American Woolen

Posted by Elizabeth Williams on

A century ago, New England led American textile production. Skilled artisans crafted lasting, natural fiber goods in countless mills across the region. No firm eclipsed American Woolen Company.

Founded in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1899, A.W.C. swiftly grew into the world’s largest wool manufacturer, operating over 60 mills and employing more than 40,000 people. Then, synthetics and off-shoring decimated the industry. New England’s wealth of textile expertise was nearly lost amid the relics. But a single mill survived, preserving skill with natural fibers for another day.

American Woolen

photo courtesy of American Woolen Company

In 2013, Jacob Harrison Long and a group of friends noticed markets shifting back toward sustainable goods. They purchased the A.W.C. trademark and then found the company’s new base of operations—a three campus cluster of mills in Stafford Springs, Connecticut formerly operated by Italian luxury brand, Loro Piana. They envisioned a New England brand that could tap remaining local talent to produce natural fiber textiles close to home, further lowering the carbon footprint.

Liz: I was excited to learn that you are a Chicago-native! Who wins for the worst winters? Chicago or Stafford Springs?

Jacob: Without a doubt, Chicago’s winters are far more brutal. Southern New England winters are relatively mild, whereas Chicago winters will knock you out. I tell people that Chicago has four seasons: Fall. Winter. Winter-Lite. Summer.

Liz: Haha, yes there is no such thing as "spring" in Chicago!

Jacob Long

photo courtesy of American Woolen Company

Liz: Jacob, your story is so inspiring. What inspires you about textile manufacturing?

Jacob: More than viewing American Woolen as a designer and manufacturer of fine wool textiles, I view American Woolen as a thrilling action novel with many chapters. There is a chapter that discusses American Woolen’s unique ability to preserve and strengthen America’s wool textile heritage. There is a chapter that analyzes the mill’s efforts to support and promote climate smart sheep grazing out West to turn fallow soil into fertile soil. There is another chapter that details American Woolen’s attempts to restore a New England mill town to its former glory. The best chapter, which depicts American Woolen’s attempts to create America’s first wool textile/apparel ecosystem, is still to come. I am not only reading it, I am living it.

Liz: You noticed a market shift toward sustainability. What makes American Woolen (and wool in general) a more sustainable option?

Jacob: Wool is the world’s best technical fiber. It outperforms most every fiber for thermal regulation and moisture wicking. Wool is also biodegradable and sustainable. But it goes deeper, climate smart sheep grazing is proven to be environmentally friendly.

Liz: What are the benefits of using a domestic wool fabric as opposed to an imported wool fabric?

Wool Fiber

photo courtesy of American Woolen Company

Jacob: There are many benefits to using domestic wool fabric over imported wool fabric. First, domestic wool fabric should express a domestic design aesthetic that supports local/regional culture. Next, domestic wool fabric has far less of a carbon footprint than imported wool fabric. It is mind-boggling to think that most designer brand outerwear pieces purchased in America are subject to an extended web of foreign sourced supply chains that add up to 20k miles before reaching your closet. Third, domestic wool fabric is supporting a local craft and community which needs your support. Supporting American communities is always a good thing.

United States Wool Mill

photo courtesy of American Woolen Company

Liz: American Woolen is one of the few remaining wool mills in the United States. Has it been difficult to find the skilled craftspeople needed to operate a textile mill?

Jacob: It is and will be a struggle to find talented craftspeople in America. There was a time when America celebrated the art of craft and the people engaged in its manufacture. Bad politics and short-sighted business leadership created our current predicament where Americans are all viewed as consumers, and not producers. Rarely in America do you see consumer goods producers dining at the same table with consumer goods consumers. When is the last time you dined with a butcher, baker, or candlestick maker? I strongly believe, however, that there is a new generation that is more interested in making than in consuming. We can teach this generation the skills, but we will struggle to teach this generation the right attitude. American Woolen’s ability to find and train that new generation depends on its ability to provide prospective hires an engaging and fulfilling work experience. People will come and work if you give them a good reason to come and work.

Liz: What is the biggest challenge textile manufacturers in the United States are facing right now?

Jacob: America’s textile manufacturers need to provide a reason for consumers to consume their textiles. Textile designers and manufacturers’ biggest challenge remains the ability to turn a commodity product into a specialty product through a distinctive mix of quality materials, unique design, focused manufacture, and meaningful branding. It is that simple. The bigger challenge remains America’s struggling garment making industry. Industry value stream analysis teaches us that when upstream and downstream components come together, great economic and social synergies occur. Competent textile manufactures without competent garment manufactures will not generate these synergies. It is critical as textile manufacturers to do our part to support the other components in this industry value stream.

Woven Wool

photo courtesy of American Woolen Company

Liz: We spoke a bit about the value of craft in good design. Why is craft so important to you?

Jacob: Craft is important because it expresses traditions, and traditions are what makes life worth living. Good design comes from these traditions. In textiles, these traditions are expressed in fibers, textures, weights, designs and colorways. Without traditions, life lacks curiosity and aspiration. Without curiosity and aspiration, life is boring and meaningless.

Liz: Do you think that the American manufacturing will ever be valued to the extent that it once was?

Jacob: I believe that America’s consumer goods manufacturing base will be valued when we are able to produce the value-added consumer products that consumers desire. America’s craft beer industry demonstrates the possibilities when you change the business model and assume a value-added approach. I see a convergence of elements that are creating the conditions for a return of American consumer goods manufacturing. More than better product, consumers want better stories and local is a damn good story.

Liz: I’ve been enjoying working with your gorgeous wool fabrics for the past few years. This year we will be incorporating domestic wool fibers harvested at Shaniko Wool in the United States into the fabric. What does it mean to you to be part of this American-made supply chain from fiber to finish?

Jacob: Building a domestic end-to-end textile/apparel supply chain is exactly what is required to position this industry for the 21st century. American Woolen is proud to lead an effort to revive and strengthen America’s wool textile/apparel supply chain starting with the sheep and ending with the shelf. The more we work together, the more we can accomplish.

American Wool Fabric

photo courtesy of American Woolen Company

Liz: What can people reading this do to support American manufacturers and the American textile industry?

Jacob: Support local whenever possible. Consume American products and push for others to consume American products. Supporting American Made supports American families and American families keep American communities pumping and thriving.

← Older Post Newer Post →

Leave a comment