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A Flicker of Life in Biddeford's Once-Thriving Textile Industry
08/29/2013   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

With the decline of traditional textile manufacturing in the U.S., reviving an old factory hardly seems like a sound business prospect. But in Biddeford, the Saco River Dye House, which dyes yarn, aims to stake out a place for traditional manufacturing in the modern world. As Patty Wight reports, the unwinding of the industry over the years presents challenges, but there are also plenty of opportunities.

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Textiles 3

Inside this old mill complex in Biddeford with its worn, wooden floors, towering cubbies hold soft skeins of yarn in hundreds of colors, from pumpkin to butternut to twig. This is the end of the line for the Saco river Dye House. The beginning is at the other end of the building, where the yarn first arrives unfinished and ready to be dyed.

"So a company will send us 1,000 pounds of fiber or yarn - finished yarn - and the first thing that happens is that it usually comes in on cones," says Claudia Raessler. "So then we go over here, to the machines called skeiners, and we have to take the yarn off of the cones and put it into skeins."

Claudia Raessler (right, in front of back winding machine) and her husband own and manage the business. Putting the yarns into skeins - the twisted bundles you typically see in stores - is the first of many steps to create a finished dyed yarn. "The take away from this whole thing is that this continues to be a very labor-intensive manufacturing process," Raessler says.

Raessler had to learn the ropes on the job. Though she's familiar with the industry from her own small fiber business, Raessler says she left the dyeing up to a company in Massachusetts. When that company's owner passed away last year, and the dye house closed, it left Raessler and other Maine fiber producers with a production gap.

It didn't take long for them to wonder whether a dye house could make it in Maine. Raessler and her husband decided to take the plunge. "We have had to really build it from scratch," she says. "The dyeing industry has changed."

Textiles 1A batch of yarn is lifted from what is essentially a large metal box, where it was dyed in a hot water bath to become a bluish sea green. Most of the equipment from the Massachusetts dye house is several decades old. And when the Saco River Dye House opened last December, it lacked a critical component: people who knew how to use the machines.

"The dyes you use and technology has changed," Raessler says, "and so there's not a ready workforce right now that's in U.S. in the 30 - 40 age group range that could just step in and run a dye house."

This is one of the challenges of reviving a traditional manufacturing operation. Capital and raw materials can be hard to find. And sometimes, so is a skilled workforce. Raessler hired four employees from the Massachusetts dye house to train her new workforce.

"My English name is Yan," says Yan Guan, who came to the U.S. a year-and-a-half ago from China. She worked at the Hostess plant in Biddeford before it closed last November. Now she has a job running the skeining machine.

"And Yan was working as an accountant in a huge manufacturing operation in China," Raessler says, "so as soon as she kind of gets her English as a second language, I have great plans for her."

Raessler says the key to running a viable textile company is to focus on what U.S. consumers want. Organic has been all the rage in food, she says, and now it's hitting textiles. So Saco River Dye House has something called GOT organic textile certification. She says her company is the only one in the country with that credential.

Textiles 2And dye master Malik Muhaamad is exploring using botanicals to dye yarn, "which is from plants and insects, and geology from the earth's crust," he says. "So we hope this high-end working will attract U.S. manufacturers once more to go for the quality work in the USA."

After the dyed yarn dries, some of it is backwound onto cones again.

Customers of the Saco River Dye House are mid-sized companies and designers who want to develop new colors. Raessler still worries about long-term viability, but so far, she's been surprised by the amount of business they've already received.

"Most people say we can't do this in U.S. because of the labor costs," Raessler says. "I would say it isn't even so much the labor costs - it's figuring out how to run a lean manufacturing operation. And that's labor, that's transportation, that's finding ways to do your production in a more cost-efficient manner."

That why the Saco River Dye House focuses on innovation, as well as efficiency. As Claudia Raessler puts it, this isn't your grandma's dye house - but it borrows from the past.

Photos:  Patty Wight

Biddeford's Past Lives
MPBN's "Maine Experience" looks at the history and subsequent decline of textile manufacturing in Biddeford, Maine. From 2007. 6:36



Machines in the Garden
MPBN's "Maine Experience" examines the transformation of early 20th century Wilton, Maine as it moves from agriculture to a manufacturing community. From 2006. 10:38

We had production help with this story from Nick Woodward and Sandra Dunlap.


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