An old brick chimney
rises above the rooftops of the historic building where the iconic Faribault wool blankets have been traditionally crafted for over 150 years. Wool processing has not changed much since the early days of the mill. Modern equipment runs faster but the raw material, the natural fiber, the wool, still comes from four-legged creatures that cannot be rushed. Compelling facts from the Mill reveal that “one sheep gives 7,5 pounds of wool per year, one carding machine processes 400 pounds in a day, that are later spun into 60 cones of yarn. Overall, it takes one year for 3 sheep to grow the wool to make 2 military twin size blankets.”
Rollers, combs and chains of Davis & Furber Woolen Card.
Single Horse Named
Faribault Woolen Mill’s beginnings were modest. In 1865, Carl Henry Klemer, an immigrant from Germany, set up a carding-mill in Faribault, turning the wool of Minnesotan sheep into batting, stuffing for mattresses, pillows and quilts. That humble operation, powered only by a single horse named Jenny, eventually became the celebrated Faribault Woolen Mill we know today. It began spinning and selling yarn in 1872 and weaving in 1877 when it made its first blanket. After a fire destroyed the original mill, the Klemers built a two-story building along the Cannon River and moved their company to its current location in 1892. Suffering five fires and many floods, surviving the Great Depression and two World Wars, the resilient Klemer family, joined by the Johnson family in 1912, owned and ran the mill until it was sold to the North American Heritage Brands in 2001. It was the end of an era for Faribault.
With this new ownership, the mill lost its family spirit for one, then North American Heritage Brands went bankrupt and shut down the mill in July of 2009. Fifty people lost their jobs and the abandoned mill was a heartbreaking sight. The mill’s equipment was about to be shipped to Pakistan by a liquidating firm when Paul and Chuck Mooty stepped in and bought the company on a leap of faith.
Coming from Minneapolis, the two cousins, one an attorney and the other a businessman, first visited the mill in March 2011. The basement was flooded and the whole building needed extensive repairs. Looking beyond the mess, however, they were moved by the history of the old mill and felt its story might continue. After nearly two years, the mill opened its doors once again on July 5, 2011. It started out with only five people but by the end of the year, there were about forty workers, many of whom were former employees rehired by the Mootys. Order had been restored in Faribault.
Woven fabric for the Foot Soldier Military Blankets.
Made Under One Roof
Faribault Woolen Mill is one of the last vertically integrated woolen mills still operating in America. Raw wool is processed into yarn and that is then woven into fabric, all in the same building. Paul Mooty explains that it is just common sense to keep the whole production line at the mill. He can interact with the workers at every step of the process. “Our primary goal was to revive a U.S-made product that would ultimately contribute to create new jobs in Faribault."
“The old equipment is still running and is part of the charm of this place. We purchased newer, but used, additional looms and one used fulling machine. We bought brand new sewing machines for the finishing department, but the building itself was the major undertaking. Some of our windows are 120 years old and have to be replaced and we’re planning to build an earth-bottom along the Cannon River to mitigate flooding and protect our building when the river rises.”
The Faribault Woolen Mill was officially listed as a historic place in 2012 by the new owners. The picturesque reflection of the red brick building in the still water of the Cannon River embodies the enduring legacy of the mill. The quiet strength of artisanship and traditional manufacturing are the foundations of the Faribault blankets. Their durability and coziness turned them into cherished heirlooms, rich with family memories. They were lifelong companions, at times even life savers.
The Faribault Woolen Mill has been manufacturing military blankets since the 1890s. First for West Point Academy, then in the efforts of the two World Wars. Many people’s lives were touched through the mill’s eventful 20th century. When the U.S. Government contracted the mill to make blankets for WWII soldiers, most of the male workers had been drafted. As the men went off to war, the women of Faribault replaced them and kept the mill running. Playwright and Faribault native, Michael Lambert reminisced about those times in his play “Wrapped in Love and Glory”* based on letters wives and girlfriends exchanged with their loved ones serving in WWII.
During the sixties and seventies, the mill was selling wool blankets to airlines, making the Faribo** name known worldwide as a comfortable travel companion.
