'Woolies' | A New England Clothing Tradition
Growing up in New Hampshire, I saw Johnson Woolen Mills clothing everywhere around me, though I didn’t know it at the time. Ski-lift operators wore the forest-green pants my family called “woolies.” Dairy farmers wore heavy red-and-black or green-and-black checked shirts. So did ice fishermen, hunters, snowmobilers, and fish and game wardens. They were like cold-weather uniforms, and I thought of them generically, the same way I thought of dungarees or work boots, never imagining that the clothing all came from one place. Even buying my first pair of wool pants, at Dan & Whit’s General Store in Norwich, Vermont, 30 years ago as a student in the Dartmouth Outing Club, I didn’t think to ask for a particular brand or to even check: Back then, Johnson’s was the only kind that Dan & Whit’s carried, and if you were looking for heavy wool pants, Johnson’s was what you got.
Those pants lasted for years, some years pretty hard used, before I replaced them. (I had a wool shirt, too. I eventually patched the elbows and added a thin liner to the frayed inside collar, and wore it for years before I lost it.) Over time, I learned that a lot of companies sell rugged wool clothing, most of it imported from Mexico and Asia. But the standard issue around here still seems to be Johnson Woolen Mills’ products, same as always, still made, I now know, some 95 miles northwest of Dan & Whit’s in the Green Mountains town of Johnson, Vermont.
Johnson clothing is cut and stitched inside a modest clapboard factory building along the Gihon River, next to the original mill (now the factory store), which started turning local farmers’ wool into fabric back in 1842. Looking at the buildings, across the street from a white-steepled church and a little auto-parts store, you’d have no sense that you were looking at the home of an Internet-savvy international clothing brand.
Walking around inside the factory wouldn’t give you a sense, either. On this morning at the end of February, the cluttered office of the owner, Stacy Barrows Manosh, smells of paper and dust and has the no-frills feeling of a dispatcher’s office at a train depot or the proprietor’s back room in a mercantile. At the far end of the building, sunlight streams through big windows into the cutting area. Jeff White and Casey Moore are pulling spruce-green fabric–soon to be fashioned into “Cruiser Jackets”–from 40-foot bolts, and laying it out on a 50-foot-long table made of maple and birch flooring. Worn cardboard patterns, some of them 50 years old, hang from hooks on the walls; some of the patterns date back to when the mill’s signature product was 28-ounce wool “iceman’s pants,” designed for the men who fished in subzero camps and who sawed blocks of ice from area ponds and shipped them to points south.
In the adjacent sewing area, rolling carts called “horses,” loaded with garments, wheel along 25 stations, where local women stitch panels and sleeves, attach cuffs and collars and buttons, and–eventually, maybe a week after the fabric was initially cut–finally affix the distinctive Johnson Woolen Mills tags. On this day, lots of green-and-black checked “Jac Shirts” are rolling through in various stages of completion. Everywhere, there’s the sense of a native Vermont company: hard-working, frugal, resilient, maybe a little stubborn; come to think of it, kind of like the clothing they make here.
Growing up, Stacy Manosh worked in the sewing area, along with doing just about everything else in the family business. She started out as a young girl sweeping and vacuuming the floors, putting boxes together, and later helping in the retail store. She stitched garments when she was home on break from UVM. After college, she worked on the road as a salesperson assigned to New England. In December 1998, she bought the business from her father, Del Barrows, and became the fourth-generation owner.
“My father was from the old school,” she says. “He didn’t believe a woman should be running a business. I paid him for the business so he’d stay away. I had to prove myself to him. In his later years, he finally acknowledged I was doing okay.”
Manosh took Johnson clothing to places her father hadn’t shown interest in: a marquee booth at the Big E in West Springfield, Massachusetts; the “Outdoor Retailer” trade show in Salt Lake City; the annual “Magic” international fashion event in Las Vegas. She got her products into the L.L. Bean catalogue, introduced children’s sizes and new accessories and colors for women, even pet apparel, and developed a commercial Web site. “We weren’t going to grow just waiting for the phone to ring in Johnson, Vermont,” she says.
She discovered there was an urban market for rugged woolen fashions, and, surprising to her, a big overseas market for authentic “Made in USA” outdoor clothing. Customers in Japan now account for a significant part of Johnson’s sales and are responsible for the company’s decision to brighten its fabric palette beyond its traditional green, red, and gray. At a time when competition from lower-cost imports and a slow U.S. economy have closed hundreds of small manufacturers, Johnson Woolen Mills continues to do what it always has. The company employs 30 people, including 18 stitchers and cutters. Most of them are full-time. Most of them have been here quite a while.
“I can’t really explain the success,” this native Vermonter says, “at least in Japan. I guess people still like old-time value. I do know that every sugarhouse in Vermont has a Johnson Woolen Mills shirt hanging inside it.”
For more on the history and lore of this venerable Vermont company, go to: johnsonwoolenmills.com