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Pendleton blankets: A thread to the past

A mill in Eastern Oregon that has been weaving wool for more than a century is, quite literally, part of the fabric of the community. The town's name – Pendleton – is stitched into every product. 

The company was started in the early 1900s by the Bishop brothers, who came to town to try their hand at the blanket business. Their blankets' patterns were designed to appeal to Pendleton's first customers: Native Americans. "The first recorded interaction in our homeland with Euro Americans was Lewis and Clark in 1805," said Bobbie Conner, director of the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute, located on the Umatilla Indian Reservation just outside Pendleton. "We came to know a few other explorers who came in their wake. And then, the Hudson's Bay Company set up a trading post in our homeland in 1816. That's where our love of wool was born."

Pendleton Woolen Mills in Pendleton, Ore.  CBS News

Those early companies exchanged what became known as "trade blankets." "If you've ever worn a wet leather jacket, you know the difference between the weight of that and the weight of a wool coat," said Connor. "Wool was durable."

But it was more than a functional fabric. Native Americans began using prized Pendleton blankets to mark special occasions – births, weddings, funerals. It's a tradition that continues to this day. 

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And whenever a blanket began to show its age, it's given new life. Connor said, "We have been repurposing Pendleton wool forever. My aunt, when I was in college, cut up and made Pendleton wool pillows as sort of keepsakes from home."

Of course, part of the reason the blankets originally appealed to Native Americans was that they featured the types of geometric designs that were already common in indigenous art. Knighton asked, "Something that might have once been presented as 'borrowing,' today is talked about in terms of appropriation. Do you see it as appropriation?"

Connor replied, "The idea that I might come and take a picture of something prized and handmade that you wear and turn that into a design without acknowledging the maker, without having a relationship with the person who created it, and then taking that and turn that into a retail product, we would consider disrespectful.

"The respectful thing to do is to talk to me and talk about that relationship and what that might be, and that's, I think, what Pendleton in its most recent decades has become: a purveyor of goods that are created out of relationships with tribal people," she said. 

Today, Pendleton has added designs made by contemporary Native American artists, and has a series of items that has raised over a million dollars for the American Indian College Fund. 

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The business has also expanded far beyond blankets. Pendleton started making apparel in the 1920s, but it wasn't until the 1960s when one of its plaid shirts really took off, thanks to its unexpected popularity with some Southern California surfers, who used wool to keep warm at the beach. 

Pendleton's plaid shirts even appeared on the cover of the Beach Boys album, "Surfin' Safari."

The Dude (Jeff Bridges) in "The Big Lebowski" (1998).  Gramercy Pictures

After Jeff Bridges wore a Pendleton sweater in "The Big Lebowski," the "Dude sweater" is today one of the company's top sellers. [Like most of Pendleton's apparel, it's manufactured overseas.] 

But the bulk of the blanket business remains in the Pacific Northwest, where some patterns are still created with punch card looms that are decades old.

In fact, Pendleton's woolen mills are some of the only ones left, in a country that once had thousands.

Pendleton CEO John Bishop, the fifth generation of his family to be involved in the textile industry, said Pendleton has survived because it has a brand that sells directly to consumers. "In the early '80s, there were roughly 25 mills in the U.S., and now there's three of us," he said. "All of those mills, you know, they sold to apparel manufacturers. And the apparel manufacturers, they're still in business because they moved offshore."

Still, that American-made product is pricey; a king-size blanket can go for $500. Bob Christnact, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Pendleton Woolen Mills, said it's the legacy behind the patterns that makes their products unique. 

Knight asked Christnact, "If you're looking for a blanket, you can find something at a big box store for $20. Why is someone spending hundreds of dollars for a Pendleton?"

"That cheap blanket in a big box store might be around for a few years, and then it's going to be gone," he replied. "We're creating legacy products that are going to last generations."

A blanket given to mark a graduation, a marriage, or a death is a way to tell story. Each one provides a thread to the past. For Bobbie Conner, they're a way to connect with family: "I have a Pendleton blanket for each of my uncles who's passed away that was given to me, either by the uncle during my lifetime, or given to me by his family when he passed away. It's the treasures of your life that represent the people who are important to you."

A Pendleton pattern. CBS News

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Story produced by Anthony Laudato. Editor: Chad Cardin. 

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