, stood on the mill dock, robed in Pendleton American Indian trade blankets, in a stunning impromptu portrait of the early mill days. The bankers, impressed with the operation, bought nearly a hundred blankets before leaving on the Union Pacific Railroad. Courtesy of Pendleton Woolen Mills.

The fledgling mill’s first and most important customers were the Cayuse, Walla Walla, and Umatilla people who lived nearby. Pendleton designed and wove trade blankets for them to use as ceremonial gifts that marked births, celebrations, rituals, and funerals. Jacquard looms, which used punched cards to raise and lower threads and create detailed patterns, sped the pace of weaving. A Native master weaver might spend months creating an intricate design by hand, at a rate of several inches per day, but mills could offer mass-produced blankets much more quickly. Each handwoven blanket commanded a higher price; a single artisan-woven blanket could be traded for a variety of mill blankets and many other goods.

The mill’s workers also wore the blankets whose wool they had proudly carded, dyed, spun, and weaved.

A year after the Pendleton mill reopened, the organizers of a fledgling horse-riding and cattle-roping competition asked the Bishops to invite their Native American customers to participate, appreciating the respect the company and its new owners had earned in an era of often-difficult relations between white settlers and the tribes who had lost so much of their land to them. After Roy Bishop met with ten of the tribal chiefs, hundreds of Native Americans set up camp by the fairgrounds for the first Pendleton Round-Up, an event that has continued for more than a century.

In January 1910, a group of East Coast bankers visited the Pendleton mill. To greet them, twenty-eight men, including the co-owner C.M. Bishop, wore Pendleton trade blankets. The mill’s workers also wore the blankets whose wool they had proudly carded, dyed, spun, and weaved. The bankers, impressed with the operation, bought nearly a hundred blankets before leaving on the Union Pacific Railroad.

The mill’s workers also posed with the blankets whose wool they had proudly carded, dyed, spun, and weaved, in a similarly beautiful portrait of this era. Courtesy of Pendleton Woolen Mills.

The trade blankets became popular as rugs, automobile blankets, robes, and decorations. As the Pendleton company grew, it purchased the former Union Woolen Mill in Washougal, Washington, in 1912. During the years of the First World War, the company diversified, manufacturing first military fabrics and blankets and then men’s shirts, coats, and other garments, all of the highest quality virgin wool.

President and Mrs. Harding received a Pendleton jacquard blanket as a ceremonial gift from the Cayuse Indian tribe during their 1923 visit to Oregon, and the design was renamed in their honor. Courtesy of Pendleton Woolen Mills.

In 1923, President Warren G. Harding and First Lady Florence Harding visited Oregon to dedicate the Old Oregon Trail, and the Cayuse tribe presented the First Lady with one of Rawnsley’s most striking blanket designs, in a smaller size and ideal as a robe or shawl. The design was named “Harding” in honor of its illustrious recipient. More than ninety years later, it is still available in the Pendleton line.

Pendleton turned its attention to the war effort in the early 1940s, weaving military blankets and fabrics as it had for World War I.

In the fall of 1924, Pendleton introduced the first plaid wool shirts for men in bright colors (an idea of C.M. Bishop’s, inspired by the vivid tones of the popular trade blankets), which became an instant success in a market previously dominated by tones of dull gray and brown. Quality was paramount: a single men’s shirt could use between twenty-eight and thirty-six individual pieces, with the plaids matched precisely at the seams. The company also began designing custom blankets for hotels across the country, including Seattle’s new Olympic Hotel, which ordered three thousand blankets, and Philadelphia’s Hotel Benjamin Franklin, which ordered two thousand. Pendleton supplied the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles with four thousand blankets for all of the games’ participants; the blankets were proudly delivered in two fully packed railroad cars.

Like many other manufacturers, Pendleton turned its attention to the war effort in the early 1940s, weaving military blankets and fabrics as it had for World War I. After the war ended, Pendleton had the honor of awarding a jacquard blanket to President Harry S. Truman on his visit to Oregon.

The 49er jacket, named for the year it was launched, was hugely popular with women, who could choose from as many as twenty different plaids each season. Courtesy of Pendleton Woolen Mills.

After the war, as many Americans had time for leisure activities like camping and hunting, the company noticed that it was selling a disproportionate number of men’s plaid shirts in the extra-small and small sizes. Women were buying these colorful shirts to wear as lightweight camp jackets, and in 1949, Pendleton launched its first article of womenswear: the “49er,” a simple, unlined jacket with mother-of-pearl buttons and bias-patch pockets. Much like the men’s shirts launched two decades earlier, the 49er was an immediate icon.

