Ever wondered how Pendleton Woolen Mills’ iconic and world-renowned blankets and fabrics are made? Well, wonder no more. The free Pendleton Woolen Mills tour in Washougal offers a step-by-step view of the production process, from treating and dying the raw wool to spinning, weaving, washing, sewing, inspecting and boxing the finished products. Practically all that’s missing is watching live sheep being sheared, because that process takes place at local and global wool ranches, not at the mill. No sheep to be seen here.

a woman sits at a sewing machine working on a Pendleton blanket
The Washougal facility is the only Pendleton Woolen Mill with a finishing department. That means every blanket you see, anywhere in the world, was made in Washougal. Photo credit: Danielle Visco

The Pendleton Woolen Mills Tour Delves Into the Company’s Long History

Tour guide Kurtis Villarreal is a wealth of information about everything Pendleton. He explains how Pendleton Woolen Mills was founded by Thomas Kay, a master weaver from England. Kay opened the first Pendleton mill in Salem, Oregon, in 1889, and it operated until 1962. The company’s second mill opened in Pendleton, Oregon, in 1909, and the third in Washougal in 1912.

“Pendleton Woolen Mills has been a major employer in Washougal ever since,” says Villarreal. “The 300,000-square-foot mill operates 3 shifts, 24 hours a day, 5 days a week, and employs about 300 people.”

Over the years, Pendleton Woolen Mills became a family affair as Kay’s daughter, Fannie, learned the business at her father’s side, and later Fannie’s three sons joined the company. Pendleton Woolen Mills is still managed by descendants of Thomas Kay.

In the early 1900s, there were more than 1,000 woolen mills in the United States. Today, Pendleton Woolen Mills owns two of just a few remaining woolen mills in the entire country.

old sepia photograph of the Pendleton Woolen Mills circa 1912
The Washougal mill opened in 1912 and Pendleton Woolen Mills became a major employer in the small community. Today, the mill employs about 300 people working three shifts a day, five days a week. Photo courtesy: Pendleton Woolen Mills

Pendleton Woolen Mills’ First Customers Were Indigenous Americans

The company’s first products were wool blankets, and their first customers were Indigenous Americans. “In addition to being warm, the original blankets featured geometric designs that were used in Indigenous art,” says Villarreal. “The blankets were prized for their beauty and were used to commemorate special occasions such as weddings, births and funerals. They still are today.”

In recent years, Pendleton Woolen Mills has added designs created by contemporary Indigenous Americans. And, since 1995, the company has provided more than $1.7 million in scholarship support to the American Indian College Fund through sales of a special series of blankets.

A person sorts raw wool into a machine
Raw wool comes into the Pendleton Woolen Mill in huge bags and begins to inch its way toward becoming Pendleton products. Photo credit: Danielle Visco

Quality, Quality, Quality is the Focus Throughout the Production of Pendleton Products

Pendleton Woolen Mills’ state-of-the-art computer dyeing equipment controls everything from water, dyes, heat and more. Carding machines, looms and finishing processes are also controlled by computers, allowing for tiny adjustments to ensure uniformity throughout the company’s product lines.

But don’t think for a moment that humans aren’t needed in making Pendleton Woolen Mills’ products, says Villarreal. “Automation only goes so far, and many steps of the process are very hands on. For example, our looms are set up by employees, involving a very time-consuming process, and if a loom stops working due to a broken thread or some other problem, employees are there to troubleshoot, get the equipment running again, and assess whether the quality of the fabric has been compromised.”

Something as seemingly minor as a dropped thread may banish the fabric from use in Pendleton products, and it will be sold for other uses. “Pendleton is a worldwide leader in weaving techniques, dyeing processes, and fabric finishing, and our standards are unmatched in the industry,” says Villarreal. “Mill owners come from around the world to tour our mills.”

spun and dyed wool in large burlap sacks
Wool is spun into yarn at Pendleton Woolen Mills in Washougal, then dyed a rainbow of colors. A state-of-the-art dye color lab ensures color control and matching. Photo credit: Danielle Visco

Shop Til’ You Drop Before and After the Pendleton Woolen Mills Tour

What tour is complete without shopping opportunities, right? The tour starts and ends in the Pendleton Woolen Mills Outlet Store, offering an expansive selection of blankets and bedding, clothing, shoes, hats and scarves, puzzles, coffee mugs and much more.

Whether you’re taking a tour or not, you can visit the store during operating hours.

If You Can Walk a Mile, You’re Good to Go on the Pendleton Woolen Mills Tour

One of Villarreal’s favorite fun facts is that it takes about a mile of yarn to make a Pendleton shirt, and if you spread that yarn out throughout the mill, you’ve gone the distance of the start-to-finish tour. The tour lasts about an hour, with no places to sit and rest and no walking aids provided, so it may not be a good choice if you’re unable to comfortably walk or stand that long.

Tours are offered weekdays at select hours that may vary, and space is limited. Children under age 12 are not allowed on the tour, and pets are not admitted except for service animals.

Pendleton Woolen Mills is located at 2 Pendleton Way, Washougal. Sign up for a mill tour online or call 360-835-1118 to reserve a spot on a tour.


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