When the Warren Corp. mill ends production in Stafford at the end of this year, it will silence the last looms in eastern Connecticut, a region built on the strength of its textile, thread and yarn mills and clothing manufacturers.
The mill, built in 1853, weaves luxury worsted wools for fine men's suits, as well as wool, cashmere, camel hair and cashmere blends for men's coats.
Pier Guerci, president and CEO of Loro Piana USA, has been with Warren since 1988, when the family-owned Italian fabrics firm bought two mills in Stafford, including Warren Corp. At the time, the mills had about 320 workers. Over nearly 20 years, employment waxed and waned between 200 and 250, but by 2010, employment was down to about 125 workers.
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In 2012, Warren laid off 57 workers, and it will lay off 75 workers in December. A skeleton crew of 10 workers will stay on until the final closure in April.
"We had a number of customers that went out of business," Guerci said. J. Schoeneman closed its last U.S. factory in 1997. Hickey Freeman and Hart Schaffner Marx still sew suits in America, but when those firms' parent company had two bankruptcies in the past five years, Loro Piana, a major creditor, lost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"The fact that we are the last ones standing is pretty much a testament to our determination," Guerci said. "We were able to survive in spite of great difficulties."
U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, acknowledged that the Italian firm beat back against the tide for decades.
"Foreign competition in the textile arena was just an unrelenting challenge, kept undercutting their customer base," Courtney said. "I'll tell you, it was not for lack of trying."
Courtney has pushed for tariff protections for U.S. manufacturers for years, and voted against free-trade pacts with Korea, Colombia and Panama.
"Trade agreements have to be scrutinized with the real understanding this has real-life consequences when you get this wrong," he said.
The federal government had subsidized Warren even after the tariffs dropped, including giving the company $1.4 million last October.
The congressman had visited the Warren mill complex many times.
"Visiting that place was always kind of exciting to me, being able to see actual looms clattering away. A sight that goes back to the origins of this state," he said. "I see it as a sad milestone."
When asked if the federal money was wasted on a firm that failed so soon after receiving it, Courtney said that no one has a crystal ball for how companies will perform. "I'll leave that to others to Monday morning quarterback," he said.
Although there are still a few firms in the state making textiles — Ahlstrom in Windsor Locks, Lydall in Manchester, Uretek in New Haven — those companies make technical fabrics, coated materials that are often used for industrial purposes, not the kind of wool, cotton or silk that were fashioned into clothes for men and women throughout the country.
But the nearly century-long decline of mills in eastern Connecticut, as production moved to the South, then to Mexico, and then to Asia, is almost background noise at this point.
Stafford First Selectman Richard Shuck didn't remember the list of mills that started closing in the 1950s — Riverside Woolen Co., Swift River, Glenville Worsted and Stafford Worsted — and he barely remembered Cyril Johnson, the upholsterer that Loro Piana closed when it bought the mills.
"I was born in 1968, they were all way before my time," he said. But, still, he said, it's sad that Warren is closing. "Warren is part of the history of Stafford; it's part of what made Stafford Stafford."
A customer at Matty's Barber Shop, around the corner from the complex on Furnace Avenue, said that he drove by the buildings all the time but didn't know what was inside. He said that he has lived in Stafford for 20 years and thought that all the mills were already closed.
The woman cutting his hair worked at Warren as a mender at minimum wage for just 90 days at age 18, 16 years ago. She said that aside from the effect on the families of the workers there, its closing won't make much of a difference in Stafford.