The pendulum of fashion swings back to Pendleton

November 15, 1992|By Robin Updike | Robin Updike,Seattle Times

Fashion is fickle. Just ask Pendleton Woolen Mills.

Now that the venerable company is grappling with how to make its biggest product line, women's wear, seem more fashionable, its oldest product, Native American-style ceremonial blankets, are all the rage.

"We've always done well with the Indian blankets," said Darrell Drew, manager of the downtown Seattle Pendleton store. "But in the last three or four years, people have been buying these things like crazy. I have people who come in from Texas and New York and snap them up, doesn't matter what color they are."

Home decor magazines for the last three years have been gaga over the lodge look, sometimes also regionalized as the Northwest lodge look, though it might just as easily be the Maine woods or the Great Lakes lodge look. (Or the Ralph Lauren look. Mr. Lauren latched onto it several years ago and now, presumably, upscale New York apartments are decked out like decoys of Mount Hood's Timberline Lodge in Mr. Lauren's trapper blanket upholstery.)

The look basically is rough-hewn furniture such as the kind sold by L. L. Bean, accessorized with fly fishing paraphernalia, the Farmer's Almanac on the night stand, and blankets adorned with trapper's stripes or traditional Native American motifs. Pendleton makes both styles.

At around $145 for a double bed-sized blanket, Mr. Drew says they are especially popular at Christmas. He ordered 1,500 to meet this winter's demand, and says he still is likely run out. He says there is a mystique that has something to do with the traditional Native American lore associated with each blanket style.

The demand for the blankets has been so great in recent years that Pendleton this year started wholesaling blanket textiles to interior designers.

"Over the years, we've constantly gotten requests from people who ask if they can get blankets in sizes to be used for upholstery," said Stanley Zemble, the man in charge of Pendleton's fledgling entry into the interior design business. "We've always said no. For one thing, the blankets weren't treated to withstand the demands placed on upholstery. But people have gone ahead anyway."

Though Pendleton's upholstery fabric is now available only to designers and only through the Portland, Ore., corporate showroom, Mr. Zemble says sales are good. "We've done no advertising, but I've sold goods all across the country."

Ceremonial Native American robes were some of the first products woven at the Pendleton, Ore., mill when it was converted from a plant that cleaned raw fleece to a weaving works in 1895. Fourteen years later is was bought by C. P. Bishop, a Salem, Ore., boy's and men's wear merchant. Bishop's several sons helped run the growing wool empire, and in 1912 the company bought a mill in Washougal, Wash., still the company's main weaving facility. Along with blankets, the company started manufacturing wool shirts, which in those days were worn by men who worked outdoors.

The company is still owned by the Bishop family, and fifth-generation family members run it. It has 2,500 employees. Besides headquarters in Portland, and the Pendleton and Washougal mills, the company owns 11 other plants in Oregon, Nebraska, Iowa and New Hampshire that specialize in weaving, manufacturing or shipping. Pendleton remains one of the few apparel companies in the nation that is vertically organized and completely domestic. Pendleton's apparel manufacturing process begins when it buys and cleans raw wool fleeces, then continues through the design and weaving of the fabric, the manufacture of the apparel, and its distribution.

Pendleton prefers to stay out of retailing, however. Though it has a partial ownership in 13 specialty shops across the nation, most of the 70 stores that bear the Pendleton name are licensing arrangements. Pendleton merchandise also is sold in many department stores.

Ralph Lauren, the New York City-born promoter of Wild West style, apparently also would like to sell Pendleton. Says Mr. Zemble: "He's asked us if we'd be willing to make blankets for him. Probably we would if we had the time. But we're booked with orders for blankets through part of next year."

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