Hartford Courant: Stafford Springs' Textile Mill Back In Action
STAFFORD SPRINGS — On the day that Warren Corp. closed in December, Guy Birkhead remembered, "There were a lot of hugs, a lot of tears."
The state's last traditional textile mill, which made quality woolens for men's suits and coats, was closing after 160 years in operation, putting 86 people out of work.
Tuesday, American Woolen Co., which bought the three Warren mills in June, won its first purchase order from Rhode Island's Hyman Brickle, a supplier of military uniforms.
American Woolen is taking wool fabric and felting it — a shrinking, thickening process. The processed wool will then be made into pea coats for U.S. sailors. The order is large enough to keep five men busy for three months. "Then we hope to have the weaving going for that same product in September," said Jay Oelrich, the manager in charge of the finishing department that's doing the job.
Pentagon Buy American rules protect this work, but the success of American Woolen will depend on convincing commercial customers to buy woolen fabrics from this Connecticut mill.
Jacob Harrison Long, the boyish, stylish man who swooped in from Florida to rescue the mills, said the Warren mill's reputation for quality "makes the sales process easy."
Worsted wool woven in Stafford Springs was found in suits made by Jos. Banks, Joseph Abboud, Brooks Brothers, Hickey Freeman and Hart Schaffner Marx.
Long, who said he's going on sales calls next week to some of those companies, said in initial calls, several buyers asked "if Guy Birkhead was back."
Birkhead, 65, is vice president of American Woolen, and is the operations manager. He worked for Warren for 30 years, arriving even before longtime owner Loro Piana.
Like many of the people who work at Warren, Birkhead has a long family history in the garment industry. His great-grandfather established a textile company in Yorkshire, England in the 1800s, he said.
"My goal has always been to get people back" to work, he said Wednesday. "Help to rebuild this company."
So far, fewer than 20 employees are back. Production restarted two and a half weeks ago.
William Spellman, who worked for Warren for almost 33 years in the finishing department, began going to school during his unemployment to become a CNC machine operator. But when he got the call to come to American Woolen, the decision was easy. He lives in Stafford, as four generations of his family did before him. His father worked briefly for Warren. His grandfather worked in maintenance at the mills for 50 years. And his great grandfather spent 40 years at the mills, also in maintenance.
"I hope we'll all be able to retire from this," he said.
Oelrich, who was giving a tour of his department to U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, a longtime champion of the firm, couldn't stop grinning as he talked about the rebirth of the mills.
"We inspect every single yard three times," Oelrich said. "We love what we do."
Courtney, too, had a broad smile as he entered another, more modern building that contains the 40 looms. Even though only two of the looms are operating — and the fabric doesn't have a buyer yet — the clatter was as loud as a rock concert.
"It's a beautiful sound," he said.