“Wool is a durable and non-flammable fiber that can keep you warm even when it’s wet. It’s ideal for the military and airline companies. I recently met a man in his 70s who said to me ‘I’m here today because of a Faribault blanket!’ His great grand-mother was a trapper in the Northwoods and was once caught in a fire racing towards her. She crawled under her Faribault blanket and she was saved because that blanket did not burn. If his great-grand-mother had been killed that day, he would have never been born!” says Paul Mooty.
(*) Lambert, Michael, ‘Wrapped in Love and Glory” Paradise Center for the Arts, Faribault, Minnesota, 2016.
(**) The name “Faribo” was used in the brand’s logotype between 1920s and 2011. The new owners chose to go back to the original name, “Faribault”.
The Dyeing Room. Master dyer Cory putting raw wool in the large dye kettle. It will be washed and dyed black. This large vat contains 500 pounds of wool.
and 10 Days:
The Making Process
The long production process requires specific skills that take years to master. There are 22 steps, over nearly 10 days, in making a Faribault woolen blanket.
As scouring and grading are done by wool suppliers, the manufacturing process at the mill starts with stock-dyeing and picking raw wool, followed by making the yarn and weaving. After weaving, the fabric goes through a series of finishing procedures before it is taken to the sewing department where it is cut, sewn and labeled.
Cory dyeing-washing 500 pounds of raw wool before the batch can be stock-dyed black.
Raw wool is precisely weighed and placed in a massive dye kettle which works like a large pressure cooker, and can contain 500 pounds of wool.
Big batch of 500 pounds of wool being lifted from the dye kettle. Dripping with water, it can weigh up to 1,500 pounds.
The wool fiber is dyed before being spun into yarn, a process known as loose stock-dyeing. The raw wool is loaded into a large dye kettle and immersed in water. Master dyers have their own secret recipes, for different dyestuff, times, pressures and temperatures. A dye kettle holds 500 pounds of wool but when the batch of dyed fiber is lifted from from the kettle, it is dripping wet and weighs 1,500 pounds. Solid color blankets can be woven in natural white and then custom dyed.
The wool is weighed in the picking and mixing area. To create yarn in heather gray, the mill’s signature color, pounds of natural white and stock-dyed black fiber are weighed for blending. The fiber is picked, mixed and a lubricant is added for carding. The wool is then baled and brought to the carding area.
The wool is graded and weighed then stacked and pressed into bales for carding.
The Davis & Furber Woolen Card consists of two sections, the Scribbler (left) and the Carder (right). In the first section, raw wool is transformed into batting by a series of rolls. This batting is delivered to the Carder by an intermediate mechanism, the Scotch Feed. In the Carder, the batting is turned into roving, the first stage of the yarn.
Here, the overhead apron of the Scotch Feed conveys the batting/web of wool to the feed apron of the Carder where two rollers apply pressure and motion.
The wool is fed into the hopper of the Davis & Furber Woolen Card. The first section of the carding machine turns raw wool into batting. The second section of the woolen card removes excess matter and aligns each fiber in the same direction. Fibers come off the card in loosely twisted strands called roving.
The carding area is a loud, eerie looking place with a dusting of wool fiber covering nine massive Davis & Furber woolen carding machines The hundred-year-old machines contribute to the unique quality of Faribault’s wool by creating the fluffy and consistent batting. These spectacular machines were purchased by the mill between 1905 and 1923. They are now a rare sight with many historic woolen mills in the USA closed for good. That batting they produce is then turned into a strand called roving, the first step in making yarn.
The spools of roving are spun into strong yarn on ring bobbins that are then placed on a spinning frame. These bobbins are transferred to a winding machine, then quality tested and wound into cones. Coning is the last step of the yarn production.
(Left) Winding of heather grey yarn for military blankets as part of the coning process. The yarn is quality tested using an electronic eye to detect weak spots and is transferred from spinning bobbins to cones to prepare for weaving. The ring bobbins are removed from the spinning frame and transferred to the cone winding machine. The bobbins of yarn are placed on vertical creels at the bottom of the machine; the yarn is threaded upward through various guides and wound in cone form. Coning is the last step of yarn production.
