Lewiston’s weaving history alive and well in Monmouth

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MONMOUTH — Three years ago, Fred Lebel secured rights to the iconic Bates name and crown logo of the weaving company he’d once led in the Bates Mill complex.

Two years ago, he moved into his company’s new home on outer Main Street, leaving the Hill Mill for a deceptively large 50,000-square-foot factory space filled with industrial washers, driers, cutting tables and regular, automated spinning, whirring and ker-thunking sounds.

On Friday, pictures of his face hung on white boards and windows, keeping a symbolic, watchful eye as his family — Maine Heritage Weavers’ latest owners — invited the public to check out production and celebrate the factory’s renaming. After Friday it will be known as the Alfred J. Lebel Memorial Complex, in Lebel’s memory, an effort to honor the hardworking owner who died in October 2013.

“This was his dream,” said President Linda Cloutier, Lebel’s daughter. “He was not going to let it go down.”

Lebel founded Maine Heritage Weavers in 2002, after Bates of Maine closed and he didn’t want the local manufacturing work to go away. The same bedspreads made for decades in downtown Lewiston are still being made out here, in many cases by the same people.

A crew of 20 turns out between 10,000 and 15,000 each year on seven looms, with an eighth coming online soon, packaged under the label “Bates by Maine Heritage Weavers.”

“These last few years we’ve really picked up, and this year is looking to be our best year yet,” said Bianca Cloutier, Lebel’s granddaughter and vice president of sales and marketing. “We’re seeing our brand grow just beyond the people who used to know Bates. The American-made movement, that’s been huge for us.”

Linda Cloutier said the move from Lewiston was prompted by the Hill Mill being for sale and the company needing more space. The former Newark Paper fit the bill; there was already a narrow row of offices built above the factory floor, perfect now for holding jacquard heads that connect to hulking looms below.

It takes between 30 and 90 minutes to weave a bedspread, depending on the style and size. The company has 18 designs of blankets and bedspreads, some of them new. The oldest and still most popular: Martha Washington’s Choice, in continuous production since 1940, inspired by a Bates’ designer’s trip to Mount Vernon.

“We hear from people who got them in 1950 as a wedding gift and still use them,” Bianca Cloutier said.

The company sells through private labels, shops such as Vermont Country Store and Country Curtains, and its own Bates Mill Store, on-site and online. Retail prices range from $100 to $290. Though they’re available in colors such as sage and French blue, white and antique remain the most popular.

Each piece starts life on an industrial cone of thread which is transferred, woven in long spools of fabric, cut to size, edged, washed, dried and inspected.

“My mom worked at Bates, my dad worked at Bates, my uncles worked at Bates — all three of them,” said Danny Fitzsimmons, a textile engineer from Lewiston who started with the company 38 years ago as a teenager, about the same time as Linda Cloutier.

When Bates of Maine closed in 2001, Fitzsimmons spent the next year helping other displaced workers at the Lewiston CareerCenter. He didn’t hesitate when Lebel called and asked him to join his new company.

Fitzsimmons likes “working with my hands, working with my mind” and the challenge of the looms.

Five members of Lebel’s family work at the company now. They announced a new scholarship for Monmouth Academy grads in his honor on Friday.

“There’s definitely those people who don’t know we exist,” Bianca Cloutier said. “We’re always excited to get the word out that, yes, we’re still operating, we’re still making those bedspreads that were so popular way back decades (ago).”

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