Pendleton Weaves Warmth for Generations

American Artisans, Made in America, People, Traditions
on January 30, 2005

When C.M. Bishop III talks about the family business—Pendleton Woolen Mills—it isn’t the vibrant wool blankets he mentions first or the soft plaid shirts. Instead, he talks about the Golden Rule that has guided the company for five generations: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

“We live where we work,” says Bishop III, 52, president of the Portland, Ore.-based company. “We are not anonymous. We are not removed.”

In accordance to that rule, family ties are respected and revered, employees and suppliers are a valued part of the Pendleton team, and customers can count on quality, Bishop III says.

Those same principles have guided the woolen products and clothing manufacturer since 1909 when the third-generation Bishop brothers—Clarence, Roy and Chauncy—bought a wool-cleaning mill in Pendleton, Ore. (pop. 16,354).

Yet the fabric of the family business was literally woven decades earlier when Fannie Kay, who learned the art of weaving from her father, Oregon pioneer Thomas Kay, married retail expert C.P. Bishop in 1876. Within 20 years, the Bishops began producing the ceremonial robes and colorful Indian blankets that have since become a symbol of American culture worldwide. But it was weaver Joe Rawnsley, who captured the American Indian culture in wool in the early 1900s and solidified Pendleton as a premier wool products manufacturer.

Rawnsley lived with native tribes in northeast Oregon and the American Southwest to learn about their traditions and rituals. He then incorporated important cultural symbols and colors into bold blanket designs that are still popular today. American Indians purchase 50 percent of the jacquard-pattern trade blankets sold by the company annually.

Though the blankets are a cornerstone of the family business, the Pendleton product line has expanded over the decades to include menswear, women’s clothing and home products such as pillows, rugs, bed skirts and baby blankets. These products are sold online, in catalogs, and in 69 Pendleton-owned shops, affiliate stores and 1,000 specialty shops across America.

Sewn into the seams of the Pendleton blankets and other signature items is a blue and gold tag that declares that the product is “Warranted to be a Pendleton.”

“We are only putting the Pendleton name on a product that is 100 percent virgin wool,” says C.M. Bishop Jr., 79, the father of Bishop III, who started working for the company as a child, opening fleece-filled sacks that had arrived by rail car.

The Bishop family oversees all aspects of business operations, including the company headquarters in Portland, the mills in Pendleton and Washougal, Wash. (pop. 8,595), and three other manufacturing and distribution centers across America.

The mills are filled with wool processing, dying, weaving and quality-control equipment that monitors everything from the condition of the fleece to color consistency. But it’s the company’s 950 employees and fine fleece producers around the world that protect the Pendleton reputation.

“There is no sense in producing a product if we can’t do it properly,” says Fred Parrish, who has worked for the company for 35 years.

Like Parrish, 15 percent of all Pendleton employees have been with the company for 25 years or more. Many had parents or grandparents who worked for the company.

Some of Pendelton’s suppliers also are descended from families who sold fleece to the Bishops a century ago. And loyal customers keep coming back, too, for the woolen products woven by the Bishop family for five generations.

“There are Indian elders who remember dealing with my great-grandfather,” Bishop III says with pride. “So much in this society is disposable these days. Pendleton is built to last.”

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