Many referred to the beauty of the rugged Pacific Northwest and its ongoing inspiration for the company

By 1956, the 49er was offered in twenty different plaids, and the expanded womenswear line (which had grown to include skirts, dresses, suits, and coats) was regularly advertised in Vogue, McCall’s, Glamour, The Saturday Evening Post, Seventeen, and Women’s Wear Daily. From his studio on Whidbey Island in Washington, the longtime Pendleton illustrator Ted Rand created advertisements that were instantly recognizable for their graceful lines and striking use of color; many referred to the beauty of the rugged Pacific Northwest and its ongoing inspiration for the company, while reinforcing the quality and timeless appeal of the clothing.

In the early 1950s, Pendleton was invited to establish an Old West-style general store as part of an unusual new venture planned for then-rural Southern California, an amusement park called Disneyland. The resulting Pendleton shop in the Frontierland section of the park sold a full line of garments, blankets, and dry goods and received more than a million visitors in the first year. For their good faith in the collaboration, the Bishop family received a personal thank-you note from Walt Disney.

The Beach Boys wear matching board shirts in this iconic Pendleton plaid on their Surfer Girl album cover. The garment became wildly popular, and this Surfer Girl plaid was reintroduced five decades later. Photograph by Susan Beal.

In Southern California the popularity of Pendleton’s plaid shirts was also fueled by the rise of surfing culture and pop music: the Beach Boys (formerly known as the Pendletones) wore matching shirts in distinctive plaids on two covers of their best-selling early 1960s albums. Meanwhile, Pendleton’s pleated reversible wrap skirt was an essential item for many teenage girls and college students. Pendleton mills and apparel factories—in Washougal (Washington), Eureka and Marysville (California), Brownsville and Milwaukie (Oregon), and of course the original mill in Pendleton—all hummed with activity.

In the 1970s, American shopping habits changed dramatically, influenced by discount stores, inexpensive overseas manufacturing, and synthetic fabrics. American manufacturing, particularly in textiles, was on the decline. Pendleton’s traditional competitors, like Racine, Buell, and Oregon City, were gone. Of the nation’s hundreds of once-busy woolen mills, just a handful remained. Pendleton, instead of focusing on its signature trade blankets and heirloom-quality virgin-wool garments, continued to diversify in menswear, womenswear, and home decor.

Three Oregon designers created The Portland Collection’s first season, in fall 2011, using some of the most iconic fabric designs from the Pendleton archives. Courtesy of Pendleton Woolen Mills.

Pendleton’s innovation has continued in the early twenty-first century: in the year of the company’s hundredth birthday, a collaboration with Opening Ceremony was on the cover of Women’s Wear Daily. For The Portland Collection (TPC), another fashion-forward venture, Pendleton invited a trio of local independent designers—Rachel Turk, Nathaniel Crissman, and John Blasioli—to create in-house a modern collection; TPC launched in 2011, drawing from some of the most venerable jacquards and plaids from the company archives, with all garments made in the United States. Today, the Project Runway winner Gretchen Jones heads Pendleton’s womenswear department and is developing a new direction for TPC, now called The Pendleton Collection, in 2015. Meanwhile, the vintage-inspired Thomas Kay Collection pays homage to the patriarch of the family and the distinctive fine woolens from his namesake mill.

Marie Watt’s Blanket Stories installations (this one at the Denver Art Museum) tell a powerful story. Courtesy of Marie Watt.

The influence of Pendleton fabrics is also evident in the work of the Oregon-based contemporary artist Marie Watt. Describing herself as “part cowboy and part Indian,” Watt has used Pendleton wool blankets in many of her art pieces and installations. A descendant of Seneca Indians on her mother’s side and Wyoming ranchers on her father’s, she makes works that refer to her life in the Pacific Northwest as well as to historical and modern events, incorporating a deep sense of community and evoking both celebration and tragedy. In describing her Blanket Stories series, she wrote: “We are received in blankets, and we leave in blankets. On a wall, a blanket functions as a tapestry, but on a body it functions as a robe and a living art object…In Native American communities, blankets are given away to honor people for being witnesses to important life events—births and comings-of-age, graduations and marriages, namings and honorings. For this reason, it is considered as great a privilege to give a blanket away as it is to receive one.”

The deepest roots and most impressive branches of Pendleton Woolen Mills remain steadfast well into its sixth generation. All of the company’s trade blankets and all of their jacquard, plaid, and solid fabrics are still woven in their own mills in Oregon and Washington. The Chief Joseph and Harding jacquards, so popular in the early days of the company, are still in the current line. Along with higher-profile designer collaborations, Pendleton continues to make custom hotel blankets, as they did in the 1920s and 1930s; the design for the downtown Portland Ace Hotel was inspired by the century-old Thompson elk statue nearby.

And in the tradition of awarding special Pendleton blankets to the president of the United States, the governor of Oregon sent President Barack Obama an Oregon Sesquicentennial Blanket—the same one I own—marking both the state’s one-hundred-fiftieth birthday and the company’s hundredth. President Obama returned the compliment four years later, turning to Pendleton for an embroidered Brave Star blanket to give to President Nelson Mandela of South Africa.

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