(Right) The spinning frame spinning natural white roving. The long rolls of roving are first placed at the top of the spinning frame. The ends of roving are threaded into a series of drafting rollers that control fiber orientation. The twisting and winding are performed simultaneously at constant speed by the spindles holding the bobbins and located at the bottom of the spinning frame. Replacing full bobbins with empty ones, is called “doffing” a job commonly held by children in textile mills until the Child Labor law of 1933.
The Spinning frame. An employee threads the ends of roving into a series of drafting rollers that control fiber orientation. The twisting and winding are performed simultaneously at constant speed by the spindles holding the bobbins and located at the bottom of the spinning frame.
The Warper, the yarn that will create the warp and also function as the foundation of the fabric, is rolled onto a beam to prepare it for weaving.
The Warping creel. Warping prepares the warp that will be set up on the looms. The cones are pinned horizontally on creels inside the creel frames in a specific order, in accordance with the pattern of the cloth. The yarns are threaded from the creel to the warp beam, through yarn guides and tension devices. Stripes, plaids and other patterns require multiple colors.
A Jacquard loom with the yellow harness cords.
The cones of yarn are pinned on the warping creel to create the warp that will be set up on the looms. The yarn is threaded from the creel to the warp beam through yarn guides and tension devices. A warp beam holds enough yarn to weave 300 to 350 blankets. In the weaving area, twelve dobby and rapier looms weave solid color blankets as well as simple geometric patterns, like stripes or plaids.
Intricate patterns, like Urban maps or American flags, are woven on two Jacquard looms. Both easily spotted with their yellow harness cords hanging from the overhead attachments. On a Jacquard loom, each warp thread is controlled individually, allowing the creation of complex woven patterns. Overall, the mill currently weaves an average of 180,000 yards of wool per year.
All woven material is inspected on a giant light box for flaws. Skilled inspectors repair minor inconsistencies with tweezers. The fabric is also measured and weighed. This quality check process is called burling.
Old fulling machine dating back to the late 1920s. Heat and agitation shrink the fabric to create a denser material. During this fulling process, treatment for moth prevention and machine-washability can also be added.
Finishing begins at a fabric inspection light box where the cloth is set on a wide panel lit by a backlight. All imperfections and irregularities are repaired by hand with scissors or tweezers.
To make a fringed blanket, the warp of the fringe section is left unwoven on the loom. The fringe is created on a fringing machine by twisting the warp yarns and inserting a thread to hold them in place.
Next, the fabric is washed, shrunk and treated to prevent moths and be made machine-washable. Faribault was the first mill to introduce moth-proofed blankets in the USA in 1956. The old washer dating back to the 1920s stands near a more recent fulling machine, giving us a glimpse of the old times at the mill.
Napping process. In the napper machine, wire bristles on large drums comb the fabric to raise wool from the surface of the weave, making it softer and providing more loft.
Once the fabric is dried, it goes through the napper, a machine with rollers wrapped with wire bristles that comb and raise the surface fibers. This creates a smooth and fuzzy finish, adding softness to the cloth and improving its thermal insulation.
Finally, the fabric is taken to the cutting and sewing department on the third floor. In an adjacent silk-screen studio, the navy blue logo is applied to the cream woolen blankets.
Scraps of wool from every stage of production are reground and converted into recycled yarn. At Faribault nothing is wasted.
The recycling equipment is old, suggesting recycling was an early part of the mill’s process.
“We are a very low-waste operation but there is still a small amount of very short fiber we can’t use or blend with anything. It’s almost like dust and it gets thrown away.” explains Paul Mooty.
Raw wool, scraps and old blankets are reground, carded again and made into recycled yarn that is used to produce the new Wool Utility Blanket collection. Scraps may be cut and tailored into small functional accessories, like pillows, mittens, zip pouches, log-carriers, coffee sleeves and totes.
Anne Laure Camilleri is a freelance photographer based in Paris. She studied Film Making at the Conservatoire Libre du Cinéma Français and worked as a post-production supervisor before shifting to photography. Combining her passion for arts, journalism and cultural preservation into her features, she explores the spiritual values that permeate traditional craftsmanship and maintain cultural resilience. Her features have appeared in various media outlets including Selvedge, Embroidery, Inspirations, Handwoven and Pèlerin.