Workshop of the World

stories of industry in & around Philadelphia

Wilde Yarn Mill, 1884
3737 Main Street, Philadelphia PA 19004

Sara Jane Elk, Workshop of the World (Oliver Evans Press, 1990).

John Wilde and Brother, Inc., remains as a family owned woolen carpet yarn mill in continuous operation at this location since 1884, giving it the distinction of the oldest American carpet yarn company still in existence. 1 The complex of three buildings stands at the lower end of Manayunk, once a part of an industrial landscape that included the Pencoyd Iron Works, later the American Bridge Company, and the Wissahickon Plush Mill. Surviving as the last of these, the Wilde mill now serves as the gateway to Manayunk from the south, as proclaimed in the sign painted on the Main Street mill.
 
In 1882 brothers John and Thomas Wilde started the construction of a mill on Cresson Street near the intersection of Ridge Avenue.
2 This effort came two years after they had purchased two sets of cards and a mule, and had begun a carpet yarn business, spinning wool on the fifth floor of S.S. Keely's Enterprise Mill. 3 The Wilde's new mill, oriented toward Cresson Street, bares a significant resemblance to the pattern of mill construction prevalent throughout Manayunk toward the end of the nineteenth century. With its rubble stone walls and red brick trim, the mill follows the type built by S.S. Keely. Having been tenants of Keely, it appears likely that he would have constructed their mill. When completed two years later, the date 1884 was laid into the brickwork of its smoke stack where it is still clearly visible from Ridge Avenue. 4
 
The process of spinning carpet yarn from wool stock has not changed much over the years, with the exception of the introduction of labor saving devices and the evolution of improvements to those machines.
5 At John Wilde and Brother the acquisition of such machines led, in part, to the expansion of the mill. In 1932 the reinforced concrete and brick mill on Main Street was constructed down the rocky hillside from the earlier mill. Its structural system required fewer interior piers which resulted in more open space to accommodate larger, more modern machinery. Presently this mill houses the carding, twisting, spinning, and winding machinery. The carpet yarn process at the Wilde mill currently takes place in three buildings, the last one added in 1983; designed by Reshetar Architect, Inc., the reinforced concrete structure embellished with terra cotta tile, stands atop a rubble rock foundation (of the earlier Wissahickon Plush Mill) next to the first mill and serves as a warehouse.
 
Bales of scoured wool from a variety of world markets arrive at the Wilde mill and are delivered to the warehouse, maintaining the inventory necessary to anticipate and fill its orders.
6 From there the bales are fork-lifted into the top floor of the 1884 mill for blending. As much of the finish product of the mill consists of natural colored yarns, an assortment of wools makes up the inventory. The technique of blending the various colors achieves the distinction in the yarns. On this same floor six large Lumming feeding machines combine different types of wool to make a homogeneous blend layers, or the blended wool. Next the wool travels to a baling machine. Forced air blows it down to the floor below where it is compressed, strapped and stored as bales. To insure a good blend, the wool is put through this process three times. On one of the passes, a lubricant is added to aid in the processing and a pre-carder opens the fibers in preparation for carding.
 
The spinning of a customer's order begins when the bales leave the old mill and slide on an enclosed incline down the hillside between the two mill buildings, landing near the carding machines. Situated on the top floor of the new mill, six large Davies and Ferber carding machines use toothed rollers to comb the fibers of the wool straight. With accurate measuring devices these machines weigh the raw wool before carding to establish the size of the finished yarn.
7 The product of carding, called roving, looks like finished yarn but has no twist and no strength. Wound on large spools, the roving leaves this floor for the one below where it is placed on continuous ring spinning machines to add the twist. The machines stretch and twist the roving as it is wound onto smaller bobbins. Twisting machines fitted with several bobbins of different yarns twist them together to achieve the desired number of ply. The Wilde Mill has a Saco-Lowell overhead creel twisting machine on the second floor of the newer mill and Whitin twisting machines on the ground floor of the same mill. The final process before shipping, involves moving the finished yarns on a winding machine from the mill’s wooden bobbins onto paper cones or tubes for shipping and use by the customer.
 
Two other machines, which survive from earlier days of textile production are still in use here. A picker, used for picking spun yarn, returns it to the appearance of the raw wool. This mill uses the picker for its small pieces of yarn called hard waste. The other machine, a willow or duster, removes short unusable fibers from waste known as fly, also returning it to pre-combed wool.  Both the willow and the pickers were manufactured by W.M. Schofield of Manayunk and patented in 1929.
 
John Wilde and Brother, Inc. and Robert Krook, Inc., 4120 Main Street, survive in Manayunk among the stiff competition of corporate giants, paralleling the recent history of industry in America. Within the last twenty years in Manayunk, six yarn mills have closed, the last, Blankin Yarn Company, as recently as two years ago.

1  Interview with Russell Fawley, Jr. and Larry Mason, October 26, 1989. Notes located at the Philadelphia Historical Commission, Philadelphia, PA. Mr. Fawley, great grandson of James Wilde and the present owner of John Wilde and Bro., Inc., and Mr. Mason, manager of the mill since 1978, related that six woolen carpet yarns mills remain in production in the United States and two of those operate in Manayunk. The other, Robert Krook, Inc., now at 4120 Main Street, started in the Philadelphia neighborhood of Kensington in 1899.
2  Russell Fawley, Jr., "The Wilde Affair," Call of the Wilde , (Fall, 1985), p. 4. John and Thomas Wilde emigrated from Manchester, England, in 1860 with their father James Wilde. The records and family recollections appear sketchy, but it is probable that the thriving textile center of Philadelphia attracted James to Manayunk to work in the textile trade. Family records indicate he may have had prior experience spinning in textile mills in England.
3  Fawley, p. 4. Cards comb the fibers of wool straight to enable spinning. A mule, now a dinosaur, drew the carded wool out and added a twist, producing yarn. More advanced spinning machines, such as the continuous ring spinning frame, required less space and eventually replaced the mules. Lorin Blodget. The Textile Mills of Philadelphia, 1880, pg. 37, lists the Wilde Brothers with two cards and 600 spindles, occupying the fifth floor of 50' x 180' in Keely's Enterprise Mill, spinning wool carpet yarn. Although the brothers' names are not listed, it is safe to assume their identity. This Keely mill appears to have been built for speculation as it was fully occupied by textile tenants. Robert Wilde, another carpet yarn spinner in Manayunk, has a separate listing, spinning in another location.
4  The location of this mill was described in early documents as Wissahickon rather than Manayunk. The earlier form of Ridge Avenue may not have created as distinctive a barrier between the contemporary community known as Wissahickon and the mill. Both Wilde brothers resided on Sumac Street in Wissahickon.
5  Mason interview.
6  Mason interview. Scouring removed the grease, or lanoline, from the sheared wool, as burring removed the vegetable and plant matter left in the wool from the animal's natural encounter with its environment.
7  According to Mason, this method of determining yarn size in known as the Philadelphia system.


Update May 2007 (by Sara Jane Elk):
John Wilde and Brother, Inc., Blankin Yarn Company (converted by Dranoff Properties as part of Venice Lofts in 2007) and Robert Krook, Inc. (4120 Main Street, now retail), survived in Manayunk among the stiff competition of corporate giants, paralleling the recent history of industry in America. Within the last twenty years in Manayunk, six yarn mills have closed. By 2000, Blankin and Krook were gone, leaving John Wilde as the last survivor.

See also:
Wilde Yarns - corporate website.