The Road To Restock
In late 2021, G.J. Littlewood & Son, Inc., the historic Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, dye house that stock dyed the wool used to make Shelter, Loft, Quarry, Tones and Imbue, permanently closed due to severe flood damage sustained in September's Hurricane Ida.
Suddenly, two-thirds of our yarn lineup was out of production, during an already challenging time for manufacturing – and the long-term loss of resiliency in our domestic supply chains meant that there was no back-up option to call on.
The loss of Littlewood reverberated through the U.S. wool industry – and our small team needed to find a solution, fast.
Littlewood’s expertise in the dyeing of unspun fiber or “raw stock”, passed down through five generations of family, made them a keystone of the American textile industry. Little yarn companies, big paint roller manufacturers, even mills with their own dye equipment on-site – they all dyed at Littlewood.
Rare among commission stock dyers in the United States, Littlewood could dye fiber in batches as small as fifty and as large as two thousand pounds – crucial for our production needs.
With each heathered colorway blended from multiple base shades before spinning, careful management of our inventory of dyed wool is important. While we might go through a thousand pounds of black or brown wool fairly quickly, a tenth of that amount in a vivid accent color could last us more than a year – or its lack could hold up production for months.
From the launch of our first yarn Shelter in 2010, through over a decade of partnership, Littlewood’s ability to produce beautiful colors in just the right amounts had been essential to Brooklyn Tweed’s production of heathered yarns.
On September 1, 2021, Hurricane Ida swept through the city of Philadelphia and its surrounds, spawning unprecedented flooding and deadly tornadoes. The 19th-century brick building housing Littlewood, located on the north bank of the Schuylkill River in the low-lying neighborhood of Manayunk, had weathered serious storms before – one could even see the high water mark left from the record-setting flood of 1869 on its walls.
More than 17 feet of water surged over the riverbank and into the building, submerging the first and second floors and destroying equipment and fiber. While the company initially hoped to be able to recover from this storm as they had from countless others, the damage this time was too great. At the end of October, G.J. Littlewood & Son announced their permanent closure, after 152 years in business.
Domestic textile manufacturers were left reeling – and searching for a replacement dye house. While there were a few commission raw stock dyers still remaining in the United States, they required minimum orders of hundreds to thousands of pounds of wool, unsustainable for a small yarn company like ours. And with supply chains strained due to the pandemic, many companies were already struggling to keep up with their current workload and wouldn’t be able to take on new customers for at least several months.
Facing a long-term halt in production for the majority of our yarn lines, we knew we needed a solution – fast.
The Brooklyn Tweed team immediately swung into action, asking questions and considering every possibility. How long might it take to get our heathered yarns back into production? What could we make in the meantime? Could we dye wool in a different way? How would this affect our upcoming launches of Imbue and Tones Light? What would we tell our customers and stockists?
The first step was to remind ourselves to remain calm. We had a tough, scrappy team with extensive knowledge of the yarn business. We’d already gone through the process of finding a new dye house for Arbor and Peerie in 2020 due to the pandemic, at the same time as launching Apart Together and raising over $300,000 in aid for local yarn stores. We’d leveraged our existing supply chains and launched Tones in August 2021. We could do this.
Reaching out to the network of industry partners that we’d built in a decade-plus of making yarn, we left no stone unturned in our search. We planned, re-planned, made other plans, scrapped those plans, and made yet more plans. We kept stockists informed as new information came in. The words “graceful swan” became a catchphrase around the Brooklyn Tweed office – seemingly serene above the water’s surface, vigorously paddling below.
Our immediate goal was to ensure the continued production of Tones. As a worsted weight yarn, fans of Shelter could use it with their favorite patterns – and we only needed one color of stock dyed wool (black) to create its two heathered bases. Our stalwart production team reached out to Tintoria Piana U.S. in Cartersville, Georgia, to begin the process of color matching and dye testing. After a few test runs, the production of Tones (and the future of Tones Light) was secured.
Next on our list was Imbue. Originally scheduled for a Fall 2022 release, we’d received an initial order of yarn and were well underway with pattern writing, product photography, and sample knitting. Now we had no way to stock dye the wool needed to make more and lacked the needed inventory to fulfill wholesale orders to our stockists. What to do? Once again, we shifted plans and launched Imbue as a website exclusive yarn in May 2022.
As we worked to solve our stock dyeing needs, we evaluated every step of our production processes, flexing our team’s creativity and expertise. In re-examining how we worked with our manufacturing partners, we realized the opportunity for an exciting crossover. Combining woolen-spun and worsted-spun methods, we could bring something new to the production of one of our most popular yarns – by making solid skein-dyed colors of Shelter.
While this required some reimagining of our production methods, it was a wonderful way to keep providing work to our manufacturing partners and to use our existing stock of breed-specific Targhee-Columbia wool – two great wins. On the creative side, we could enhance Shelter’s palette with clear, vibrant hues to complement its heathered colorways – how exciting! Working with Ultimate Textile in Rutherfordton, North Carolina, we released the new colors in June 2022.
As the months passed, the “graceful swan” kept swimming. We launched Tones Light in August of 2022, adding a new fingering weight woolen-spun yarn to our lineup. Behind the scenes, we were getting closer, step by step, to establishing a new supply chain for the stock dyed wool we needed to bring Shelter, Loft, Quarry, and Imbue back into production.
Throughout, our unstoppable production team dug even further into our existing processes, determining the absolute minimum number of base colors needed to create the maximum number of colorways, efficiently plotting out inventory needs over the coming months, and working with Tintoria Piana in Georgia to match colors and plan a possible production schedule. Raw wool was dyed, sent to the mill at Harrisville Designs in New Hampshire – then we waited.
Finally we got the news we’d been hoping for. The wool would work. Shelter was coming.
The year’s first delivery of heathered colorways of Shelter arrived at our warehouse in Portland, Oregon, on November 16. Those seven colors, created with just a handful of base shades, were the culmination of a year of intensely hard work by the Brooklyn Tweed team. They were here, they were perfect, they were beautiful.
The marathon continues. As of this post, five more heathered colorways of Shelter have arrived, with more on the way. We expect our first shipment of Loft to arrive in February. Tones, Arbor, and Peerie are here. More Dapple and Tones Light are coming soon. Imbue, thanks to a completely new-to-us dye process and the work of new partners Meridian Specialty Yarn Group in Valdese, North Carolina, is back in production.
Don’t worry, Quarry fans, we didn’t forget you! Quarry will return this fall – with a whole new color palette we know you’ll love. (We can’t wait!)
2022 was tough. At times, we didn’t know how we were going to make it work, if we were going to be able to bring some of our most beloved yarns back to life, if Brooklyn Tweed could continue. Now, at the beginning of 2023, our shelves are refilling, yarn is heading out to your LYS, we’ve got new yarns and new colors planned – it’s going to be an exciting year.
And we couldn’t have done it without you. Your support makes it possible for us, and each and every one of the wool growers, processors, and manufacturers that we work with, to continue our mission of making beautiful yarns close to home. Thank you for being here on our “road to restock” – we look forward to many more wonderful, wooly years ahead!
Your Friends at Brooklyn Tweed