Cozy bedding and an online shift lifts Michigan's oldest woolen mill
- The Frankenmuth Woolen Mill just finished a $2.5 million expansion, fueled by its online shift during the pandemic
- The investment adds manufacturing capacity to the business
- For many small businesses, pandemic restrictions made them take online development more seriously
FRANKENMUTH — Behind Bavarian-style murals, and a storefront filled with seasonal home decor in this tourist center, sits the state’s oldest woolen mill.
The Frankenmuth Woolen Mill, founded in 1894, still uses bathtubs to clean and comb sheep shearings. The wool is prepared in some of the same rooms and with some of the same machines as early in its history.
It was not until the pandemic shutdown of 2020, when businesses were briefly closed, that the company was jolted into modernity. With COVID spreading, and visitors no longer wandering past downtown storefronts, the mill needed to rethink its way of doing business to reach new customers.
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Today, the Frankenmuth Woolen Mill is an unlikely COVID success story after aggressively moving from processing wool and making bedding for its local store to adding online and wholesale sales. The moves fueled a dramatic sales increase and a $2.5 million expansion of its production facilities.
Co-owners Matt and Abby Curtis cited a 300-percent jump in online sales as the catalyst for its growth nationally and at their mid-Michigan storefront, where shoppers have browsed linens and home goods since just after World War II.
Abby Curtis said customers routinely walk in and share a story about shopping in the retail store decades ago with a grandmother who needed to buy wool to make comforters.
“Now they’re coming in and they’re buying a finished product,” she said, describing the organic bedding. Those items, plus the roving yarn that spinners use to make knitting yarn, now fill half of the home goods store, which also carries luxury sheet sets, candles and holiday table linen.
But the real growth is from its website, which the mill actually set up in 2018, two years before the pandemic. Back then, online sales were minimal.
But when the store was closed in March 2020 as COVID-19 spread to Michigan, in-person sales dried up. So Matt Curtis, Abby’s husband, looked online to help move inventory and, eventually, bring mill employees back to work.
The ads touted the hand-made, chemical-free nature of the mill’s woolen products: Workers start with bales of “dirty” wool that are soaked in rows of bathtubs filled with hot water to strip soil, organic matter and other impurities from the fibers. The will is combed into the soft filling that is sewn into bedding. It’s then bagged and prepared for shipment.
Looking back, Matt Curtis said, it was the right pitch at the right time. The linen ware coincided with people’s desire to be cozy during the stress of the virus, and to support domestic businesses.
“American-made really hit home,” he said.
The mill’s manufacturing staff returned to work as other essential workers making goods around Michigan did, as well. At every step, the Curtises found a way to keep up with growing demand, including the addition of four workers in the production rooms.
“I said, ‘We’re not going to be negative,’” Matt Curtis said. “We’ve got product to sell. We’re going to sell it.”
Before long, the inventory backlog from March 2020 was long gone. And daily production was just keeping up with orders. The couple bought all of the material they could so they wouldn’t run out, and the mill’s wool providers were able to keep up with shipments.
“Everything we could make in a day, we basically sold,” he said.
Retailers’ ability to ratchet up their internet presence — through a website or platform like Facebook or Etsy — is important to compete for market share, said Andrea Bitely, spokesperson for the Michigan Retailers Association. That, of course, has been obvious for many years. But the lesson did not always hit home for some small business owners until the pandemic, she said, when shoppers had fewer opportunities, and far less desire, to leave home.
Nationally, online sales soared during the pandemic, rising from 11.5 percent of all goods sold in 2016 to 17 percent by the end of 2021, excluding auto- and restaurant-related spending, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The Curtises bought the mill in the early 2000s from Abby’s parents, then purchased the building in 2017. In addition to the production facility retail store, the couple also operate a clothing and ice cream shop on Frankenmuth’s Main Street.
Shoppers in the home goods store may have once come to buy a candle and browse after eating a chicken dinner in town. Today, Abby Curtis said, some come in specifically to look at the bedding products — such as comforters, which start at $189 — after seeing them online. Once in the store, they can pick fabric covers in person, which isn’t available online.
The website is set up to complement the home store, but showcases the natural bedding products the mill produces and not the full inventory of goods offered at the Frankenmuth shop. Internet sales, which topped 5,000 bedding items so far this year, could rival revenue generated by the retail store “maybe by the end of this year,” Abby Curtis said.
The diversification in the woolen mill’s business into online sales is also good for Frankenmuth, City Manager Bridget Smith said, allowing it to expand beyond the tourism industry.
The Curtises expanded the factory around the original part of the building, adding 4,000 square feet and some second-floor space behind the retail store. “We owed it to Frankenmuth and the business,” Matt said about preserving the history.
The couple’s success has also helped them combat inflation. After six years of sales increases, the mill had enough cash this year to buy raw materials like fabric and wool — much of it from U.S. sources, they say — for up to 18 months ahead, locking in pricing to minimize future hikes, Matt said.
They’ve also negotiated lower shipping rates, which Bitely said the Michigan Retailers Association does for its members, too.
“Savings like that helped us raise our average payroll by over 20 percent and keep our dedicated employees,” Matt Curtis said. Staffing at the woolen mill and store has grown to 20 people, mostly full-timers in manufacturing, a 25-percent increase.
Crews were putting the finishing touches on the new construction in early October. The extra space provides more storage, accommodates new sewing equipment and gives workers more space for bedding assembly.
As the mill prepares for a busy holiday season, its owners expect the business to continue growing.
“When it comes to employing people and making the product and selling it,” Matt said of the mill’s modernized business model, “that’s the way to go.”’
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