Newport Fabric Seller Thrives

  • Instructor Linda Cooney, left, watches a piece of work that Heidi Martin, of Salisbury, N.H., is working on during a weekly rug hooking class at the Dorr Mill Store in Newport, N.H., on March 15, 2018. The two have been rug hooking for over 15 years. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Owner Terry Dorr speaks to Heidi Martin, of Salisbury, N.H., left, and Linda Cooney, of Sunapee, N.H., about rug hooking at the Dorr Mill Store in Newport, N.H., on March 15, 2018. Dorr has been at the store for 43 years and has recently found success by specializing in selling wool to fabric artists online. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Employee Tami Geuser rips fabric at the Dorr Mill Store in Newport, N.H., on March 15, 2018. Geuser works in the mail order department and sizes fabric for every online order. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Employee Tami Geuser rips fabric for an online order at the Dorr Mill Store in Newport, N.H., on March 15, 2018. The store has recently made a shift to specialize in selling wool to fabric artists online. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Business Writer
Sunday, March 25, 2018

Guild — Terry Dorr’s family has been in the wool business for three generations, beginning when his grandfather took over a troubled woolen mill near Newport that became Dorr Woolen Co.

At its peak in the 1960s, the mill employed 400 people. At one time, workers lived in boarding houses across the road from the factory on Route 103 a few miles out of the center of town.

Dorr Woolen Co. was acquired by Oregon woolen company Pendleton in 1982, which operated the Newport area mill for 21 years before closing it in 2003. Today, the red brick mill complex and boarding houses are long gone. The 27-acre factory property is now occupied by a nondescript facility owned by gunmaker Sturm, Ruger & Co.

But the legacy of Dorr Woolen Co. lives on in the form of the Dorr Mill Store, which began as an in-factory store where Dorr workers and the public could purchase Dorr’s woolen products. The store moved across the road from the former factory site in the early 1960s and — defying the fate that has struck so many small retail businesses in the Upper Valley — is doing more than merely surviving.

Quite the opposite.

“We had our best year in 2017,” said Dorr Mill Store owner Terry Dorr. “We haven’t had a down year in years. If we mind our p’s and q’s, we’ll do fine.”

That’s because, unknown to people who come through its doors and are greeted by displays of women’s and men’s apparel, blankets and other merchandise, the Dorr Mill Store is really no longer a store, at least in the traditional sense. Instead, Dorr has pivoted the business to become one of the leading independent suppliers of wool fabric materials to fiber artists around the world.

“It looks like a clothing store when you walk in, but looks are deceiving,” Dorr said.

The fiber arts encompass a spectrum of handcrafts employing woolen fabrics for such uses as braided rugs, rug hooking, needlepoint, wool appliqué (also known as “penny rugs”), dolls, hats and clothes. The store’s customers, who extend across the U.S. and abroad, include other fabric and craft stores, quilt stores, hand dyers, fiber artists and fiber arts teachers.

“This is a niche business, not something picked up by Walmart,” Dorr said.

Once past the women’s blouses on hangers and the displays of folded men’s Pendleton shirts, the 5,000-square-foot store is divided into a series of anterooms where bolts, folds and rolls of woolen fabrics in hundreds of different colors and patterns lay stacked on tables and shelves. Dorr sources the hand-dyed woolens from U.S. suppliers such as Pendleton and also from abroad, many designed to the company’s own specifications.

For customers, it’s wool heaven — and heavenly wool.

“I thought I was in rug hookers’ paradise,” said Mavis Butterfield, who writes a daily lifestyle blog on home gardening and frugal living from her home in Gig Harbor, Wash. “They have an insane amount of wool.”

Butterfield has visited the store “three or four times” on trips East and now regularly buys hundreds of yards of wool from the Dorr Mill Store annually for the hooked rugs and her own hand-dyed wool that she sells through Etsy, an online network for crafters. The quality and variety of wools in stock at the Dorr Mill Store cannot be matched by those found in typical fabric stores, she said.

She said the store caters to the rising number of “mommypreneurs” who need woolen fabrics to make rugs, pillows, blankets, throws and clothes that they sell online. “Not everyone wants something made in China,” she said.

Sandy Luckury, a rug braider who lives in Bradford, N.H., said she has also noticed an upswing in interest in her craft. Rug braiding involves cutting yards of wool into strips and then braiding the strands into a cord and coiling the cords into an oval or circular shape that forms a rug.

Even though Luckury grew up in Newport and had shopped at the Dorr Mill Store occasionally, it was not until she began braiding rugs in 1985 that she “got to know the store best” for selling wool to fiber artists such as herself.

The Dorr Mill Store is the venue where she teaches her craft at twice-a-week classes, which draw five to 12 people at a time.

“My classes have gotten bigger as there has been a lot more interest across the country in braiding rugs since I started teaching in 2005,” she said. “I really like the quality of (the store’s) wool. It’s rare I find it anywhere else.”

