'Sexy’ Connecticut Story: American Woolen Making Fabrics for Fashion, Here

The quiet triangular slice of Connecticut that sits between I-91 and I-84 in northern Connecticut is getting a little bit louder these days as the American Woolen Company moves back into town, shepherded by former financier and engineer Jacob Harrison Long and third-generation textile manufacturer Jennifer Knight. 

For decades the American Woolen Company was at the forefront of this country’s textile industry. It proudly stood as the leader of worsted and woolen fabric at the beginning of the 20th century. With 58 mills located throughout the Northeast, American Woolen was the only U.S. company recognized for making a superior product capable of competing with European fabrics in this highly challenging industry.

Long and Knight, as the chief executive officer and president, respectively, are breathing new life into the luxury brand with their extensive line of fine suiting fabrics in lush neutrals and classic patterns. They aim to redefine the American aesthetic, put craftsmanship above quantity and utilize a flexible business model that prioritizes the needs of each client.“We want to focus on the art and the craft of manufacturing,” Long says in his bright, industrially modern office at 8 Furnace Ave. in Stafford Springs, where American Woolen is headquartered. “This is more than just trying to capitalize on a fashion trend. We want to prove that the textile industry can exist [in America].”

Dressed in an impeccably fitted navy blue suit with thick blue horn rimmed glasses, Long rushes through the details of his latest business venture in a soft, lightly accented voice. He’s clearly excited about the possibilities here.

American Woolen is about more than just producing beautiful fabrics, though that is certainly the crux of the business plan. Long believes “rebranding will save American manufacturing,” a la the craft brewing industry, which has existed for decades but has only begun to really thrive in the last several years as laws changed and the mass American palate evolved in harmony with a farm-to-table, local-is-better philosophy.

“We’re using the American craft brewing industry as a blueprint. People think consumers want it cheap and deep, but that’s not necessarily true,” says Long. “People are willing to pay five or six dollars for a bottle of beer…We want to show people that it’s sexy what we do.”

And why shouldn’t it be? Rich, fine fabrics made by true textile artisans—it’s everything consumers in America want.

There’s a confluence of trends in the market right now—a renewed interest in menswear, coupled with the “Made in America” stamp of approval and the emphasis on shopping local—that Long believes will propel American Woolen to the forefront of luxury textiles, not just in America but in the world.“There is a prominence that comes with people knowing who made your product,” he says.

Long and his team want consumers to know that “there is no smoke and mirrors” when it comes to American Woolen. “This is real people making real products. I like to say American Woolen is not made in America. It’s made in Connecticut.”

(Long, Knight, Vice President Guy Birkhead and his wife Susan at the American Woolen launch party, above.)

Even a decade ago, American Woolen would have struggled to find footing in the marketplace. The trend of off-shoring labor is still happening. Knight has had to close factories and outsource work first-hand, but American manufacturing is poised for a comeback.

“People think America lost their business to low cost competition in Asia, but Europe has survived creating fine fabrics,” says Long. That shows Long that creating a superior product right here at home is not only possible but obvious. The owners are convinced that now is the time for America to reclaim its rich textile history.

“He told me his vision and I was excited by it,” says Knight, who was introduced to Long just last year. “He’s an outsider [to the industry], which is good in order for him to have the guts to do this.”

The American Woolen Company was featured in a Starbucks campaign last month. See the video below. 

American Woolen moved into the Warren Mill in Stafford Springs this past summer. Most recently, the property was owned and operated by the Italian luxury good brand Loro Piana from 1988 through the end of 2013. Initially, Long’s plan was to own the brand name American Woolen Company (he had purchased the trademark in June 2013) and outsource the manufacturing piece to an existing American mill.He quickly learned there were only two operating textile mills in the country, Warren Mills in Connecticut and another in North Carolina. His advisors directed him towards the Stafford Springs factory; its legacy with Loro Piana fell in line with the Long’s emphasis on the art of textile weaving. The trouble was the factory was planning to shut its doors in December 2013. Loro Piana had been purchased by Louis Vuitton. If Long wanted to use the Warren facility, he would have to purchase it. And that’s how American Woolen Company came to own its own manufacturing facility—more by accident than by design. Today, only a couple of months after moving in, Long calls the mill an asset rather than a liability.

“Owning and operating the line, we can guarantee the quality,” says Long.And they do. Despite opening only two months ago, American Woolen is already amassing a back stock of luxury fabrics and showing them off to potential buyers. The initial collection included 22 different textiles, and Knight says the response from buyers in New York has been swift.

The three buildings that comprise the mill in Stafford hum with activity—dressing, weaving and finishing the fabric. Currently, there are 40 looms operating one shift a day, five days a week, but there is space for up to 80 looms in the cavernous building across the quaint mill town where the process begins. Their fabrics cost between $20 to 25 per yard, with some costing up to $30 per yard. It takes between 45 and 60 days for a piece of fabric (55 by 1.5 meters) to be created from start to finish.Upon purchasing the mill, Long rehired 27 former mill employees (86 people were laid off when the factory closed). The plan is to increase the staff to 30 people by the end of October, and 35 by the end of November.

“We’ve brought back the best of the best,” Long says of his employees—many have been working at the Warren Mills for 20 or 25 years. Some have spent their entire working lives in the mill, and it is that caliber of skilled labor that Long wants to invest in. He acknowledges that comes at a higher cost, but ensures a superior product.

There is no corporate backer for American Woolen. Instead friends and family populate the board, which contributes to the feeling of family that is pervasive at the company. As Long walks around the factory, he greets every employee by name.

Located within easy driving distance from New York City, the American Woolen mill offers buyers and designers an open invitation to see the facility and the products first hand. There are plans to open a retail space up the street and a showroom for buyers.“There are a lot of young people in the industry who haven’t gotten to see the manufacturing process,” says Knight. “They can come here, a day’s trip from New York City, and see how it is done.”

That’s the traditional way; the artisan way; the better way.

American Woolen is only just getting started. There’s tremendous room for growth at the mill and within the industry. The company is working to reinvent the mill town of Stafford, which is excited by the company’s presence, but more than that they’re trying to reinvent an industry that America once led, and is ready to lead again.

For more information about American Woolen Company, visit the website.

Contact me by email at khartman@connecticutmag.com and follow me on Twitter, and connect with Connecticut Magazine on Twitter, on Facebook and on Google +

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