The little textile mill that could

Noi Senouthai prepares tape for dyeing at Wayne Mills Co. Inc. in North Philadelphia on a skein-winding machine, a piece of equipment that dates to the 1920s.
Noi Senouthai prepares tape for dyeing at Wayne Mills Co. Inc. in North Philadelphia on a skein-winding machine, a piece of equipment that dates to the 1920s. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 22, 2014

Red tape? Wayne Mills Co. Inc. thrives on it.

Not the torturous-regulation kind, but the thin woven ties behind the expression "cut through the red tape."

Last year, Wayne Mills supplied more than 100,000 yards of it, used mostly in courthouses and law offices to bind official documents. The 104-year-old North Philadelphia weaver of narrow fabrics has had that line of business since the 1940s.

Not that this manufacturer of rare longevity is a one-trick loom.

Housed in a redbrick complex with Southern yellow pine floors and wood-beam ceilings across the tracks from SEPTA's Wayne Junction station, Wayne Mills exists now - into the sixth generation of its founding family, the Milneses - because, like the yarn it weaves, it has remained pliable.

"I wish all the ancestors could come back and see everything," said Laura Diamond, 70, the company's treasurer. "They would be shocked by how well we're doing."

Her great-grandfather was John Milnes, a brother of founders William and Arthur who later joined them in the business. In the 1940s, tough times caused the company's officers to go without pay.

In the 1960s, there were dire "discussions of how long the company would last," said Martin Heilman, president and plant manager and a Wayne Mills employee since 1969.

First located in Frankford, the company moved in stages to its present site, a former carpet mill, starting in 1947. It bought the 10-building, 4.5-acre property in 1976.

Simultaneously, a market change would call into question whether that investment was wise: Wayne Mills' core business since the '60s - zipper tape - came unzipped.

The U.S. zipper trade was lost to Japan, leaving Wayne Mills and its 200 employees in need of other work. That came in the form of heavier tape for the apparel industry, such as collar strips, and narrow varieties such as hanger-ready skirt straps.

The work was steady until the 1990s, when the U.S. apparel industry moved to Asia and Central America, said Heilman, whose brother Wayne is vice president and weave manager. Their father, Nissley, worked at Wayne Mills, too - when its work included skinny woven handles for animal crackers packaging.

To make up for vanished business, Wayne Mills adjusted again - with medical gauze, hospital-gown ties, mop strands, carpet binding, handlebar tape, and more. Older labor-intensive looms were replaced by more-automated, high-speed machinery, contributing to shrinkage of the plant's workforce, now at about 65.

Martin Heilman would not disclose company financials, saying only that Wayne Mills "has done very well over the last five years." Besides cost-saving equipment upgrades, the company has benefited from switching from oil to natural gas, halving energy costs, he said.

Perhaps the boldest survival move came in February 2001, when Wayne Mills acquired the dye house that did most of its coloring - Luithlen Dye Corp. in Kensington.

"The '90s were great, and by 2001 things dramatically turned for us," said Douglas Wiegand, 52, of Newtown, who had run Luithlen since his father, Louis Jr., retired in 1991.

When it lost the zipper work it used to do for Wayne Mills, a customer since 1910, Luithlen filled the void with bras and underpants. Color had become popular for undergarments, in part due to Madonna, Wiegand said.

Then the North American Free Trade Agreement chased that work overseas. "It seemed to hit us overnight. We just didn't have enough to subsist," Wiegand said.

He gave Wayne Mills two weeks' notice of his intent to close Luithlen, certain disaster in a city with few alternatives. The companies promptly merged, with the dye operation moving to the Wayne Mills site five years later, in June 2006.

"Now they control their entire destiny," Wiegand said.

That's assuming new product lines continue to emerge. Heilman, 62, of Abington, cited the military and medical trade as promising growth sectors.

Karen Randal, director of business attraction and retention for the city's Commerce Department, is so wowed by Wayne Mills' survival and reinvention that she arranges tours there.

"To walk into an operating textile mill founded in 1910 . . . is an experience of historic and economic significance," Randal said. "Wayne Mills exemplifies . . . how a business can reimagine itself and stay relevant in a dynamic world economy."


dmastrull@phillynews.com

215-854-2466 @dmastrull

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