9 February 2012
On my last trip to Portland I had the opportunity to talk with James Clark about the art of knitting four-pound sweaters and the company's new line, Dehen 1920.
Dehen (pronounced Dee-in) was started in 1920 by German immigrant, William Dehen. William was the sort that settled the American West--fearless, entrepreneurial, hardworking. After a stint in jail for prohibition era-bootlegging, he married his brother's girlfriend and moved into the more reputable business of knitting.
William and his descendants have kept the business alive through good and bad. Today, Dehen is one of a handful of US knitting businesses still in operation, still manufacturing domestically.
Late last year, Dehen launched 1920, a new line of sweaters built on its extensive design archive and its rare stock of post-war knitting machines.
"The line has been really well received. People who know about garment construction are amazed that such a heavy knit can still be produced in the USA. For the most part, knitting companies disposed of their old machines even before they went bust. There aren't many companies left that can still do this."
Gary and the Machines
When people talk about Dehen's incredible knit, they are in fact paying tribute to one of America's last master machine knitters, Gary Hilde (also Dehen President). It's his knowledge of Dehen's 70-year-old temperamental machinery that enabled the team to produce these sweaters once more.
"These machines are incredible. They don't break. But they're also very temperamental. They shred the soft stuff [modern, luxury yarns]. It took Gary a lot of experimentation with ends [cones of yarn] and yarn gauges to get it right. But no one knows these machines better than him; he's been working on them all his life."
A typical Dehen 1920 sweater is knit with four ends of 100% worsted wool. This is no flyaway see-threw stuff either. The number of strands of yarn in each knot, the gauge of each strand of yarn and the type of knot all contribute to Dehen's special knit - and a four pound sweater. There just aren't many machines left that can handle this kind of heft. But Dehen's can.
An Inspired Archive
It's not all about the machines. In Dehen's 90+ year history, it has made varsity sweaters and jackets, milkman uniforms, WestPoint cadet jackets, motorcycle club sweaters, school and cheer uniforms, socks, even swimming suits. Today it still manufactures varsity jackets and cheer uniforms (including Glee's). This breadth of experience has left Dehen with an incredible archive from which to draw inspiration.
"Our first 10 sweaters are directly pulled from styles Dehen has made in the past. We picked what we did best and started there. The only alterations we did were to update some of the cuts for a more modern fit."
Dehen 1920's inaugural line includes a varsity jacket and cardigan, shawl neck sweater coat, v-neck, car coat and a quarter-zip. In less than a year, Dehen 1920 has been placed in some of the most discerning menswear shops, those that look for the complete package - quality, story, style. Stockists now include AB Fits, Woodlands, Bench & Loom and Hickoree's among others.
"The Dehen style is American through and through - classics that only grow more appropriate with age and time. These things never go out of style. Their knits have been made to last a lifetime, and that's something you can easily see and feel." - Michael Andersen of Woodlands
The Future of Heritage and Craft
I asked James if he was concerned about the competitiveness of Dehen's new line, given the fleeting nature of fashion trends.
"Men's fashion is very focused on vintage right now. The heritage look is likely a trend. But consumers' appreciation for the locally-made, well-crafted items that they buy for the long-term seems less likely to be a trend, more likely a real shift in the market. Not everyone is going to like what we make, but they will see quality craftsmanship. They now know the trade-offs."
Dehen exemplifies much of the best in great businesses-- tenacity, adaptability, a high regard for the craft, a good eye for quality. James believes it's these qualities and Dehen's roots as a 4th generation family business that will help it carry on far into the future.
As I shook hands, I couldn't help but picture James riding a '65 Harley Davidson Pan Head across the Willamette River, Dehen 1920 emblazoned on his sweater. Hollywood-induced nostalgia? Definitely. But it seemed like the perfect opening scene to this company's fabulous second act.