Pendleton Woolen Mills

6 01 2016

IMG_1636-2Anyone familiar with the Pacific Northwest knows that we like our plaid shirts so much that they’ve grown into a stereotype. We wear them throughout all seasons. They double as coats in spring and fall. We layer them with puffy vests in winter. These shirts tie around our waists and drape over shorts on summer days, dutifully warding off chill from air-conditioners or cool evenings. We owe this trend to Pendleton Woolen Mills that began over 100 years ago.

Thomas Kay, a skilled English weaver, traveled by ship and burro to arrive in Oregon in 1863 and begin his own company in a region ideal for raising sheep and producing wool. Oregon held many positives such as a moderate climate, fresh water, and established wool operations. Kay worked for others before opening his own company in Salem, Oregon where he trained his eldest daughter, Fannie. Fannie married retail merchant Charles Pleasant Bishop and moved their family to Pendleton, Oregon. Their new hometown along the Columbia River already hosted a shipping center for local wool producers on a main railway. The three Bishop sons named Chauncey, Clarence, and Roy, caught the family’s passion for wool and founded Pendleton Woolen Mills in 1909. Pendleton Woolen Mills operated on the original site of a wool scouring plant that washed raw wool before shipping, and also of a previous woolen mill that produced blankets for Native Americans.

Pendleton Woolen Mills employees consulted local and Southwest Native Americans about their preferred colors and designs for blankets. Blanket production continued and included robes and shawls. Native Americans used these products for warmth and for trade among tribes. They preferred wool to animal skins because of its ability to capture heat, repel water, and sew or patch easily. Pendleton’s Nez Perce nation traded among themselves and with other nearby tribes such as the Navajos. They traded for jewelry and various valuables. Native Americans valued Pendleton Woolen Mills blankets for everyday apparel, dowries, gifts, and ceremonial pieces. The most traditional pattern in the Pacific Northwest continues to be the Hudson’s Bay point design with a white background and a stripe of green, red, yellow, and indigo.

The company expanded its location and product line after opening in Washougal, Washington and producing men’s shirts. Women’s apparel, non-wool items, surf wear, and accessories for body and home followed in the subsequent decades. The Bishop family continues to operate Pendleton Woolen Mills to this day.

Interesting Facts

  • The Beach Boys originally were called The Pendletones and wore plaid Pendleton shirts as their band’s uniform. The iconic blue and charcoal plaid remained their favorite and appeared on 45 record covers including Surfin’ Safari and Surfer Girl! That pattern is sold today as the Pendleton Board Shirt.
  • Actor Jeff Bridges wore a classic Pendleton sweater called The Westerley in his film The Big Lebowski! The Westerley sweater gives a nod to the hand-knit Cowichan sweaters made by Pacific Northwest Tribes.

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