The best wool fabric in the country is made four hours outside of New York, just off Interstate 80, in a town that’s not really a town. There are no hipster coffee shops or sushi joints in the unincorporated community of Woolrich, Pennsylvania. No Dunkin’ Donuts or McDonald’s either. In fact, there isn’t a single coffee shop or diner to be found in this rust belt enclave. When you’ve got a population of 123, commercial real estate is a dead-end proposition.
There is, however, a factory: Woolrich Woolen Mills, a squat red-brick building that the locals refer to as “the oldest continuously operating wool mill in the United States.” They recite this line as if quoting scripture. Many of those locals—45, to be precise—work inside the WOOLRICH INC. factory, handcrafting the rugged blankets that have been produced here for the last 188 years. Some of them can trace their genealogy through the mill’s accounting books for generations.
These Woolrich employees carry on a tradition started by John Rich, an English immigrant who founded what would eventually become Woolrich Inc. in 1830. Their predecessors’ touched the gray wool fabric that became the blankets issued to Union troops during the Civil War. Almost a century later, their descendants made the thick wool clothing and blankets that Admiral Richard E. Byrd used on his third polar expedition.
It’s the kind of job that’s difficult to leave. Not because of the pay, although that isn’t bad. It’s because of what happens inside this factory. Blankets and fabrics are the only things made here now—other Woolrich products, including its iconic outerwear, are manufactured in Asia and elsewhere around the globe—but that’s no small thing. The process of making the blankets requires 32 separate and ridiculously labor-intensive manufacturing steps, involving dozens of powerful, noisy, and fickle machines that date back to the Hoover administration. Imagine raw bales of dirty wool entering one end of the building. The wool is cleaned and dried, then loaded into machines that twist together individual strands into a soft white yarn. Eventually that yarn is dipped into enormous steel dyeing vessels that look like something left over from the Manhattan Project. Once appropriately hued, the yarn makes its way to the weaving station, where it shape-shifts into fabric. (Whether it’s a solid color or a pattern, watching the weave take shape before your eyes is hypnotic and addictive.) Now imagine being part of this alchemy of dye, yarn, and loom. How could you leave all that?
That’s a lot of work for a relatively small number of blankets (only 30,000 to 45,000 per year). And although demand is high, Nick Brayton—the current company president, a seventh-generation descendant of John Rich and son of the previous Woolrich president, Roswell Brayton, Jr.—insists that quality would never be sacrificed to increase production. “The blankets are the ethos of the Woolrich brand,” he says.
This continuity across generations is the essence of the company. It explains why the Gettysburg Civil War Blanket (beefy gray wool, black border stripes, stitched ends) sold on the company website today replicates its 19th-century counterpart. “The wool runs through the same type of machines, and the wool has the same thread count,” says Brayton. “Not much is different.” A lot of that wool is still sheared in the United States, but some comes from New Zealand, England, and other wool markets around the world. Brayton also has his eye to the future. Since merging with the Italian label W.P. Lavori in Corso (2016) and the Japanese sportswear company Goldwin (2017), Woolrich has rebranded itself—in part—as a high-end outerwear company. It has launched Woolrich John Rich & Bros. flagship stores in New York, Milan, and Tokyo, with the goal of opening 43 Rich & Bros. stores worldwide by 2021. Celebrities have been spotted in Woolrich gear. Brayton has also spearheaded licensing projects, from high-top Converse All Stars with uppers made from Woolrich buffalo check fabric to Dogfish Head ale flavored with pine needles found in a forest preserve near the Pennsylvania facility. But it’s the blankets that have been embraced by a new clientele.
Like his cousin Nick Brayton, Gehron Burkholder is steeped in the Woolrich tradition. With the title producer, special projects, he negotiates the deals that are introducing these old-school blankets to their new fan base. To date, there have been collaborations with the popular streetwear brand Supreme (picture an orange blanket with an emoji-like unhappy face) and the Canadian rapper Drake (black and gold, monogrammed with ovo, the initials of his record label). There’s a custom Woolrich blanket in the early stages of development for the cult jam band Phish. There’s also a “special blanket” in the works that Burkholder can’t discuss yet. But he does drop some clues: “We’re working with a modern art painter known for his iconic images. He lives in Connecticut.” Which sounds an awful lot like Jasper Johns.
To show where the blankets are really headed, though, Burkholder points to a rack of samples hanging in the “swatch room,” a cluttered studio holding row upon row of boxes filled with more than 35,000 fabric samples. He pulls out one sample draped on a hanger and thrusts it forward. “Feel this,” he says. It’s incredibly soft and light, more like cashmere than tweed. “This is the first time we’ve ever done merino,” he says proudly. In 2015, Woolrich rolled out its first line of merino wool for Loro Piana outerwear; in 2019, the company will launch its first collection of throws. Switch from regular wool to fancy merino, and blankets suddenly become “throws.” More important, the people who thumb through designer home catalogs suddenly take notice. This doesn’t mean Woolrich is abandoning its roots. But Burkholder realizes that to survive, his family company must innovate—without losing touch with its heritage of high-quality manufacturing. “We’re essentially a 188-year-old startup,” he says. “These new customers don’t want to buy a bunch of stuff at Uniqlo. They care about the provenance of the products in their homes.”
Back on the production floor, nobody is thinking about celebrities or high-design homes. All they think about is making wool fabric.
One of these people is Sandy Watkins, who works at the burling and mending station, removing minor imperfections that make their way into the fabric. Next year will mark 50 years for her at the factory. Her hands tell the story. After reading the wool like Braille for so long, her fingertips have turned a bright shade of pink; she jokes that her fingerprints have worn away. But he has no plans to retire. “I’ll be here until they haul me out on a gurney,” she says. Then she reaches down and flips a switch, and the wool starts to unfurl again.
How to Visit
Woolrich opens its Pennsylvania factory to the public four Saturdays a year: in June, August, September, and October. There’s no charge for these hour-long guided tours, but space is limited and start times are chiseled in granite (1:00 and 1:30 p.m.). So register early, and be punctual. There are small regional airports in Williamsport and State College, but you’ll most likely fly into JFK or Newark. The road trip from New York City to Woolrich is 210 miles, roughly a four-hour drive. Register at the company website or call the Woolrich store directly: 570-769-7401. >>Next: France’s Most Iconic Sunglasses Are Making a Comeback