by Maggie Brendan
I’m addicted to “coats”. To prove it, I donned my favorite Pendleton red-plaid woolen coat in Atlanta’s 90 degree weather today for all of you history buffs out there. I’ve long been a fan of Pendleton’s beautiful array of colors and plaid woolen throws, coats, and shirts.
I even have a Pendleton mouse pad. This beautiful coat that I’m wearing was purchased in Colorado, but not while I lived there. I bought it on a return trip to Denver, a city that I love to visit. It’s too large for me because I wear a small, and that’s why the cuffs are rolled up, and the shoulders are a mite big. But the only one left was a medium, and I just had to have it, I recently received a Pendleton catalog in the mail and it made me want to know the background of their beginnings.
The town of Pendleton has its history as a trading post on the Oregon Trail as far back as 1851. The biggest employer of the town was the Pendleton Woolen Mills. In 1863, an Englishman by the name of Thomas Kay arrived in Oregon as a boss weaver in a pioneer mill. In 1889, he opened his own mill in Salem, Oregon. This is where the dyed-in-the-wool American success story began. His daughter Fannie assisted in the operation of the mills and learned the business. In 1876, she married C. P. Bishop, a retail merchant. With his merchandising and their manufacturing skills, they created a solid foundation for what was to become the Pendleton Woolen Mills.
The Mills were built in 1893 to scour wool and make Indian blankets for local Indians. Some of the tribes in the area were the Walla Walla, Cayuse and the Umatilla. In 1895, the scouring plant was enlarged and converted into a woolen mill. There they made blankets and robes for Native Americans, including the Plains Indians and the Nez Perce. Later the business went idle and in 1909, the Bishop’s sons reopened the mill and made it more efficient and the tradition of Pendleton Woolen Mills began to take off. Pendleton designer, Joe Rawnsley, went to live for a while with his customers to soak up their design preferences. The Pendleton team studied the design and vivid color of the intricate patterns of local and the Southwest Native Americans which became the trademark of their beautiful blankets. Throughout the years, when an Indian baby is born, he’s wrapped in a Pendleton blanket. It’s a common graduation or wedding gift. When someone dies, often they are buried in a Pendleton blanket and the coffin lined with the blankets, as well. The blankets where used as a standard of value for trading and credit among the American Indians, as well as for ceremonial purposes.
Today, there are 70 Pendleton retail stores with their headquarters in Portland, Oregon and employee 1,000 workers. Besides adding warmth and comfort, the role of the blankets is a part of Native American history. The beauty and quality of the woolen blanket is unsurpassed. An interesting tidbit-the Beach Boys called their group the Pendle Tones because of their love of the plaid shirts they wore that were featured on their earlier albums. My sister and sister-in-law love my coat so much that they’ve begged me to sell it to them. Of course, I won’t, but if I pass on before them, they’ll have to duke it out, if they can get past my daughter first! They’ve looked high and low for one exactly like mine and couldn’t find one. I’m not certain they make two of the same exact pattern or color.
Now, Pendleton blankets are draped over the foot of a bed, sofa or chair or displayed on a den wall. Pendleton also makes incredible bedding, vests, and sweaters. Their blankets have endured the test of time. You can find their beautiful merchandise at the online store.