|Wisconsin Textile Businesses Share History, Provide Industry Support
By BECKY TALLEY
Sheep Industry News Associate Editor
(July 1, 2010) Crescent Woolen Mills, Two Rivers, Wis., and Wigwam Mills Inc., Sheboygan, Wis., have a unique history in the textile business. Both support American wool, both are family-owned and both have been working together for several generations.
The Webster family’s, current owners of Crescent Woolen Mills, experience in the textile business dates back to 1855 when Matthew Webster and his brothers, who had worked in the textile business all their life, migrated to the United States and continued working their trade in Illinois. Eventually, the family moved their business to Minnesota, opening three woolen mills in the state, including a state-of-the-art facility in Winona.
In 1923, the Webster family moved their Winona, Minn., mill to Two Rivers, Wis., into a facility at the time that was owned by the predecessor to Wigwam Mills.
Wigwam Mills, founded in 1905 as Hand Knit Hosiery by Herbert Chesebro, started as a wool sock manufacturer but eventually branched out into other products over its past, such as letterman sweaters and, surprisingly, wool bathing suits.
It was in 1915 that this company acquired Zulu Mills in Two Rivers, a sweater and hosiery manufacturer, and moved the machinery and business to Sheboygan, opening up the way for the Webster family to bring Crescent Woolen Mills to Wisconsin. Wigwam Mills owned the mill until Crescent was able to purchase the property.
It has been a good relationship ever since. Wigwam Mills needs yarn, Crescent supplies yarn.
“We’ve done business together as long as we have been in the area,” says Eric Webster, vice president of Crescent, adding that Wigwam makes up about 40 percent to 45 percent of the mill’s business.
“Wigwam Mills is still a valued customer of Crescent. We are third-generation Websters selling to third-generation Cheseboros,” relates John Webster, chief executive officer of Crescent.
According to Eric, they provide an all-American wool-blend yarn to Wigwam for the various sock styles the manufacturer makes. Most of the wool for the yarn comes from Western flocks in the 60s to 70s grades. American wool, he relates, is a good fit for the hosiery business due to its loft – giving yarn a softer feel.
“Domestic wool, in terms of loft, is completely comparable to wools in Australia,” Eric adds.
The company also has several other clients, including Fox River Mills, which also uses domestic wool in its sock products, and has spun yarn for several companies and military contracts, including the space program.
“Crescent Woolen Mills has been in space,” says Eric, relating that their yarn was used in a moccasin on a space mission.
But, he adds, the mill’s hosiery clients have been an important part of their business.
“People aren’t in the market to buy $300 to $700 ski jackets, but they will buy a $7 sock. Wigwam has built a brand, and that has helped us,” Eric says.
And it is a brand that continues to grow in popularity.
Wigwam currently employs 240 people to run a 24-hour, five-days per week production schedule. This produces more than 36,000 pairs of socks a day. To keep up with production, Wigwam uses yarn from many spinners, including KentWool, Jagger Brothers Inc. and Crescent.
Wigwam’s 200,000 square-foot facility has the capability to do everything from knitting and dyeing to packaging and distributing, and all processes in between. Importantly, Wigwam makes sure its label or logo is in as many places as possible on a pair of socks and its packaging to continue to increase brand recognition.
“We are just so focused on the building of our brand. We want everything we make to have our name or logo on it,” says Jerry Vogel, vice president of operations at Wigwam Mills.
What makes all this exciting for the American wool industry is that Wigwam Mills switched its business plan to buy strictly American wool two years ago and uses wool in as many products as they can. The more people recognize the Wigwam name and quality products, the more wool from domestic producers it can use.
“The big push for Wigwam Mills is to continue to produce 100 percent of our socks domestically. Wool accounts for around 30 percent of our total raw materials and its almost all domestic,” says Vogel. “When we can turn around and support the U.S. ranchers by supporting U.S. manufacturing, it’s a no brainer.”
According to Vogel, he sees product lines involving wool expanding as it moves into other uses, such as performance. He says he is seeing an increased interest in women’s specialty sports socks, running socks and socks incorporating Smart silver for antimicrobial properties – all areas wool is and can be used.
“There is such a loyalty out there to wool. That expanding wool products out of the traditional cold-weather markets and into the lighter-weight performance sport, health and casual markets makes perfect sense. The characteristics of wool also give you so many opportunities to blend it with other fibers,” he relates.