Introducing The Shinola Supply Blanket By Fairbault Woolen Mill

BY Taylor Rebhan

The fabric of Faribault Woolen Mill Co. is woven into Minnesota history and stands as a living testament to American craftsmanship. Faribault woolens have served generations from pioneers heading west to American troops overseas, and are frequently handed down as family heirlooms in the Land of Lakes. Renowned for comfort and quality, the nearly 150-year-old mill on the banks of the Cannon River produces fine woolen blankets, throws and scarves along with other accessories using century-old machinery.

We were able to chat with partner and CMO Bruce Bildsten about the history of the mill and the new collaborative, limited-edition Shinola Faribault Woolen Throw Blanket, a heavyweight, silk-screened Moreno with leather strap from Leather Works Minnesota in St. Paul. The blanket is available through Shinola Supply, a collection of American-made goods from Shinola and craftsmen who share our commitment to manufacturing high-quality products again in this country.

SHINOLA: Tell us about the collaboration with Shinola. What makes the Shinola throw blanket unique?

FARIBAULT: It actually is a very special product. Our head of production, Dennis, headed up the effort. A lot of Dennis’ creativity came into play. He took the Shinola design and interpreted it for wool. It’s what we call a double-cloth. It has a very luxurious hand feel. It’s very warm, not hot. It has a fringed end. It’s actually one of our most luxurious. To avoid over-dying we kept the color a rich cream and two shades of gray, which is beautiful. And the silk screening of SHINOLA DETROIT is subtle and also really beautiful.

SHINOLA: What is the one thing you do best that makes people respond so positively to the Faribault brand?

FARIBAULT: We’re really focused. We’re not trying to create an empire or expand. We make one thing—really fine woolens. We take a raw bale of wool and finish it in-house, under one roof. We create beautiful wool product and that’s our primary focus. It’s pretty amazing. People travel from all over the world to tour our facility, and their jaws drop when they see it. The effect would be, to make a Detroit comparison, imagine the Model T plant still making cars—the same cars. Our mill is so old, and we still make the same products using the same methods.

SHINOLA: You’re a long-time supplier of the U.S. Military. Do veterans ever come back to buy civilian blankets?

FARIBAULT: Absolutely. We’ve been with the military since the 1890s, and we hear stories again and again. Veterans send us their blankets for our archives. We have one from World War I along with letters from the soldier about how his Faribault blanket took him through the war. Our congressman, who’s an Iraq War Veteran, came to visit us a few months ago, and before he left he bought himself a new West Point blanket, which he displays in his office. Think about how high-tech the military has become—body armor, laser-sighting—but there’s still nothing that will replace a wool blanket. It lasts. It endures. It’s warm even when it’s wet. It’s stain resistant. It resists fire. It provides warmth and comfort. They’ve experimented with high-tech fabrics and came back to a wool blanket.

SHINOLA: When you reopened in 2011 after a two-year closure, what was the reaction of workers who suddenly had their old jobs back?

FARIBAULT: This company had been owned by one family for five generations. They were great stewards of the brand, and everyone in the family worked their way up in the mill. When we brought it back to life, it was clear the workers cared and everybody knew it. They came back, people with 30-40 years of experience—one person with 59 years of experience. That’s the kind of workforce it was, and we feel a great commitment to them. All the people on our machines are skilled and take pride, and we put great effort into recruiting and training, to get people who will care and be there for the long haul.

SHINOLA: Is there a sense of responsibility that comes from being the oldest manufacturing company in Minnesota?

FARIBAULT: It means a lot, and we feel a ton of responsibility for it. I’m a partner and owner in the mill, and I know I speak for my other partners when I say we feel like stewards of a great brand. We don’t own it; we’re just taking care of it. Faribault is revered in the state, and it’s been a big part of the community. We respect the brand.

SHINOLA: Where do you source your raw wool?

FARIBAULT: Most of the wool comes from the western U.S. through cooperatives of ranchers in a brokerage system, and we’re careful to make sure the animals are treated fairly. We also source some from Australia and New Zeeland for finer wools—fine Merinos. Those two places dominate wool production for the world. But blankets don’t require that kind of wool so we’re able to source most our raw material right here at home.

SHINOLA: Can you describe the process by which you select raw wool and create blankets?

FARIBAULT: I could try to describe it but you need to visit and see it for yourself. It’s a very precise process, and quality is critically important to us. Most our machines date from 1905—they’re just irreplaceable. People think it’s easy, but there are 22 very involved steps to make a blanket—weighing and separating, dying, yarning, carding, spinning, plying, weaving, inspection, washing and drying, fringing, sewing… to name just a few. And there’s an additional step for Shinola and Military blankets that are silk-screened. Since wool is so thick and dense, we use special inks and then hang them to dry.

SHINOLA: What is it about Minnesota that’s such a good fit for Faribault?

FARIBAULT: I think Minnesota recognizes its treasures and takes care of them and supports them. If I look at ourselves and other authentic businesses that have truly been there, what distinguishes us is that our products are made for the environment and the climate. If there was ever a part of the country that needed a warm wool blanket, it was Minnesota. Well, and Michigan.

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