Faribault, Minn. – Setting itself apart from the competition has kept Faribault Mills in business for 140 years. This year, the woolen mill weaved a new pattern into its colorful history with Ingeo™, a patented fiber made from corn polylactic acid.
Faribault Mills President Mike Harris and Chief Operating Officer Dennis Melchert discovered the polylactic-acid fiber in Germany at an international textile show in 2002. Cargill Dow, two companies with a joint patent on Ingeo, were promoting it as a filling. But Melchert, a 30-year Faribault Mills employee, convinced Harris that they should try turning the corn fiber into yarn for blankets. Ingeo, which means “from the earth,” fit with the company’s philosophy of using renewable and recyclable products.
“We began with something that was earth sensitive as a way to replace chemical-based acrylics that were used in some blankets,” Melchert says. After much trial and error, he perfected a fiber-processing method that met the company’s performance standards. “It’s not only earth-friendly, it’s a very good product.” The delicate, silken-textured Ingeo is exceptionally strong, easy to clean and holds dye well.
“We thought we had a product that was pretty darn nice. But at the end of the day, we weren’t really sure how it would be received by consumers,” Harris says. “I’m pleased to say that, first and foremost, people love the blanket … that it’s made from a recyclable, renewable resource is a secondary feature.”
Faribault Mills now makes 100-percent Ingeo and wool-Ingeo blankets and throws as well as itstraditional 100-percent wool products. With worldwide rights to make and distribute Ingeo, Harris says the polylactic-acid fiber could yield Faribault Mills as much as a 30- to 40-percent sales growth.
Ingeo is produced by converting corn into sugars. The sugars are fermented and converted to a polylactic acid, which Cargill Dow named NatureWorks PLA. The PLA is then extruded into Ingeo fibers, which arrive at the Faribault mill in bales weighing several hundred pounds each.
Step back in time
The only difference between making Ingeo and wool blankets is the fiber – the production process is the same, and it has changed little over the past decades. Except for a few modern pieces, such as computerized looms, the inside of Faribault Mills looks much like it did 50 years ago. Some of the equipment is older than the employees who operate it. Since it is the only woolen mill left in the country, finding replacement equipment isn’t easy.
Wool that comes into the mill is washed, dried, blended, combed, spun, twisted, dyed and woven as it has for generations. The end products – blankets and throws – are marketed by catalogers such as Lands End and Eddie Bauer, and retailers such as Marshall Fields, Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s and Saks. The mill also produces thousands of promotional products for clients such as Mercedes Benz, Lear Jet, Yahoo, and professional and college sports teams. It also produces fire-safety, stadium and horse blankets.
Faribault Mills uses about 1-million pounds of wool each year, but Harris says the company hopes to double that in the next 12 to 18 months. He also expects to use significantly more Ingeo fiber as Faribault Mills expands its 140-year-old brand.
For product and ordering information, visit www.faribaultmills.com.