A visit to Faribault Woolen Mill Co. takes you back in time on a behind-the-scenes tour of the factory

Images by Aubrey Schield

By Aubrey Schield

Stepping inside Faribault Woolen Mill Co.‘s factory is like taking a giant, running leap into the past—150 years in the past, to be exact. Established in 1865, the mill has been producing its fine woolen goods for well over a century, and they aren’t slowing down production anytime soon.

Growing up in Minnesota and often visiting my grandparents in the northern pine country of the state in the chilly winter months, I learned early on that wool is not just a fabric, but a way of life. While most criticize wool sweaters and blankets for being itchy and coarse, I grew up loving the faint tickle for its reminder of how warm the fibers would keep me in the midst of the worst snow storms. We were always Pendleton people, but a recent visit to Faribault’s woolen mill just might have swayed my brand loyalty forever.

My mom (also a lover of all things wool) and I made the hourlong journey south of Minneapolis to the charming town of Faribault one weekend in the early summer. We had signed up to tour the mill a month prior and laughed at how ironic it was that we were visiting a wool manufacturer on a day that the thermometer was supposed to climb to 100.

Faribault Woolen Mill Co. is located on the shores of the Cannon River.

Once the site of a flour mill that used the power of the adjacent river, the building that houses Faribault Woolen Mill Co. doesn’t give anything away as to what it contains. The unassuming brick building is easily passed by cars on one of the town’s main drags, their drivers giving nary a second thought as to the whirring business inside.

Faribault Woolen Mill Co. offers tours on Wednesdays at 11 a.m., Fridays at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., and the second Saturday of each month at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. You can either call ahead or email the mill to reserve your spot on a tour. Adults get in for $6, students for $3 and kids up to age 4 get in for free. After a brief introduction video that covers the basics of the mill’s wool production, which is entirely contained in the building, a knowledgeable guide leads you through the factory.

On the tour, you pass centuries-old machinery and tools, pallets of 400-pound wool bales and huge contraptions that look as though they belong on a farm. Our guide told us that one of these machines (a monstrous, green device) was actually a hay baler modified to be used by the mill.

To get a more hands-on experience of the production process, we were able to feel the different finishes the mill gives the wool. Turns out wool items aren’t all itchy—they come in varying weights and degrees of softness. The mill gets the majority of its raw wool from sheep farms in the United States—only a small percentage of its Merino wool comes from farms in New Zealand.

Continuing on your journey through the mill, you come to a giant room where raw wool is threaded and turned into yarn. The room looks a little like something out of a horror movie because of all the stray wool fibers that cling to just about every object.

Once raw wool has been spun into yarn and wrapped on a cone, it is sent on the next stage in the production cycle where it will be woven on an electric loom into fabric. The constant whir of the looms is almost deafening as the tour guide shouts over them, explaining the operation. The loom feeds in thousands of threads of yarn, called the warp, while other threads are woven perpendicular to the other group, these are called the weft. It’s a bit dizzying watching the whole thing in motion.

After the wool is woven into any number of patterns and rolled on a giant spool, it will move on to washing, inspection and sizing for cutting. At long last, the fabric is moved to the third floor of the factory to be sewn into blankets, pillow covers, scarves and even purses. Faribault Woolen Mill Co. also makes wool blankets for the United States’ military, which accounts for the bulk of its business. At the time of our tour, they had just completed a shipment of 100,000 wool blankets to troops in Pakistan.

Relics of the past can be found throughout the mill, whether it is an antique cart or a piece of machinery from the early 1900s. And the history of this Minnesota business is just as palpable. The mill shut down in 2009 after being sold to an investment group. Though the original owners had to let go of their employees, in 2011, when the mill was bought by the Mooty family, many of those employees got their jobs back. Some have been working at Faribault Woolen Mill Co. for 60 years or more.

Faribault Woolen Mill Co. is one of the few remaining companies that manufactures entirely in the United States. They also collaborate with other Minnesota companies, such as Red Wing Shoes for leather accents on certain pieces. If you’re looking for locally made, this is a spot to add to your shopping list.

While you’re in Faribault…

Be sure to check out The Cheese Cave. Aging their award-winning cheese in a nearby cave (I’m not kidding), the restaurant outpost of the Caves of Faribault crafts sandwiches and thin crust pizzas with a uniquely delectable taste. They have local beer on tap and plenty of wine to pair with your cheese plate or entree. I recommend the Fini Turkey sandwich, which has a healthy slather of tart cranberry chutney that marries well with the luscious aged cheddar.

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