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Journal Inquirer: New owners highlight former Warren Mill

August 7, 2014
In The News

STAFFORD — A first glimpse into the American Woolen Warren Mill was offered late Wednesday morning as U.S. Rep. Joseph D. Courtney toured the grounds with the new owners.

Courtney, D-2nd District, was in the thick of the effort to keep the mill’s doors open when it was set to be closed in June.

Jacob Harrison Long, CEO of American Woolen, bought the 161-year-old mill, formerly known as the Warren Corp. textile mill, in June, after Warren decided to close it. It is Stafford’s only surviving textile mill.

Long said Wednesday that looms started running two weeks ago. He said two of the mill’s 40 looms are running.

Long, Jennifer Knight, president of the company, and Guy Birkhead, the vice president, showed Courtney around the grounds, including the headquarters on Furnace Avenue and the manufacturing building on West Street. The congressman was introduced to the mill’s employees, all of whom have been hired back after being laid off when the mill was closing down. Courtney said he was pleased with what he saw.

“It shows that this is not just rhetoric and talking points,” Courtney said. “We’re seeing real activity. It shows how committed and serious this new ownership is.”

Courtney added that the new owner was able to put up most of his capital and not use many state funds to purchase the mill.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said in June after the purchase was finalized, that to support the Warren Mill initiative, the state Department of Economic and Community Development would provide American Woolen with a $300,000 “job creation incentive loan” as well as a $100,000 matching grant through the Small Business Express Program.

Funds would be used to help cover building acquisition costs, Malloy said, as the company seeks to add as many as 38 workers to its payroll.

American Woolen has also been approved for liability protections as part of the “Abandoned Brownfield Cleanup Program,” the governor added.

Long said he wanted to offer the tour Wednesday because many people don’t understand the amount of work that goes into textile manufacturing. He said the company is “still on target” for getting back to full-time production but did not want to set a target date.

Long said last week that he is “selectively” hiring back workers — those laid off when the mill was being closed — and has hired about 20 so far. He said he’s been hiring people on a week-to-week basis — two or three workers a week — based on production needs.

Miles Taylor, 52, a machine technician, said he was hired back on June 30. Taylor, who’s been with the mill for 18 years, pointed out that textile mill workers have certain skills.

As a machine technician, “things have to be very intricate” and “settings have to be very precise,” he said. He added that it’s “very important that nothing gets mixed.”

Taylor said having the mill in town is important.

“It’s one of the biggest employers in Stafford,” Taylor said.

Jay Oelrich, a manager with American Woolen, said the mill looks “incredibly good.”

“You’d think we had just taken a two-week vacation,” Oelrich said.

He said the mill’s workers pay close attention to the work that goes into making a fabric because “we love what we do.” He said every single yard of fabric is inspected at least three times.

“When you inspect a fabric like that, it’s personal,” Oelrich said. “You’ve said, ‘it’s OK.’”

Birkhead said he’s been with Warren mill for 30 years and became vice president in the 1990s. He retains that position under the new ownership.

“I wanted to see this work because it would mean bringing back some of the great people that I spent most of my life with,” Birkhead said about why he decided to come back to work in the mill under the new ownership.

The Warren Mill had been a subsidiary of Loro Piana for 25 years and was to have closed its doors for good in June. The textiles the mill produces include cashmere, camel hair, silk, and worsted wool.

Loro Piana, billing itself as one of the world’s largest producers of cashmere fabrics, supplies high-end clothing stores such as Brooks Brothers, Neiman Marcus, and Hart, Schaffner & Marx, a company history says.

Long said in June his hope is to make American Woolen “America’s premier supplier of worsted and woolen fabrics.”