Suite Magazine: The Company Making Heritage Knitwear in Portland

Tucked into the far corner of a Northeast Portland warehouse is a quartet of ceaselessly clicking machines knitting thin strands of wool yarn into thick bolts of fabric. Metallic relics similar in shape and intricacy to the insides of upright pianos, the machines continuously create the miles of heavyweight fabric that have been at the heart of Dehen Knitting Company for nearly 100 years.

Once knit, that rich fabric is laid out on long tables and cut into patterns alongside mouton fur, water-resistant wax canvas, velvety leather, and satin lining ready to take shape as Dehen’s signature sweaters and jackets. The piles of pattern pieces are wheeled past double-decker racks hung with old cheer uniforms and coats to the warehouse’s expert seamstresses, who bring those pieces of fabric to life.

A man in a workshop working on machinery

Founded in 1920 by William Peter Dehen, Dehen is one of the last remaining knitting companies in the Pacific Northwest. A multigenerational, family-owned business, Dehen first broke into the market making heavyweight apparel like varsity and collegiate sweaters in the 1920s, before supplying local motorcycle clubs with riding sweaters in the ’30s and high school and college students with custom varsity jackets in the ’50s. In the years since, Dehen has continued its legacy of tried-and-true, heavy-duty apparel. All of it is still designed, knit, cut, and sewn by hand in Portland, Oregon.

A man working in a workshop

For a true heritage company founded and operated in a city synonymous with bespoke goods and apparel, Dehen is still working on growing its public recognition, said owner Jim Artaiz, who is married to the founder’s granddaughter. Many Portlanders, Artaiz said, have likely never heard of the company, even though it has been in business for a century. He credits much of that to the company’s humble origins and its persistence when it comes to styles and designs. For most of its history, Dehen persevered in large part due to the ubiquity of varsity sweaters, letterman jackets, wool cheerwear, coach’s jackets, and rugby shirts unaffiliated with the company’s name. According to Artaiz, the company has always sought steady business over glitzy campaigns or hopes of acquisition. In 2011, the company launched its own brand, “Dehen 1920,” to claim some equity in its name and history while continuing to produce products for other clients.

“What’s interesting about Dehen, and maybe similar to other businesses of its day, is that I think the owner saw it as a way to make a living,” Artaiz said. “The company has never really blown its own horn, the company didn’t do that in the past. It did enough to raise kids, put food on the table, buy a home, but it wasn’t opulent, it wasn’t high-end at all. It’s never been an easy business, apparel manufacturing.”

A close up of hands working with a tool on a table

Flip through the portfolio today—still menswear-focused, though womenswear is in the works—and you’ll see heavyweight cowlneck sweaters in rich hues, meticulously sewn varsity jackets featuring Pendleton wool, rugged waxed canvas work shirts, and timeless striped sweaters. These are what Artaiz calls “generational” products, or things a father may pass to his son, or a grandfather to grandson, grown out of the athletic marketplace.

“We weren’t chasing that fashion phenomenon. This is just what we do,” Artaiz said. “They say a broken clock is right twice a day. The market just came back to the style of what Dehen was making. … There are looks that come and go. A varsity jacket is never out. Sometimes it’s more popular than not, but we’ve been able to stay alive by making classic and true American menswear.”

A close up of hands attaching a zipper to a piece of clothing

Racks of shirts, jackets, and sweaters from the past several seasons hang inside a stark white office floating above the production floor that houses Dehen’s marketing and design department. Most designs have changed very little from their original incarnations; the shawl sweater still looks very much like the sweater your cool grandpa would wear and the work shirts now carry an extra diagonal buttonhole, a nod to pocket-watch wearers of yore. Others, like Dehen’s recent line of brightly hued jackets, are more fashion-oriented, but Artaiz and Dehen are still banking on those classic styles to carry the company into the next century.

“We continue to find new styles, develop new styles, but always have an eye towards longevity,” Artaiz said. “We don’t want to create something for this season and move on from it next season. We can’t afford to do that. So we’re really aiming at traditional looks, spins on traditional looks, spins on classic looks that we can get behind season after season.”

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