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Bemidji Woolen Mills: Manufacturing unit to move back downtown

From left, Bemidji Woolen Mills President Bill Batchelder; Japanese businessmen Yoshi Okita and Hiro Hasata of the Yoshi Trading Company clothing distributors; and Bemidji Woolen Mills Vice President Bob Batchelder examine bolts of woolen material at the manufacturing center in the Bemidji Industrial Park. The Bemidji Woolen Mills will move the manufacturing back to the downtown facility as a restructuring strategy. Pioneer Photo/Molly Miron

A family textile production company that originated in 1920 in downtown Bemidji will return to its roots.

The Bemidji Woolen Mills, which expanded the manufacturing unit to the Bemidji Industrial Park about seven years ago, will now move the sewing and knitting units back to the original site at 301 Irvine Ave. N.W. The decision to downsize was prompted by financial constraints, said company President Bill Batchelder.

He said sales have been good, but steady, while expenses have climbed.

"The cost of doing business is prohibitive to the expansion plans," he said. "If we can move the key elements back into our original manufacturing facilities ... it will be a much smaller, but much more efficient operation."

He said the sewing unit will move to the original room off the retail floor, and the knitting machines, which are somewhat noisy, will be set up at the Fourth Street site.

"We're going to keep some of all of our elements of manufacturing," he said. "It's really about returning to our core products and our core offerings."

These include the trademark buffalo plaid jackets and vests and "Minnesota tuxedo" woolen overalls, as well as the Cuddle Ewe pillows, wool cruiser uniform coats for the U.S. Forest Service and other signature products.

However, moving from 28,000 square feet to 18,000 square feet of available space has required study. Batchelder said he'll have to give up the storage of vintage textile manufacturing equipment he had hoped to use as a foundation of a museum. He said he will donate the antiques to already-established textile museums.

He said the Bemidji Woolen Mills will also hold a 70-day merchandise inventory liquidation sale beginning Monday and continuing through Labor Day. The discounts will deepen as the weeks pass to eliminate the brand names the store will no longer carry, make room for manufacturing and bring in funds to improve the financial cash flow.

Customers enjoyed seeing and hearing the sewing shop when it was on the retail premises, Batchelder said. Tour guides bringing tourists through Bemidji would stop at the Bemidji Woolen Mills. The visitors could watch the seamstresses work, and chat with them, see products actually being made, and shop, all in one venue. He said the workers in the sewing room also liked the interaction with visitors.

"The whole emphasis is that we have to downsize, restructure, commit ourselves to the core, be a smaller, leaner company and shed overhead expenses," Batchelder said.

He emphasized that the restructuring doesn't mean employee layoffs. He paraphrased a comment his grandfather made during a previous difficult economic period.

"Never in our 89-year history has the Bemidji Woolen Mills laid off an employee because of lack of work," he said.

And, he added, there are plenty of orders, such as the 600 Black Bear Casino commemorative golf tournament blankets the knitting machines are running overtime to turn out.

"It's not that we have a lack of business," Batchelder said.

He added that Internet sales show solid growth and wholesale business is also strong. International sales also are in good shape, he said. For example, on Friday, he gave a tour of the Bemidji area to a pair of businessmen, Yoshi Okita and Hiro Hasata of the Tokyo-based Yoshi Trading Company. The company distributes Bemidji Woolen Mills clothing all over Japan.

Yoshi said his company has been doing business with Bemidji Woolen Mills for more than 10 years. The attraction, he said, is that the garments are high quality and individually made rather than mass-produced.

"They've had have the craftsmanship for a long time," Yoshi said.