Littlewood's of Philadelphia: A Dyed in the Wool Family Business

Date: December 19, 2014

At the oldest raw
fiber dying plant in
Philadelphia, G. J. Littlewood and Son, fashion design students are taking a
tour. As they watch the fiber being submerged into vats, the president and owner,
Richard Littlewood, explains that the company dyes most of the deep blue wool
used to produce U.S. Navy pea coats. 
This NFIB member company opened in Philadelphia in 1863 and the Manayunk
plant is now run by the fifth generation of Littlewoods.

In the
mid-1800’s Philadelphia had a thriving textile industry with fiber producers,
yarn makers, knitting and sewing plants. 
In the 1950’s there was a surge of production as polyester and acrylic
materials entered the marketplace.  Then
there was the huge shift toward cheap overseas labor, leaving Littlewoods as
one of the rare American survivors. At
one time, Littlewoods employed as many as 50 workers. Today there are 22.  Richard says the family almost threw in the towel during the 2008 recession,
but stayed alive with layoffs and pay cuts. 
Now Littlewood is bouncing back.

The company
has succeeded in a variety of niche markets. There is the contract for military
pea coats, and two large home chains have Littlewood dye all their paint
rollers. There are an increasing number of cottage industries, artisans and
clothing designers who need smaller lots of dyed fabrics that other plants
won’t take.  The company also advises those
entrepreneurs on where to find U.S.-based manufacturers known for quality
clothing construction so they can bring their made-in-America product to
market.

Recently Imperial
Stock Ranch, a family owned sheep ranch, that provided the wool for the U.S. Winter
Olympic Team sweaters, chose Littlewood to dye its wool.  A wildly popular internet fashion site called
Zady, which promotes clothing quality over quantity, produced a sweater using
that rancher’s wool and Littlewoods dye plant. Now the New York fashion news is taking notice as evidenced by a recent Wall Street
Journal article.

While most
small businesses don’t make it past the third generation, Littlewoods has
learned the key by forever adapting to
the changing marketplace and exploiting what makes them exceptional.   

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