Warren of Stafford, a textile mill that ended 160 years of production in December, plans to restart its looms within 10 days.
Thursday, American Woolen Co. announced it would buy the mill complex from Loro Piana, an Italian luxury cashmere and wool apparel company, which had owned it for 26 years. The company made fine worsted wool for men's suits and cashmere and camel hair for coats, and for most of the time Loro Piana operated in Stafford, 200 to 250 people worked there.
By the end, there were about 85 workers.
Friday, the state Department of Economic Development announced that it had given American Woolen $100,000, and loaned it $300,000 at a subsidized rate, to help pay for the purchase of the mill. The announcement said the new owner projected there would be 38 jobs at the mill two years after it opens.
It was the last textile mill in the state making fabric for the fashion industry, though there are a few that make technical, coated fabrics.
Jacob Long, the new owner, has never worked in the textile industry. His background was in investment banking, and, for the past six years, in distressed investing, in which finance firms buy failing companies in hopes of turning them around.
It was there that he saw Italian textile operations up close. "The deeper I got, the more interested I became," he said.
Long, 44, who was living overseas, moved his family back to the United States in October, to Miami, where American Woolen Co. had operated since 1966, making blankets for the military and the airline industry, and importing blankets for consumer markets. He bought the American Woolen trademark in 2013.
Long started talking to Loro Piana in October, after he saw news of the mill's closing.
Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, said Loro Piana was cautious at first about Long's interest in buying the textile mill.
"They were not going to sell it willy-nilly and raise people's hopes and have it go nowhere," Courtney said. Courtney said he met Long a few months ago, and said he has strong financial resources and is extremely impressive.
"He understands this business very well," Courtney said. "He is not doing this for sentimental reasons. He views this as a real economic opportunity.
"After talking to him," Courtney said, "I was convinced he was onto something here, that there is a market for quality and loyalty by consumers that will make the made-in-Stafford-Springs brand viable. It is not for the faint of heart. I wouldn't have predicted it, that's for sure. I just think for that community, and for the people who worked there, this is just a great turn of events."
Long said he expects to hire back about 20 weavers at first. He's already brought on the three managers who ran the mill under Loro Piana.
"We'll be very cautious," Long said, but hopes to nurture the business until it's back where it was a decade ago.
He said he plans to move to Connecticut.
"What really drew us to Warren were the people," he said. "The workers were happy, and took pride in what they did."
Long said he has talked to apparel manufacturers who had bought from Loro Piana, and they would say they knew the mill's low error rate and production quality. He said they know it's "on par with the best mills in Europe."
Dianne Bilyak, a Stafford Springs resident, hosted a tribute to Warren Mill's 161 years in April, and about 150 people attended. She said she's excited for the former workers, but that's not the only reason she's pleased at the mill's rebirth. "Stafford had this industrial history and it's just nice to know it's not completely dead," Bilyak said.
First Selectman Richard Shuck said Warren had been the town's second-biggest taxpayer, contributing about $160,000 a year in property taxes.
Long said there are only two other commercial worsted mills in the United States, in Fall River, Mass., and Burlington, N.C.
He said that as he's told people about his idea to bring back the textile mill, "People said I was crazy. Those in the textile industry have thought I'm pretty brave."
In October, Loro Piana said it had lost work as customers went out of business. But Long thinks there's a way to market artisan-quality fabric made in America. He made the analogy to the rise of craft breweries and said he thinks luxury clothing designers such as Rag & Bone would be natural customers for Warren fabrics.
The first incarnation of American Woolen Co., founded in 1899, was in New England, when a family with means and expertise in mill turnarounds started buying failing plants in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. American Woolen owned the mill in Lawrence, Mass., where the Bread and Roses strike was held in 1912.
American Woolen eventually grew to 58 mills and 20,000 employees in New England in the 1920s, when it produced 20 percent of the national fabric output. American Woolen bought its first Connecticut mill at the turn of the 20th century in Moosup. It eventually bought two others, in Norwich and Danielson, with a combined total of 1,080 employees.
The Moosup mills superintendent, dissatisfied with the new ownership, took a job as superintendent of Warren Woolen Co. in Stafford Springs in 1900.
American Woolen suffered from the same market forces as the rest of New England's textile industry, when competition from cheaper, nonunion labor in the South grew through the first half of the 20th century. Textron, a Southern textile manufacturer, acquired American Woolen in a hostile takeover in 1952, when it had 15 mills still operating in New England, according to Textile World archives. Textron closed all the New England mills by 1957.
Long acknowledges that buying a mill that makes wool for expensive suits is a contrarian move in an era when khaki pants and oxford shirts, or even polo shirts, are standard office attire.
Long said suit separates are "on fire" as men in their 20s are rejecting their fathers' khakis and polos as dorky. He said American Woolen is well positioned to profit from the trend.
"American Woolen is about dressing the American male better," he said.Copyright © 2015, CT Now