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Pendleton Woolen Mills – An Unlikely Surf Icon

Throughout history, there have been a rare few items in  your world that you can call by the manufacturer’s name and everyone knows the specific piece you’re talking about (Converse used to equal Chuck Taylors).

When I was young in the 80’s (late 80’s, thank you), saying you got new Timberlands for Christmas, of course, meant the Classic 6-inch in Wheat Nubuck, Levi’s were 501’s (now you need a degree in math to cipher the various models), and here on the West Coast, grabbing your Pendleton on the way to the beach meant the iconic plaid Board Shirt. Of course, all these brands made numerous things, but for a time they were embodied by that one style icon that captured our attention with its unique combination of form and functionality, grabbing a place in our pop culture consciousness.

The Pendleton Woolen Mills in Portland, Oregon 1914. Image via Oregon Encyclopedia.

The Pendleton Woolen Mills in Portland, Oregon 1914. Image via Oregon Encyclopedia.

For more than six generations and 153 years, Pendleton Woolen Mills, “has set the standard for American style…the company remains dedicated to its American heritage, authenticity and fabric craftsmanship.” No doubt, they make nice stuff.

If you grew up on the East Coast like I did, then your Pendleton reference is probably that of a blanket, their Native American designs a staple of cabiny, lodge decor everywhere (and now boutique hotels and all sorts of fancy pants collaborations). But if you spent your youth on the beaches of Southern California, you would no more head to the waves without your Pendleton than you would without your board.

Pendleton Woolen Mills blankets. Image via Drew's Boots.

Pendleton Woolen Mills blankets. Image via Drew’s Boots.

The thing that surprises many (it did me when I arrived here), is how much sense a wool shirt makes at the beach. It ain’t all balmy breezes–the “marine layer” that blocks the sun for the early morning makes it damn chilly on the way to catching those pre-work waves, and the evenings can be as crisp as a granny smith apple. (I live at the beach, and a 15-minute drive east can see temps 15 degrees higher, sometimes more.)

Since the 1950’s, the wool Board Shirt has been Pendleton’s best seller, made from “premium, machine washable wool sourced from local ranchers in Umatilla County, Oregon near our Pendleton mill.” There’s a nod to contemporary tailoring with a new “fitted” version, but in my opinion, the original boxy cut is the way to go (and no shirt-tails…only a landlubber would dare tuck it in).

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The Beach Boys née Pendletones in their wool board shirts.

In agreement were another California staple, The Beach Boys; or as they were originally known, “The Pendletones.” Brian and the boys sported matching blue plaid Board Shirts on several record albums and sleeves (carrying longboards…surfers they were not).

Image via Pendleton.

Image via Pendleton.

Before them, The Majorettes named-dropped the shirt in 1963’s “White Levis”: “My boyfriend’s always wearin’ white Levi’s…his surfin’ hat and a big plaid Pendleton shirt” (a look that wouldn’t be out of place in any SoCal coffee outpost today).

The original blue board shirt. Image via Iron and Resin.

The original blue board shirt. Image via Iron and Resin.

And while they do offer a few solids (grays and black), a true Pendleton is about the plaid, subdued classics and bold colorful statements alike (I’m eyeing the Grand Canyon). At first glance, you could mistake it for just another wool shirt, but upon closer inspection – and slipping into one – you immediately recognize it as something special. The confident attitude and casual, unintended elegance of it; utility + time = fashion (we know how that goes). Two square bottom pockets with buttoned flaps are the fanciest doo-dad, and you sense they may have skipped those had there been no need to stow surf wax and car keys. Whether it’s over board shorts at the beach or paired with khakis for apre’ wave burritos, a Pendleton looks perfectly at home.

At $125 a pop, West Coast cool doesn’t come cheap, but the best things in life rarely do. So whether you’re a surfer or just want to look like one (yes Beach Boys, I’m looking at you), add a Pendleton or two to your wardrobe. An unlikely surf icon is still an icon (unlike those OP corduroy shorts…nobody looked good in those).

You can pick one up and learn more about the mill at Pendleton.