What "Heirloom-Quality" Means to Us

March  2, 2016

When we talk about "heirloom-quality" products, we don't just mean things that are expertly designed and therefore long-lasting (though that is part of it); what we're really talking about is timelessness. A true heirloom could fly backwards and forwards through time and never be puzzled at, always coveted—the anti-anachronism in a world of trend. That's why we stock them, gift them, and obsess over them so.

Photo by James Ransom

Companies that have been around for a whole century or more tend to be the kinds of places that understand these subtleties. Which is why we're so excited to introduce one of our newest merchants in the Food52 Shop: Faribault Woolen Mill Co., who have been making incredible wool blankets in Minnesota since the very ripe year of 1865.

Here's what makes a wool blanket truly timeless, and why we're so obsessed with theirs:

Raw wool at the Faribault Mill. Photo by Faribault

Faribault's a woolen mill—and wool is a wonder material.

Your grandmother would have said so, and that is the whole point—no matter how many "itchy" sweaters you've dropped off for consignment this winter. It's of course warm, which is due to a natural crimp in the fibers that gives it bulk and captures air. Merino wool, which Faribault uses in in the Revival Stripe Queen Blanket and Revival Stripe Throw that we stock (they're 15% and 20% cotton, respectively), is finer and softer than you'd ever expect.

Wool is also a natural insulator, meaning it can be used to keep you cool—and depending on how it's manufactured, it will wick away moisture as well. It doesn't wrinkle, is elastic (the fibers look like tiny coils under a microscope), and is fire-resistant—the latter being why wool rugs are so common. "Wool is nature’s original miracle fabric!" as Faribault's Bruce Bildsten puts it.

They've been around (and that says something).

Faribault's founder, Carl H. Klemer (center of the image, under the window), in front of the old mill. Photo by Faribault

The company's "new" mill was built in 1892, which is where they're still producing all of their designs. It's one of the last true "vertical" mills in America, meaning every step of the production—from raw wool to finishing and weaving processes—takes place within the same building, and this one's been through five generations of family ownership.

Same process, different century. Photo by Faribault

"We’ve made blankets for the U.S. military since 1890," Bruce reports. And Faribault is still providing them to West Point and the U.S. Navy ("in those aircraft carriers, there’s nothing that beats a wool blanket") which adds up to a partnership that's 126 years old and counting.

They've stayed relevant without leaving their roots.

When five years ago the mill survived a rough patch, the owners looked hard at the business plan. "We went back to the roots of what the mill was—which is pure wool," Bruce says. But they also diversified, offering throws to complement their lineup of blankets, and scarves because they could (a wool scarf is made exactly the same way a blanket is, on the very same looms). They look to their earliest designs to inspire new ones, and are planning re-issues of certain classic old-timey designs.

Mary, who has worked at the Faribault mill for 61 years. Photo by Faribault

And they've taken sustainablility one step further, by turning out a line of recycled wool products like our Recycled Wool Throw—it's made by grinding up their wool scraps and turning them into new yarn (they also add some acrylic scraps to the mix, making it even softer). So not only is wool a renewable, sustainable, and humane material—but Faribault's making it even more efficient to produce.

"We like to call ourselves a 150-year-old start up," Bruce quips.

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Amanda Sims

Written by: Amanda Sims

Professional trespasser.