A Brief History of Germantown Yarns

In our previous posts we’ve alluded to Germantown’s long history as a good quality American yarn. This post will go a bit more in depth about the history of how Germantown Yarn got its name, and how the little town of Germantown, PA launched a yarn with a history older than the United States itself. This post is written by Nic Tenaglia, an architectural researcher and historian, and lover of all things Philadelphia.
Pictures from Old Germantown: the Pastorius family residences are shown on the upper left (c. 1683) and upper right (c. 1715), the center structure is the house and printing business of the Caurs family (ca. 1735), and the bottom structure is the market place (c. 1820).

Germantown, Pennsylvania was chartered by William Penn for Francis Daniel Pastorius, Abraham op den Graeff, and 11 other German families in 1683. Early on, they had rejected Penn’s proposal of settling in what would become Roxborough and Manayunk - the neighborhood where Kelbourne Woolens is now located - because the steep slopes up from the banks of the Schuykill River and Wissahickon Creek Valleys would be difficult to farm. Instead, Penn settled them on the opposite bank of the Wissahickon Valley which separates Roxborough from Germantown.
A Map of the County of Philadelphia from Actual Survey / 1843, Charles Ellet Jr.

The thirteen families who settled Germantown were Mennonites and Quakers, and Germantown is also notably the birthplace of the anti-slavery movement in America. Abraham op den Graeff came from Krefeld, Germany, noted for its role as the center of the German textile industry, and a city of weavers. He founded an early Germantown linen industry, modeled after that of Krefeld, and soon won the first Governor’s Award from William Penn for producing the finest linen woven in the colony. This established Germantown as the early center for textile manufacturing in Pennsylvania, and it would grow into its reputation as a place for reliably good quality material and goods throughout the colonial and early republic periods. While Germantown was known for its linen industry in the early days of the colonies, it was their production of woolen yarns that would catapult them into the national spotlight in years to come.

Germantown textile manufacturing was developed as a cottage industry, and it would remain so up until the beginning of the Civil War. At this time, industrialization spread, and other neighborhoods in Philadelphia like Kensington and Manayunk started to produce larger quantities of goods, but Germantown saw a smaller expansion with producers continuing to work out of their homes. Industry in Germantown gradually moved from cottage style manufacturing to smaller mills, but Germantown maintained significantly higher wages than its heavily industrialized counterparts and was able to resist the labor strife inherent to industrialization into the end of the 19th century. It was in this period that producers like Joseph Fling’s Germantown Yarn Mill (below) and J. Randall’s Franklin Yarn Mill grew. Buoyed by Civil War contracts for woolen military uniforms and hosiery and post-war protectionist tariffs, the woolens industry in Philadelphia was in a good position. In addition, the federal government would soon start buying quantities of Germantown yarns in order to supply the newly created reservations in the Southwestern United States with weaving yarns. The Navajo in particular are reported to have lost up to two-thirds of their sheep during the cruel forced relocation imposed upon them by the US government, and supplying them with yarn was used as a means of softening the harsh blow that the communities felt. This move has a dark side. The relocation of Native Americans and the import of these commercially produced wool both hastened disease among both people and the sheep they tended. Some beautiful weavings were produced in this period, but that is far diminished by the reality of the full story. If you would like to know more, the book Rainbow Yarn : Navajo Weavings, Germantown Yarns & the Pennsylvania Connection is highly recommended, if you can find it.
Aboriginal life among the Navajoe Indians. Near old Fort Defiance, N.M. / Library of Congress / 1873, T. H. O'Sullivan.

Corresponding with the rise of the new aniline dyeing process which created a previously unheard of number of bright colors, the dumping of this inexpensive, good quality, and very colorful yarn on the reservations led to its being wholeheartedly embraced for roughly four decades in the Navajo weaving industry. This relationship is in part what Germantown yarn is most famous for today.
Navajo Germantown Eye Dazzler Rug: Rectangular woven rug; red, grey, and black integrated diamond design on a natural colored field with black border; small black knotted tassel on each corner. / Science History Institute. / 2008, Gregory Tobias.

At the same time, a new kind of mill came to the fore producing “Germantown” style yarns in Philadelphia. These mills had started in the mid 19th century but grew rapidly in the post war years. Firms like Wm. H. Horstmanns, James Lees & Sons, and S.B. & B.W. Fleisher took the production of Germantown yarns into the industrial age. These companies created household knitting yarn and pattern brands like Columbia Yarns, Minerva Yarns, and Fleisher’s Yarns, respectively.
Wm. H. Horstmann & Sons, Phila., Pa, Exhibit of Germantown Yarns in the 1876 World’s Fair in Philadelphia. #711, Main Exhibition Building, Bldg. #1. / Free Library of Philadelphia / 1876, Centennial Photographic Co.
No longer manufactured exclusively in Germantown, these mills were spread out around Philadelphia and the surrounding area. With their large industrial production and wide array of colors, these firms soon became some of the most notable in the industry, with production peaking around the First World War.
Reeling and Packing Columbia Yarns. One hundred years, 1816-1916; the chronicles of an old business house in the city of Philadelphia / 1916, Wm. H. Horstmann Co.
For a time, it seemed every yarn company had a yarn called Germantown, as the name was synonymous with 4-ply knitting worsted. The Great Depression would be the practical end of Fleisher Yarns as it was then bought by Bear Brand from New York, later by Bernat, and then by Brunswick, who carried on making Germantown for decades. Around the same time, Columbia and Minerva Yarns would combine to become Columbia-Minerva, the standard bearer of Germantown yarns throughout the 20th century.
Fleisher Yarns ad from 1919 / Collection of Kelbourne Woolens.

The end of World War II, and a new reliance on and desire for machine knit and washable goods, led to the introduction of synthetic fibers. With the rise of crocheting in the late 1960s, Germantown saw a brief resurgence with brands like Brunswick, Coates, and the aforementioned Columbia-Minerva carrying the standard. Through the 1970s, synthetics took center stage, and by the 1980s Brunswick was the last company to manufacture a yarn called Germantown. Sadly, the 1990s saw the end of the availability of Germantown yarns after three centuries of growth from a nascent colonial industry into the standard hand-knitting yarn across the United States.
Hexamer General Surveys, Volume 9, Plates 798-799 / Free Library of Philadelphia / 1874, Ernest Hexamer.

The mills of Fling, Horstman, Fleisher, and their ilk still pepper the landscape of Philadelphia. Many of the old mills of Germantown, Kensington, and Manayunk have been repurposed into condos, office space, new restaurants, and shopping centers. Kelbourne Woolens’ current location on Krams Ave. began life as the Little Falls Mill in 1863, a small mill producing woolen carpet yarn for Stafford & Co until 1957. Interesting how some things seem to come full circle!
Thanks, Nic!