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Rooted in History -The Story of Pendleton

The Thread

All types of Pendleton items such as coats, shirts, and blankets have always been very collectable. Individuals wishing to own a piece of Americana and the timeless craftsmanship has continued to allow all things Pendleton to thrive even through turmoil and backlash from Native groups. Prices of items such as blankets are based on pattern rarity and design, colors, condition and age; with some of the rarer blankets fetching thousands of dollars.


Origin of the company started in 1863, when Thomas L. Kay initiated a transcontinental trek through the west coast. He began to work in woolen mills in the surrounding area of Oregon and In 1909, the family of Kay moved to Pendleton and acquired an old and defunct woolen mill in the region which started the set up for their venture.

Photo of the original Pendleton Woolen Mill

Initial production of the mill consisted of newly designed and colored blankets. Not only is Pendleton known for their quality but also their innovation, introducing squared corners, instead of age-old tradition of rounded ones.

in 1909 the family reopened the defunct Pendleton Woolen Mills, The town of Pendleton, Oregon backed the family in their new business venture and the company also took over the name Pendleton Woolen Mills. The move to eastern Oregon made sense for the business because eastern Oregon was sheep country and having wool producers near the mills allowed the mills to significantly cut production costs.  

In 1912 the company opened a weaving mill in Washougal, Washington (across the Columbia River from Portland) for the production of woolen fabrics used in suits and other clothing.

Pendleton expanded their market reach beyond the local indigenous tribes of the Columbia River region to include the Navajo, Hopi, and Zuni communities in the American Southwest. To achieve this expansion, they collaborated with designer Joe Rawnsley, who immersed himself in the customs and history of these tribes during his visits. The Pendleton blankets evolved into more than just everyday clothing, becoming integral to trade and ceremonial practices.

Native American pushback and what Pendleton has done

due to Pendleton designs being heavily influenced by Native American designs there has been heavy pushback from certain tribes. Pendleton has touched on the situation and in a statement from their website “Pendleton has maintained a longstanding connection with the Native American community since our founding over a century ago. In 2023, Pendleton committed to provide yearly grants to two nonprofits that support Native American language preservation and help strengthen Native Americans in their journey to serve the community as healthcare professionals.”

Chef Joseph Design

First produced in the 1920s, the Chief Joseph blanket is one of the oldest ongoing blankets woven by Pendleton Woolen Mills. The pattern celebrates the heroism of the great Nez Perce leader with a balanced design of arrowheads pointing in all directions of Mother Earth, Chief Joseph, known by his people as In-mut-too-yah-lat-lat (Thunder Coming Up Over the Land From the Water), assumed his role as Chief in 1877.  

Some of Pendleton’s philanthropic partnerships also include

  • The American Indian College Fund: Supporting education
  • Northwest Native American Center of Excellence (NNACOE): at Oregon Health & Science University
  • DigDeep: Supporting the Navajo Water Project
  • National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center (NIWRC): Dedicated to restoring sovereignty and safeguarding Native women and children

Although Pendleton continues to donate and provide grants for these organizations, it still seems as if it is only a small portion of the money that Pendleton has made profiting from Native American designs. Direct sales to Native American organizations only account for 30-40% of Pendleton’s business and while Pendleton began hiring actual Native American artists in the 1990s; The company licenses designs from the artists, but they don’t pay royalties.

Wool Quality

In the 1920s, Pendleton utilized locally sourced wool from the sheep around the wool mill. Named after the region, the wool was dubbed “Umatilla.” This high-quality wool fabric boasted superior properties compared to cotton, such as increased wrinkle resistance, enhanced stain resistance, slight elasticity, and, most importantly, superior insulation. Another advantage of wool was its ability to allow breathability even when tightly woven.

@tshirtgalaxy on Ebay – one of the oldest for sale Pendleton blankets on the market, over 100 years old

For many years, Pendleton raised their own sheep and spun and wove the wool. They sold the fabric as well as the blankets and finished clothing. At one time Pendleton used 1% of all the wool produced in the US.

During World War II, 1941–45, Pendleton Woolen Mills devoted most of its production to blankets and fabric for uniforms and clothing for the US military services.

@Unbroken Chain Cycles on Ebay, one of the many collaborations GF did with Pendleton, Grateful Dead blankets are some of the most sought after Pendleton items
@Renaissance Eclectic on Ebay – Many Pendleton blankets are numbered which contributes to their high price tag

Men’s Wear

One of the original three Bishop sons, Clarence Morton Bishop—usually known as “C.M.”—started a new product line of men’s woolen sport shirts in bright colors and patterns. Prior to that time woolen shirts had been considered work shirts and came in mostly dull colors. In 1924 the company began producing men’s woolen sport shirts and by 1929 the company was producing a full line of woolen sportswear.

How to Identify

  • Board Shirts – has a straight bottom, sports collar, and two flap pockets
  • Trial Shirt – has a straight collar, one button-through pocket and elbow patches.
  • Lodge Shirt – has a straight collar and one pocket.
  • Field Shirt – has a straight collar and two button-through chest pockets.
  • Fireside Shirt – has a button-down collar and one plain pocket.

Woman’s Wear

In 1949, after postwar market research showed a desire for women’s sportswear, the company introduced a line of wool clothing for women and the ’49er jacket proved extremely popular. The reversible pleated “Turnabout Skirt” was also very popular, literally two-skirts-in-one.

In 1972 the company again expanded its product line with the introduction of non-wool garments for men and women. Many customers had a desire for the classic Pendleton style for ‘year round wear, but wanted lighter clothing for spring and summer wear. Again the new line was a major success.

Tag Guide

Tag from 1930-40’s, tags didn’t have label sizing on them.
Label from 1950s which introduced the sizing aspect in lower right corner
Pendleton label 1970-1990’s which introduced the wool mark tag
Label from 1994-2009 featuring no border and a change in font
“Beaver State” Tag –
The name “Beaver State” originated in 1912 when Pendleton robes/blankets and shawls were sold to the Walla Walla, Cayuse and Umatilla tribes in the vicinity of the Pendleton mill on the Columbia plateau.

By Sammy Aronoff

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