Such as their current big customer, Navajo rug weavers in the Four Corners area of the Southwest.
"That's what's kept us in business," said Russell Fawley, president of the company. John Wilde was his great-uncle.
When eldest daughter Nancy Fawley joined the company 2 1/2 years ago, her task was to find additional markets for Wilde yarns among handweavers and other crafts people.
She left a job in New York City for the mill "because I thought it would be a shame if this business didn't continue," she said last week.
Wool carpets, which once made up 100 percent of the rug market, now constitute only about 3 percent of rugs manufactured, according to Russell Fawley. Synthetic-fiber rugs represent 97 percent of the market.
And many of the wool rugs available today are foreign-made. Foreign competition is growing in the wool-processing end of the business, too. A good example is New Zealand, which once sent almost all of its wool to mills in the United States and elsewhere for spinning, but recently has begun to process some of that wool into yarn before export.
Through it all, Wilde has struggled to survive.
The family company, according to Nancy Fawley, is the last independent carpet-yarn mill in the country. Carpet wool still accounts for about 70 percent of its business, with the yarn used for custom-designed or -woven rugs.
Wilde employs 30 people in Manayunk and nine at its dye house in Port Richmond, where the wool is colored.
Even in good times, however, the mill processes far less than its annual capacity of 750,000 pounds of wool.
"We haven't done that for years," Russell Fawley said.
In an effort to promote interest in Wilde Yarns, the company's line of craft yarns, the Fawleys have opened a small gallery in a corner of their mill, displaying yarn as well as finished goods purchased from artisan- customers.
"We are proud of how our yarns are being used," said Nancy Fawley, showing a visitor around the room.
It's more than just pride, however. If the Fawleys help market the finished items, they figure the artisans will be back to buy more yarn.
Several colorful Navajo rugs are displayed in the shop, as well as woven table runners made by a York County firm, wall hangings from a California craftswoman, a hooked rug from a Vermont company, knitted Christmas stockings and bright felted wool balls made by local artisans. Two thousand of the balls currently adorn the holiday windows of Manhattan's Bergdorf Goodman store.
Another local customer is Little Souls, an Ardmore company that makes handcrafted dolls. Owner Gretchen Wilson, who anticipates selling 30,000 of the expensive dolls this year, buys Wilde yarn for the dolls' hair and needs specialty colors and textures to suit the ethnically diverse dolls.
"It's wonderful yarn," said Wilson, who also praised the Fawleys' efforts to accommodate her design needs. "They've become part of the family."
Doll hair, table runners and Christmas stockings can't sustain a company, the Fawleys are quick to concede. But craft-yarn sales "are the thing that, over the last three years, has allowed us to make ends meet," Russell Fawley said. Sales of craft yarn are improving.
Bruce Burnham bought $180,000 worth of yarn this year from Wilde, up from $24,000 a decade ago. And he expects that will continue to grow. Retail demand for the yarn is up 30 percent this year, he said.
Burnham's customers are Navajo weavers, many of whom are expert artisans whose rugs may command as much as $1,000 per square foot.
As president of the R.B. Burnham & Co. Trading Post in Sanders, Ariz., he holds the exclusive marketing rights for Wilde yarns on the vast reservation.
Working together over a period of three or four years, Burnham and Russell Fawley developed 15 colors of yarn for the weavers, plus various shades of natural-colored wool. Some were extremely difficult to perfect, but Burnham says the effort was worth it - for the weavers and for Wilde.
"I think, at a time when there was a slow-down in carpet yarn, he (Fawley) could see us as being a potential market," Burnham said. "He could envision the same thing that I could as far as volume."
The yarns, marketed under the name Wilde & Wooly, are especially suitable for Navajo weavers, Burnham said.
"We needed a coarser grade of wool," he explained, "wool that gives the appearance of being hand-carded in the finished piece. Hands down, the Wilde yarn makes a better rug."
Because the Fawleys are willing to custom-spin even small lots of wool, they can supply just about whatever type of yarn a customer wants, except for worsted yarn, the sort used to knit sweaters. That is a more sophisticated process, in which fibers are straightened into parallel lines. Carpet yarn isn't as smooth.
Indeed, Russell Fawley welcomes custom orders as another source of revenue. ''We're willing to try anything," he said as he walked past a cart full of yarn spun from the wool of a New Mexico sheep-breeder.
The wool will be returned to New Mexico, dyed there and sold.
The process of converting raw wool into yarn hasn't changed much since John Wilde and Tom Wilde, the & Brother in the company name, began spinning in a rented mill in Manayunk in 1880. Four years later, they built their own mill.
An adjacent building on Main Street, which now houses company offices and part of the manufacturing operation, was constructed in 1934. A warehouse was added in 1984.
"We build every 50 years, whether we need to or not," laughed Nancy Fawley. "That means we'll expand in 2034."
Raw wool, in huge bales weighing 550 to 700 pounds, arrives in Philadelphia in container ships from New Zealand and the United Kingdom.
The bales are muscled by workers into huge blending machines, where the various textures and natural colors of wool are combined, producing cloudlike mountains of fluffy fibers.
The loose wool is then fed through a carding machine, where it is pulled over rollers covered with hundreds of fine wire teeth. Carding combs the wool to remove tangles and snags, and draws the fibers into longer strands. When it leaves the carding machine, it looks like a gauzy web.
The web is spun into what is called roving, yarn-like in appearance but lacking the strength that is added in the next process, where hair-thin threads of the roving are twisted into strands and wound onto bobbins.
It is a noisy, dusty and labor-intensive process.
At the Wilde mill, the "new" equipment may be decades old, and the ''old" machinery of indeterminate age.
"In this business, new is a relative term," Russell Fawley said.
The Fawleys give enormous credit to plant supervisor Fred Gaertner, who
keeps the huge machines running.
"He likes old machinery," Russell Fawley said. "He drives a 1966 Plymouth."
If the company ever needs to replace one of its machines with a new one, it will have to import it from England, Italy or Belgium, where manufacturers still service the wool-yarn industry.
Nancy Fawley sees her role in the family business as searching out new markets. Drawing on the current popularity of "natural" cottons - those that have not been treated with chemicals - she hopes to test the market for organic wools.
She's interested in developing additional colors - and has even experimented with dyeing wool with Kool-Aid. "You should see the reds and pinks you can get," she said.
One task high on her priority list, however, is to sit her father down and have him finish recounting the history of the Wilde family and its mill.
It's a project begun by Russell Fawley, who wrote a regular column in the company newsletter, Call of the Wilde, sent out to customers.
"Right now, the history stops at 1932," Nancy Fawley said. "That's when my dad was born, and he thinks everything that's happened since then is boring."