Pendleton Explained: A Q & A with Charles B. Bishop
It has been five seasons since OC partnered with the legendary Northwestern weaver Pendleton to create Pendleton Meets Opening Ceremony. Recently, I caught up with Charles B. Bishop, who, along with his brothers, runs the company that their family founded five generations ago.
Rory Satran: Can you describe the importance of location to the Pendleton mills? Is there a specific tie to the land surrounding Pendleton, Oregon?
Charles B. Bishop: The location of our mills in Pendleton, Oregon, and Washougal, Washington, goes back to the roots of our company. In 1848, Joseph Watt brought the first 300 Merino sheep to Oregon on the Oregon Trail. By 1909, when my grandfather, C.M. Bishop, and his brothers founded Pendleton Woolen Mills, there were over 2.36 million. Today, the climate and environment still make Oregon and the Northwest an ideal place to raise sheep. We have been buying wool from the same wool growers in the Northwest for over 80 years, which provides the quality and sustainability to consistent quality.
The location of the mill in Pendleton also borders the Umatilla Indian reservation and is close to several other reservations, which also helps us maintain our close relationship with the Native American Indians. They are one of our first and most important customers.
RS: What is the process of creating a Pendleton blanket, from start to finish?
CBB: The process starts with selecting high-quality wools that meet our specification. The wool is then scoured to remove the dirt, sweat salts, oil, and grease—close to 50 percent of the weight off the sheep's back. The wool is then blended and dyed, prior to being carded and spun into yarn. The yarn is then dressed and woven into fabric on very sophisticated jacquard looms. The woven fabric is then washed, milled, and napped, before it is cut into blankets.The process takes around six weeks to complete.
RS: How has the weaving process changed in the past 100 years?
CBB: The technology has automated the process and reduced the time to weave much more complex patterns and fabrics with better quality and lower cost. Patterns are designed with sophisticated computer-aided design software and woven on state-of-the-art Italian jacquard looms. Patterns were created by hand and sent by train to the East Coast, where they were converted into punch cards that had to be sewn together and sent back. Today, it is all done digitally at high speed. It has allowed us to create an explosion of new fabrics and patterns.
RS: How is Pendleton wool different from other wool?
CBB: We use only high-quality, 100 percent virgin wool that meets our standards. We have been buying the same wools from the same wool growers for over 80 years to ensure that quality. It all starts with the fiber.
RS: What are the dyes used? How are they sourced? How have the colors changed over the years?
CBB: We use acid dyes that are mostly developed and produced in Europe. The Indians loved the bright colors and quickly adopted them into their craft and culture. Color is our business. We have now developed a line of color that meets the MBDC protocol for sustainability.
RS: How long does one traditional blanket take to weave?
CBB: About 15 minutes.
RS: How were Native American weaving practices transformed for the Pendleton model?
CBB: An English textile designer named Joseph Rounsley came to work at the Mill in Pendleton shortly after it opened in 1909 to translate Native American designs into wool blankets. He immersed himself into Indian Culture and spent many hour and days on the reservations to learn about pattern, scale and color. The Indian customers were very receptive to the bright colors and deep shades offered by the European dye manufacturers.
RS: Can you discuss the significance of the Pendleton plaid flannel shirt? How is it woven? Where do the patterns originate?
CBB: The shirt was originally a utilitarian shirt made to fit the needs of the rugged pioneers who settled in the Northwest. The shirts embodied all the attributes of 100% virgin wool: they are warm, they can absorb up to 50% of their weight and still keep you warm, they are wrinkle and stain resistant, durable, abrasion resistant. Pendleton introduced shirts woven from English and Scottish tartans whose clans where in many ways similar to the Indian tribes of North America.
RS: What is the origin of jacquard? How many colors go in a classic jacquard weave?
CBB: The Jacquard loom was invented by a French textile engineer who greatly expanded the design capabilities of the loom. A traditional dobby or broad loom raises or lowers 100-400 warps ends at a time in a harness to produce symmetrical stripes, checks and plaids. A jacquard loom is capable of raising a single end with a cord to produce complex patterns and asymmetrical designs used in our Indian patterns.
RS: How experimental can weaving be?
CBB: With the weaving and design technology available today, we are only limited by our imaginations.
RS: Can you discuss any notable collaborations you have done?
CBB: We have done many collaborations; however, working with Opening Ceremony has opened our eyes, stretched our imaginations and extended our horizons. It has been fun and we look forward to future opportunities.
Pendleton Round-Up 2010
Pendleton Meets Opening Ceremony
Charles B. Bishop