Pendleton Woolen Mills
The Pendleton story is the American story, a tale of enterprise and success. Pendleton has become synonymous in the American psyche with the Indian Trade blanket. Of all the big wool mills from a century ago Pendleton is the only company still operating the few remaining textile mills in North America. Pendleton today is an ongoing successful operation, running eight facilities and seventy retail outlets.
The story of Pendleton goes back to the late 1800s when wool production in Oregon had become well established. Earlier on in the Colonial Period blankets were only allowed to be imported from England. Most of the sheep at this time were used primarily for mutton. Therefore it took some time for the wool industry to become established, first in New England, then later in the Pacific north-west.
The 1890s saw the introduction of the revolutionary Jacquard double-shuttle loom, which allowed blankets to be woven two sided, insofar as having the color palette of the design in reverse on either side of the blanket. Of all the producing mills, however, only seven major mills focused on the rising market for trade blankets among the Native Indian population.
There were approximately 300,000 Native Indians c.1900 and Pendleton was the only firm that focused exclusively on Indian trade blankets. Fifty per cent of the blanket market for Pendleton lay with the largest tribe, the Navajo.
Pendleton was smart. Starting with the local Umatilla Indians they would send representatives to each tribe to find out which colors and designs appealed to them the most or had the most significance or meaning. Colors and designs acceptable to Crow Indians were often quite different from, say, the Navajo. So Pendleton would cater to Indian tastes, tribe by tribe. Pendleton got the Umatilla to model the blankets and put them into full-color catalogs for traders.
Learning that white men were producing blankets for the Indians may come as a surprise. Yet that is exactly what happened, and the blankets were enormously popular with the Native Indians, used in everyday life, to both wear and sleep in, and for ceremonial purposes. Even today Pendleton Woolen Mills sells half of its product to the Native Indian market. The majority go to the Navajo. Pendleton has produced more Indian Trade blankets than all of the other manufacturers combined.
A measure of the significance of a Pendleton blanket is perhaps best expressed in the Death Robe made by Pendleton and used by the Zuni tribe to bury their dead.
When the company was incorporated in 1893 Pendleton Woolen Mills started cleaning 700 000 pounds of wool a year and became a major player in the wool market. Pendleton was strategically located at a railhead and Pendleton would ship trainloads of wool east and south down to San Francisco. From 1895 Pendleton began making blankets for the local Umatilla and Walla Walla tribes. In 1897 Pendleton received one order of 2500 blankets.
The early blankets, up until 1908, had round corners - indisputably the most prized by collectors - such as worn in the above image of Geronimo. Up to 1901, and the introduction of the Jacquard loom, designs were straight lines with small designs. The Jacquard Loom facilitated production of more intricate designs. In 1909 under the custodianship of the Bishop family - still the current owners - the company turned a profit of $65000.
By the 1920s Pendleton Mills processed 3 million tons of wool, employed 500 workers and received $3 million in revenue. Today Pendleton supplies the entire Indian trade blanket market. By the end of war only Pendleton remained, which is why 1942 is usually seen as a cut-off date by traders in these antique items.
Pendleton produced three brands and quality grades:
- All wool Pendleton Robe.
- Intermediary. Beaver State Blanket. Using cotton warp.
- Lowest. Cayuse Blanket. 17% reprocessed wool.
Designs fell into the following categories:
As already mentioned, the most collectible Pendleton blankets are those with round edges and the distinctive logo on them. These were only made in the very earliest years of production.
There has been a lot of debate over the years regarding the meaning of Native Indian signs on blankets. Although it is certainly true that the design motifs have specific meaning, as does color, there is no linear narrative ever woven into the blankets. Still, from a design and color perspective alone there were two designs that Pendleton produced that were wildly popular – the Harding and the Chief Joseph.
The Harding design got its name from the first lady when she visited Oregon with then President Warren G. Harding. This design was so popular that it was the first with a patent taken out on it by Pendleton. Here at Southwest Looms we are reproducing the Harding in a beautifully hand-knotted and piled rug.
Pendleton also focused on the large white market back east by producing color catalogues as early as 1900. This was the heyday of the romantic Western ideal of the noble Indian and tourists were venturing by train down into the southwest from the northeast. Pendleton was an integral part of this movement, often featuring the impressive visage of Chief Joseph.