Four years ago, Warren Mills in Stafford, one of the last, oldest operating mills in the Northeast was preparing to close the doors on its iconic Furnace Avenue building for good. Difficult news to digest - not only for workers facing layoffs - but also the community at large. The 160-year-old mill has roots that run deep into Stafford soil, and has been an integral and critical part of the town’s identity and collective memory. The specter of loss of work, as well as large, empty buildings joining the ranks of other shuttered textile mills along the Eastern Seaboard was grim indeed.
Fast forward to Fall 2017. Not only are the doors open to the new, sleek interior of headquarters, but the spinning and weaving machines are alive and running. They are operated by a highly skilled local workforce, many of whom were employed there previously and who brought an invaluable wealth of knowledge to the process of top quality wool textile manufacturing. Newly named, American Woolen Company is fast making a name for itself with clients such as J. Crew and the U.S. Navy by supplying a superior wool product. It is proving that not only is “Made in the USA” a possibility, but that “Made in Connecticut” is a concrete reality as well.
“Woven” into this success story is the passionate enthusiasm of CEO Jacob Long, whose dynamic vision has changed the face of doing business at 8 Furnace Avenue. Still in its infancy, American Woolen Company has already taken its first steps. Under Long’s leadership it is striding boldly into new territory, reinventing and redefining the idea of an American luxury apparel brand. Now partnering with the domestic wool fiber chain - as opposed to solely sourcing from industry giants New Zealand and Australia - Long is producing a product that is designed, spun, dyed, woven, and finished in Stafford Springs. Apparel is then sewn in Brooklyn, New York and New Jersey. He insists that “where the product is made is as important as where it is designed” and takes great pride in the fact that no part of the process is subbed out to China or other parts of Asia in cost-cutting efforts. The entire process is U. S. based.
Jacob Long bought the mill from Loro Piana Industries in 2014, an Italian company known for its high end luxury fabrics. The mill had the machinery to produce fine, worsted wool textiles. Starting with a staff of 22 people, he felt it was essential to restart with workers that possessed a defined skill set, virtually all of whom had worked for the mill previously. He refers to the workers as the backbone of the company and is quick to point out that “machines don’t make a good product- people working good machines make good products.” Long is interested in restoring and preserving the craft of fine textile manufacturing, and wants to elevate the craft to an art form. Currently, five apprentices under the age of twenty-five attest to the unswerving commitment to a quality workforce and to ensure the future of the craft.
American Woolen Company has now grown to 56 workers and Jacob Long is busy with the business of craft manufacturing, producing American luxury wool and apparel. He points out that it is the same mill and the same people, but the product is different and urges workers to think like a fashion mill. His aim is to produce a recognizable brand, tailored to the American textile market. He just completed, alongside a team of three designers, his first apparel collection - a milestone of teamwork, vision, and commitment to excellence. He is, in effect, creating a new industry for apparel manufacturing. It speaks to the rapidly growing trend of provenance. Much like the Farm to Table movement and the desire to know where one’s food comes from, Long wants to be able to trace his distinctively American product from beginning to end. In fact, he wants to be even more specific and prefers to state that his product is “Made in Connecticut.” He clearly takes great pride, responsibility and satisfaction in that claim, with the quality of the product speaking for itself. It is quite simply, the best that can be made.
To naysayers, he points to the recent craft beer phenomenon and the seismic shift that has occurred within the beer industry. A short time ago, Europe was designated as the top producer of the best, high quality beer - not the United States. Now, craft beer makers have literally erupted all over the country, with the U.S. producing arguably the best beer in the world. European producers are now visiting America to learn how to make a better beer. A complete chain is formed with Long’s model, and he can control the quality and production of the fabric and apparel from start to finish - he is forming a new paradigm within the U.S. industry.
It is appropriate that American Woolen Company takes its cue from the American textile industry that was booming in the Northeast in the nineteenth century. Indeed, the area witnessed an explosion of textile mills, taking advantage of water based power from the plentitude of regional rivers. The mills in New England employed tens of thousands of people, with vast amounts of money streaming in, spawning a tide of Victorian architecture that flooded the region. It is evidenced in the mansions(where the mill owners lived), grand town halls, fountains, memorials, parks, libraries, schools, homes, banks, etc. that define most towns in this region. One only has to drive through the towns situated near rivers in the Northeast (and almost all are) to witness the enduring mark the textile industry has left on the area.
Warren Mills, founded in 1853, had been a long running mill, providing a great many jobs for scores of workers over the years. By 1984, however, it was the only surviving mill in Stafford. The U.S. manufacturing base had eroded, with overseas manufacturing taking over as outsourcing to China and Southeast Asia became the norm.
Loro Piana, an Italian firm producing luxury worsted and woolen fabrics stepped in and bought Warren Mills at that time. They upgraded the machinery and provided high quality cashmere, camelhair, and silk to clothiers such as Brooks Brothers, Neiman Marcus and Hart Schaffner Marx. They kept the Warren name, operating as a subsidiary of Loro Piana. Most locals in Stafford will recall the charming brick and ivy covered retail store they maintained, where bargains of exceptional beauty and quality could be had. One could purchase bolts of quality wool as well as cashmere scarves, camelhair coats, suit jackets, yarn and all things wool.
Under the direction of Long, American Woolen Company holds its head high once again. From the steps of Stafford Savings Bank, the ivy covered south brick wall of the main office has been noticeably trimmed, the windows are cleaned and upgraded, and a facelift of the front entryway with handsome granite header and company logo. It looks thriving, modern, and competent. The company maintains three facilities on Furnace Avenue and one on West Street, all of which they intend to occupy in time.
Jacob Long believes in this mill. His energy and optimism is palpable. Multi-tasking as CEO, and working with sales and his design team, he divides his time between New York and Stafford. When asked what inspires him and the product he is making, he mentions the wool tradition itself, and his clients, who inform him of what’s missing from the market, and what they’d like to see. The large volumes of archives from Warren Mills, play a part as well, of course. Talking with him in the spacious third floor design/workroom at headquarters -with its enormous work tables, and inspiration and design boards - felt more like being in a New York City loft than a historic mill building in a rural New England town. Pared down and efficient, the space is indicative of the new brand of business Long is conducting.
His clients are those that respect and believe in his company culture and ethos. As well as American clients, he states that his third largest client is in Japan. One of Long’s goals is to solidify a distinctly American aesthetic. Contrasting with European wool, he explains how his American wool product differs. “It differs in the quality, and color. It has more texture, is a bit more robust.” The American Woolen Company palette differs in its softer greens, blues, and grays. Just as Ireland, for instance, has its tradition of wool abundant with earthy greens, browns, and grays informed by the Isle itself. Environment has shaped the American aesthetic, with its forests, mountains, rivers, and seas, as much as the rugged independence of earlier generations. It is classic and timeless, yet modern and refined. The color palette is fresh, yet traditional.
Plans for the future include re-opening the retail store sometime in the months ahead, continuing to define a uniquely American aesthetic and producing apparel collections. Industry insiders will surely be watching with interest.
American Woolen Company has resurrected a landmark building and a local, specialized industry, which is now an economic asset to the community. We are fortunate to have a viable, thriving mill operating once again in our midst. It is built on a long tradition of skill and excellence, and will continue moving forward with its unique new vision.
americanwoolen.com • 8 Furnace Ave, Stafford Springs, CT • (860) 684-2766