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45.5811°N, 122.3538°W
Washougal, WA, USA

Long before Airstream collaborated with Pendleton on a special edition travel trailer in 2016, we were fascinated by the similarities between our two heritage American brands. Airstream was founded in 1931 and quickly became the definition of style, design, and quality in the travel trailer industry. Pendleton began producing under the Pendleton Woolen Mills name in 1909, though the company history dates back to 1863 when British weaver Thomas Kay sailed across the Atlantic, crossed the Isthmus of Panama, and then continued up the west coast of North America to the newly minted state of Oregon. His grandchildren would eventually purchase a defunct woolen mill in Pendleton, Oregon, and his descendants still run the company today.  

Both Airstream and Pendleton are committed to high standards of quality and expert craftsmanship. Both companies continue to produce products using time-tested techniques. And both Airstream and Pendleton have found ways of prioritizing innovation while preserving the important heritage that got them to where they stand today.

With that connection in mind, we visited Pendleton’s Washougal, Washington production facility – the source of their popular National Parks blankets, apparel fabric, and other fine goods. The Washougal facility is also the final stop for many other Pendleton products before they are shipped out into the world.

“In 1912 we purchased another mill because at the time we only had one – the original mill in Pendleton, Oregon,” says Linda Parker, Pendleton’s head of Corporate Communications, as she invites us inside the sprawling, 300,000 square-foot facility. “That original factory is where our famous jacquard blankets are made, but to expand our business we needed to weave other fabrics – solids, plaids, and stripes. That’s what we do today here in Washougal.”

For those who don’t walk into a manufacturing facility every day, stepping inside a factory like this can be an assault on the senses. Here in Washougal, sounds reverberate into the rafters: the hum of motors, the buzzing rumble of machinery, the voices calling out through the hiss and din of work.

And then there are the sights. Dozens of yarn strands – many yards longs and suspended taut like woolen guitar strings – spin their way onto a warp-dressing beam, which readies the longitudinal yarns for the weaving loom. Dozens of soft-sided canvas bins are filled to their brims with wooden spindles and heaps of dyed wool. Stacks of blankets, steaming ceiling vents that help control the fiber, and racks of yarn sit ready to be woven into the blankets prized the world over. Among the many machines, people oversee the process, ensuring that everything is working without a hitch.

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“Machines and technology are very important to the process,” says Linda. “They give us greater productivity, improved quality, and better efficiency. But we couldn’t create our legendary blankets and fabric without skilled hands – that’s what provides the ultimate quality and craftsmanship.”

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While machinery may do the actual weaving, it’s the people who operate the machines and inspect the product along the way who are essential to the process. Pendleton makes use of numerous quality checks along the way, where employees hand-inspect yarn, fabric, and finished product. Magnifying glasses in hand, a team of seamstresses work at huge, tilted platforms where the blankets are draped. On the occasion where they find something amiss, they hand-repair the issue before sending the blanket on its way.

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“We are so blessed to have people at our mills who’ve been with us for many years,” says Linda. “Some of our employees have family members from previous generations who have worked at the Washougal mill. Thirty-five or forty years of tenure is not uncommon at Pendleton. That knowledge, that expertise – you can’t easily replace.”
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That’s a similar sentiment found at Airstream, where knowledge ingrained by many years of experience is passed from associate to associate. Like Pendleton, work at Airstream is not something you’re taught, but something you learn. And in that, the two companies share another kinship – one of appreciation for the product and a job well done.

“We love the brand and there’s a dimension of being a part of a family owned business that you won’t find elsewhere,” says Linda. “Thomas Kay could not have imagined that his heirs would continue his weaving legacy into the sixth generation, a legacy of which we are all a part.”

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