Native Americans Appreciated Pendleton
By the 1890s, the wide open expanses of eastern Oregon, Washington and Idaho had been found to be ideal for the herding of large flocks of sheep. From this region of the Northwest, the wool was shipped - complete with dirt, sand, burrs, weeds, twigs and grass - to the textile mills of the East. Much of it was shipped form the town of Pendleton, Oregon, which sat alongside the tracks of the Union Pacific Railroad at the foot of the Blue Mountains.
The railroads charged the shippers by the pound, and the foreign matter that was attached to the wool sometimes made up as much as 60 percent of the total weight.
The first money-saving solution was obvious; a wool-scouring mill was erected in Pendleton and the wool was cleaned before it was shipped.
The men of the Union Pacific didn’t allow this savings to last for long. They simply raised the rate for shipping cleaned wool.
The second solution was almost as obvious. The textile mill was brought to Pendleton, thus avoiding shipping the wool altogether. thus, in 1895, the Pendleton Woolen Mills was started.
The easiest product to make was the woolen blanket. But from the beginning, Pendleton was not content to make just plain blankets. the company hired a textile designer named Joe Rounsley. He was fascinated by the designs of the nearby Nez Perce Indians and began designing blankets that incorporated American Indian designs.
The company offered them as “Indian pattern” blankets. The first and most enthusiastic customers were the Indians themselves. In fact, Pendleton “Indian pattern” blankets became a symbol of wealth in some tribes. A few even required that a person be buried in one of these blankets.
When the woolen mill was purchased in 1909 by the Bishop family, they continued to develop Indian pattern designs. some ideas wee brought in by the Indians themselves, to be woven into blankets of many colors. Pendleton blankets were eventually used on almost every Indian reservation in America, which added to the ever-growing number of designs.
The white man, too, quickly came to appreciate both the designs and the quality of the Pendleton blankets. From the beginning, Pendleton stressed the high caliber of the fabric it used, describing it as being made from “pure fleece wool.”
By the 1920s, the Pendleton Woolen Mills had expanded its output to include Indian robes, bath robes, steamer rugs, couch covers, tapestries and shawls, in addition to the blankets. The blue and gold label was in place on each product, and owners could either point to it with pride or, if more modest, could let it be casually exposed.
A Pendleton bath robe in 1929 sold for $18.50, including a delivery charge to any place in the United States. It looked a lot like a blanket with sleeves.
The steamer rugs were popular for use in the auto, and sold for just $12.50. There were also simpler bed blankets that sold for as little as $4 for a double-bed size.
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