If you haven’t visited the Pendleton Woolen Mills in Washougal, you’re in for a treat. Not only can you shop for bargain priced blankets, fabric and sportswear, you’ll be able to tour the mill, itself.
Pendleton – An American Staple
Pendleton Woolen Mills products have woven their way through my entire life. My parents wore matching brown plaid wool shirts in the fall when they went to our family cabin and took a red Pendleton throw to football games.
When I volunteered with the Adopt a Native Elder Program out on the Navajo Reservation I found out how special “Pendletons” were. Trade blankets in brightly colored southwest designs were prized possessions and were given as gifts of honor at ceremonies. My first Pendleton throw came from a trading post close to the Navajo Reservation in Arizona. It was a Chief Joseph design and, because it had fringe, I was told that it was a women’s blanket.
The Chief Joseph design, one of the oldest and most recognized Pendleton trade blankets honors Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe. When the US government tried to force the Nez Perce to leave their home in the Wallowa Valley and move to a small reservation in Idaho, Chief Joseph refused to go and led the tribe into Canada.
And you’ll find Pendleton in more recent history. Did you know that the Pendleton plaid shirt became the surfer’s uniform as the Beach Boys (formerly the “Pendletones”) hit it big? The Board Shirt, made today of washable wool, kept 1950’s era surfers warm. The Pendleton website tells the story of how California surfers layered the shirts over petroleum jelly to keep warm. The Pendleton Board Shirt is still Pendleton’s #1 shirt.
Pendleton Mill Tours
I have frequented the mill store in Washougal to search for gifts, home décor items and, on occasion, a new Pendleton jacket for myself. One day I decided to take a free behind the scenes tour and see what went on in the mill.
“In 2015, Pendleton was rated by CNN as one of the top nine best tours in the country because our guests are allowed on the Mill floor where all the action happens,” said Linda Parker, head of Public Relations for Pendleton Woolen Mills.
The free 45-minute tours take place Monday through Friday, at 9:00 a.m., 10:00 a.m., 11:00 a.m., and 1:30 p.m. You don’t have to have a reservation but the tours are kept small on purpose. Call 360-835-1118 to reserve a space and to check the schedule (the mill is closed for vacations for two weeks in August and two weeks in December).
When you arrive for your tour, you’ll be given a headset with earphones. Why? The mill can be noisy with machinery running so this helps the tour leader communicate with participants. No photos are allowed on the tour.
The tour leaders are very patient and ready to answer questions. I asked Meriel Myers, the store manager, about the questions they receive. “The most unusual question,” Meriel answered, “was whether we ever wove with hair… no, just sheep’s wool.” And, many people are curious where the wool comes from. “Primarily the wool comes from Washington, Oregon and Idaho,” Meriel said.
As you walk throughout the mill, you’ll see the making of Pendleton fabric from the state-of-the-art dye house, through spinning and weaving, to the finishing of blankets and fabric for clothing. The huge looms are automated, but much of the finish work still is done with skilled staff. At the Washougal Mill, they only make the plain striped and plaid fabric while in Pendleton, Oregon the mill makes the well-known trade blanket material. It is then brought to Washougal for finishing.
Shopping at Pendleton
When you finish the tour, you’ll have developed an even greater appreciation for Pendleton wool blankets and garments. Fortunately you’ll be in the right place to purchase Pendleton products at significantly reduced prices.
Meriel shared with me that, “Our blankets are the most popular and, then, of course people want to purchase Pendleton shirts.” Her first purchase from the store was a plaid throw because, she said, “I wanted to have something made right here in the Washougal Mill where I work.”
Visiting the Pendleton Mill Store
The Pendleton Mill Store is located at 2 Pendleton Way, just off SR-14. At Washougal River Rd (previously 15th Street), turn left. At the next right, turn in to the parking lot.