Dorr has seen up close the decline of the New England woolen industry. The reasons are varied, he notes, including apparel makers’ changing taste in fashion, a switch to lightweight polyester fleece for clothing, the use of vinyl upholstery by automakers, and garment makers seeking out low-cost foreign labor.

“When I started with this business, there were dozens of woolen mills that employed thousands of people within a five-hour drive. Now there is one in Connecticut with 60 employees,” he said.

Dorr’s business itself has 10 employees, including one second-generation employee, store manager Gina Kanakis, who began working at the store in 1971, not long after high school. Her mother, Irene Boyle, was the store manager before her for more than 40 years.

“She cut back when she turned 80, but she still came in a couple days a week,” Kanakis said of her mother.

Kanakis said the Dorr Mill Store has been like a second home for her family.

“The employees are treated right,” she said. “Terry’s dad and Terry have been very good bosses … I was out ill for a while, and you didn’t worry about your job. He still takes care of you.”

Initially, Terry Dorr had not planned on going into the family woolen business.

After graduating from college, Dorr taught junior high school in New Hampshire, worked in a youth residential program in Arizona and volunteered for AmeriCorps Vista in Arkansas. Eventually, however, he was pulled back to Newport, the town where he grew up before going to boarding school and college.

“When I came back my dad asked me if I’d take over the store partly because I never had any interest in the factory,” Dorr said about his decision to return home in 1975. “I told him I’d give him five years.”

The U.S. woolen industry was already struggling. Dorr remembers his father, the late George A. Dorr Jr., would sometimes declare, “If I don’t get an order today, I’m closing up.”

The former mill site and store is located in Guild — rhymes with “mild” — a cluster of homes on Route 103 that still has its own post office. But the Dorr name has long been associated with Newport.

At one time, the Dorr Mill Store was popular among local residents who bought woolen fabric to make their own skirts, blazers and slacks. Homemade clothing was still prevalent and home sewers made up a large portion of the customer base, requiring the store to carry a full line of sewing patterns, supplies and materials.

“In the ’70s, people were still sewing clothes at home and they’d come in to match a sweater with fabric to make a skirt,” Dorr said. “In the ’70s, we sold more wool fabric for sewing than any other store probably on the East Coast.”

But with the rise of low-cost chain apparel stores, home sewing “diminished to where it’s not even a factor,” Dorr said. “We don’t even sell patterns anymore.”

As the sewing business tapered off in the 1980s, the Dorr Mill Store broadened its apparel lines from sweaters to include blouses, skirts and slacks. Sweaters were especially a strong selling item among vacationers and skiers visiting the area.

“The sweater business exploded in the ’80s. We’d see families come in with three daughters, each wanting a different Fairisle sweater,” Dorr related, referring to the popular crewneck pullover favored by a generation of preppies.

The heyday of apparel retailing lasted into the 1990s and even continued to chug along until the early 2000s, when it began to decline as online shopping took off.

Only 15 percent of the Dorr Mill Store’s sales now come from customers walking through the door, compared with 75 percent during the 1980s, Dorr said.

Today, 85 percent of the sales are either wholesale to other stores selling quilting and wool products to fiber artists or directly to the fiber artists themselves.

“When I was a kid of 8 and 9 years old, it was strictly a retail store, and my mom would drag me along while she would spend hours perusing different things,” said Jerry Thomas, a retired Springfield, Vt., elementary school teacher. “For a boy, it wasn’t the greatest thing in the world.”

But today Thomas is a fiber artist who buys “99 percent” of his wool from the Dorr Store, which he uses to make applique designs depicting animal, farm and country scenes he sells through Etsy and a handful of retail stores.

“It has one of the largest selections in the country. They are constantly bringing in new wools all the time,” he said. “It’s endless.”

Dorr points out that retail customers and even many of his wholesale customers are too small to purchase directly from a woolen manufacturer because the quantities they sell are measured in the thousands of yards.

But retailers may require only a couple hundred yards of a particular color and pattern, while a retail customer may need only a few yards. So the Dorr Mill Store acts as a wool bank of sorts between the manufacturer and wholesale customer, Dorr explained.

“They want to call up and say, ‘I need a roll’ or three rolls and have confidence that I have it in stock,” he said.

Despite the industry’s 19th-century roots and antiquated image (ironically the woolen industry was the high-tech manufacturing of the time through its pioneering of automation and mass production), Dorr said his business held up well during the most recent recession — and perhaps even because of it.

“When the economy is struggling, crafts have a tendency to do well,” said Dorr, who has been through several recessions during his four-plus decades in business. “It becomes a priority and there’s a social aspect to it (crafters frequently learn and work in groups) and something you can take pleasure working on.”

Thomas, the applique artist, said one day not long after he began to make his own designs he brought in a couple samples of his work to the Dorr Mill Store. The staff were taken with Thomas’ work and asked if they could carry his appliques for sale. He now supplies the store regularly with his handiwork.

“I attribute to them getting me started in all this,” Thomas said.

John Lippman can be reached at jlippman@vnews.com or 603-727-3219.