The Art of Wool

At Faribault Woolen Mill, expert weavers use new technology and time-tested techniques

If the history of America were woven into a rich tapestry, it would likely be made of wool, one of the world’s oldest natural fibers. Of all the stories that could be woven into the warp and weft of the tapestry, Alexander Hamilton’s would be one of the most colorful. In addition to his new-found fame as a Broadway hip-hop icon, Hamilton was one of America’s greatest entrepreneurs and an early champion of its wool industry. For nearly 200 years, Britain kept a tight rein on the wool market, shipping fabric and clothing to the colonies while enacting laws to protect the English wool industry, including one that threatened to amputate the hand of any colonial caught trying to improve the bloodlines of American sheep. When the American Revolution broke out, cutting off access to English goods, local weaving “manufactories,” as they were called, stepped up their production of textiles to serve the young country.
In 1791, Hamilton encouraged Congress to promote manufacturing to reduce America’s dependence on England and other foreign countries. That same year, the first water-powered woolen mill in America opened in Maine and by 1861, there were 1,500 mills from Massachusetts to Oregon. In 1865, an entrepreneur named Carl Klemer founded a wool-carding factory in Faribault, Minnesota, about 50 miles south of Minneapolis. Today, powered by the Cannon River and new technology, Faribault Woolen Mill is one of America’s most enduring heritage wool brands. But, in the early 1990s, like the deadly duel between Hamilton and arch rival Aaron Burr, low-cost overseas textile mills began challenging the American wool industry. Between 1994 and 2005, the United States lost nearly one million textile and apparel jobs, causing hundreds of family-owned mills in small towns across the country to go out of business. Fortunately, just as Hamilton’s legacy is being celebrated with the Tony Award–winning musical of the same name, the American wool industry is also being reinvented in the 21st century. Driven by the increasing demand for authentic, American-made products, a new generation of entrepreneurs are renovating old woolen mills with innovative machinery and state-of-the-art technology. Legions of loyal former employees, often third-and fourth-generation millworkers, are returning to the mills to share their expertise with young artisans who are eager to learn this ancient craft.
Even with high-speed weaving machines and new software that automates parts of the process, the art of wool has changed very little since Hamilton’s time. As always, it begins with natural fleece from sheep. After the animals have been shorn, which is usually in the springtime, the fleece is graded, sorted by quality, and cleaned. (In yet another gift from Mother Nature, the natural lanolin from the fleece is saved and used to make lotions and other household products.) After the wool has been delivered to the mill, it’s passed through a series of metal teeth for straightening and blending, a process known as carding. Depending on the finished product, the carded wool might be dyed before being spun into long strands of yarn and wrapped around cones, which look like giant spools of thread. Then, in an age-old process made infinitely faster with digital technology, the yarn is fed into giant super-powered looms that crisscross the warp (vertical) threads and the weft (horizontal) threads at dizzying speeds. Under the watchful eye of expert artisans, the wool is woven into yards of top quality wool cloth emblazoned with the true mark of excellence, the “Made in America” label, before being shipped throughout the world. Hamilton would be proud.
Wool’s significance comes from four performance factors: moisture regulation; inherent fire resistance; insulation (both sound and heat); and its ability to tightly connect to itself (think about the sturdiness of felt, held together by nothing more than the unique shape of wool fibers). Wool is durable, reduces noise, and maintains good humidity levels in the home—all without needing toxic fire retardants. That makes it the perfect choice for everything from home insulation and acoustic wall panels to upholstery fabrics, carpets, and rugs. Without losing any of its status as a heritage material that is perceived as luxury yet workaday, wool has also kept up with synthetic innovations. Manufacturers blend it with activated carbon for dependable odor control, with nanotech to create fully water- and stain-resistant cashmere, and with nylon for unmatched durability (why that particular blend is often used for upholstery). Eco-friendly, high performance, and hardwearing, this ancient material is proving in many ways to be thoroughly modern.