Wendy Kleimenhagen inspects blankets at Monterey Mills in Janesville, which is now making blankets for NFL and college sports teams. It is one of the four remaining “sliver knitter” mills left in the United States



A Wisconsin textile mill is warming up to NFL fans with a new line of blankets made in Janesville, rather than China, where most throws are manufactured.


Monterey Mills Inc., of Janesville, is producing the team-logo throws for The Northwest Co., a Roslyn, N.Y., manufacturer of specialty home furnishing products.


Soon, Monterey also will start making blankets representing teams in the National Hockey League, Major League Baseball, the NBA and college sports.


Currently, about 95% of NFL blankets are made in China. Monterey is producing its blankets in Janesville and Tarboro, N.C., with a different process that results in no two items being exactly alike.


The U.S.-made products range in price from $100 to $150, which is more expensive than the foreign-made goods. However, the U.S. blankets are fiber-based and jacquard knit, which makes them more expensive, and they're especially thick and durable.


"These are luxurious, dense, beautiful blankets," said Dan Sinykin, Monterey Mills president.


Monterey and another Janesville company, Rock Valley Textiles, are two of the four remaining "sliver knitter" mills left in the United States.


Sliver (sly-ver) knitting was invented in Wisconsin in the 1940s. The process locks fibers into a lightweight knit backing, producing fabrics that are soft, warm and drapable.


Sliver knitting is used for a plethora of products including clothing, wash mitts, pet beds and paint rollers.


Although the process has its roots in the United States, the largest sliver knitters are in China, where a large part of the textiles industry is now based.


The unique form of knitting, like some other areas of textiles, is as much art as science. Monterey and Rock Valley have decades of experience with it, giving them a competitive advantage.


"The responsibility for keeping sliver knitting in North America, we feel, rests very strongly on our shoulders," Sinykin said.


By February, Monterey expects to be producing 62 new blanket designs for Northwest, including 32 NFL throws and 30 for college sports teams.


"It is a huge deal for us," Sinykin said.


Monterey has at least $25 million in annual revenue, and the Northwest contract could boost sales 10% to 15%, according to Sinykin.


He said the company will probably add several dozen jobs at its Janesville and Tarboro plants, but that it is too early to provide details.


Milwaukee-based Elite Team is an exclusive distributor of the Northwest line of NFL blankets manufactured by Monterey.


Wisconsin has a rich heritage in the textiles and apparel industries, although there are far fewer companies now than years ago.


Monterey is the largest supplier of paint-roller fabric in North America.


In 2005, the company was acquired by Roller Fabrics Inc., founded in Milwaukee's Historic Third Ward in 1946.


The state also is home for Jockey International in Kenosha and textile firms including Wigwam Mills, Straus Knitting Mills, Crescent Woolen Mills, Wisconsin Knitwear, Zen's Manufacturing and Cream City Ribbon.


Years ago, many Wisconsin communities had businesses that processed wool from local farms and turned it into clothing and other products, said Guy Webster, president of Crescent Woolen Mills in Two Rivers.


Now "everybody knows everybody in textiles because there are only a few players left," Webster said.


Crescent, in business more than 90 years, is a family-owned company that converts fibers into yarns sold to manufacturers of knitted and woven products. The company has a subsidiary in Watertown, Owen Glove Lining, that makes knitted fleece linings for the safety, apparel and sporting goods industries.


There's been a slight resurgence in the U.S. textiles industry, Webster said, with some companies bringing work back from China.


"We want to keep everything domestic," he said about Crescent.


Straus Knitting Mills in St. Croix Falls, has been in business since 1917. Among its products, the company knits material used in fireproof suits worn by race-car drivers.


Each type of racing has its own requirements, said Doug Hager, a Straus sales manager.


Straus makes millions of knit cuffs for disposable medical gowns and laboratory coats, and it makes knit fabric for many other products including bandages.


Hager said he has seen Wisconsin textiles firms, including several in Milwaukee, go out of business. However, the losses, while serious, were worse in other states more dependent on large textiles manufacturers.


This fall, Hager toured an Alabama mill that had closed and left thousands of people out of work.


Cream City Ribbon, in Milwaukee, has been in business a century — having started as a supplier of cotton straps for the leather industry and now making decorative ribbon.


The company has machines and processes from the 1920s, gluing strands of cotton yarn together with a water soluble adhesive.


Cream City owner Eric Crawford said he's the only ribbon maker using the process that, by its nature and materials, is environmentally friendly.


Most decorative ribbon is petroleum based and comes from Asia.


Cream City's ribbon is made from cotton grown in Texas and milled in North Carolina. It's important to him, Crawford said, that materials are eco-friendly and come from the United States.


When you spend an extra 50 cents for something like a T-shirt made in America, it actually helps employ your neighbors, Crawford said.



Source: Milwaukke-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel