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Dehen Knitting Co. – Sweater Weather’s Best Friend

Sweater weather. Is there any pairing of words that evokes a cozier, more comforting feeling? (And these days, don’t we all need as much cozy comfort as we can get?) While I have embraced the sun-loving Southern California lifestyle—and the weather that enables it—when I lived in New York I anxiously awaited the first day it was chilly enough to slip into a sweater, as a woolen Autumn in New York makes the sweltering summers bearable. (You could be bare naked on a subway platform in August and still find no relief from the heat—believe me, I’ve seen more than one man who tried.)

For the last five years, a sweater is about the heaviest piece of clothing I’ve worn, and I imagine (and hope and pray) that someday soon I’ll be allowed to travel again to places other than my couch and the grocery store (to buy more cookies I keep in the kitchen and eat on the couch), so I like having a selection of warmer weather options to keep my thinning blood toasty.

For me, there is no sweater weatherier brand I can think of than Dehen Knitting Co., and the sweater weatheriest (last time, promise) option they offer is to me their Varsity number. Before I tell you all about mine, let’s hear all about the origins of this legendary piece and the company that made it from Jim Artaiz, the current president and owner.

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Early days at Dehen

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The Dehen Tradition begins…

Heddels (John Bobey): Dehen has a long and storied history–what’s one thing that people don’t know that might surprise them?

Dehen (Jim Artaiz): Not sure if this is known or not, but Dehen has been up and running continuously since 1920—always family owned and family run. It never closed. It was never sold. We are not a licensee.

I bring this up because the company was founded on the heels of WWI and the Spanish Flu, and has survived the Great Depression, World War II, military conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, civil unrest in the 1960s and 1970s, the Great Recession, and now, of course, COVID and the domestic upheaval surrounding our racial and economic inequality. When you actually verbalize this you realize the strength and resilience shown over ten decades by this company. I’d say that’s pretty surprising and commendable!

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Vintage Dehen Varsity Sweater

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The Dehen Varsity Sweater 2020

H: Since the 1920’s, you’ve been making your varsity sweater for athletes, motorcycle clubs, and gangly writers (or maybe i’m the first?)…does this garment have an “origin story?”

D: I’m uncertain of the origin of this particular design. Of course, the button front cardigan precedes Dehen 1920. The addition of sleeve striping, which represented the number of years an athlete achieved Varsity status in a particular sport, has been around since our founding.

Dehen, and similar regional manufacturers, would initially knit a single stripe on a sleeve and later cut and re-knit onto the same sleeve additional stripes when an athlete earned another year of varsity status. This is why you’ll find photos of single stripes, two stripes and three stripes on sweaters. A four-striped sweater was owned and earned by only the top athletes of their day.

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H: Has it ever been out of production?

D: We’ve been fortunate to have produced this particular sweater for 100 years! I’d dare say that there hasn’t been a year in our history when it wasn’t produced. Of course it has waxed and waned in popularity over time. There were decades when it was ubiquitous; found on every high school and college campus in the country. Today, a varsity cardigan is less associated with athletics but is more of a fashion statement—clean, classic, and traditional.

H: To what do you attribute its enduring appeal?

D: Well, it’s certainly handsome, right? And there’s something official about it, something that signifies a certain achievement and status. And today it’s a bit nostalgic, reminding us of past generations, perhaps America’s heyday.  

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H: Describe the machinery and manufacturing techniques that go into knitting the varsity sweater…

D: Dehen knits its own 100% wool fabric on 1950s era flatbed knitting machines. The fabric is created with a jersey stitch using three or four feeds of a double plied yarn. Our heavyweight fabric has become our signature, especially in today’s market. We typically knit sleeve fabric with the iconic stripes on one machine and bodies on another.

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H: How much time…how many steps…how many people are involved in the production of just one sweater?

D: If you include Teresa, the person responsible for procuring the actual raw material, there are seven employees involved in every sweater that we produce. Once the yarn is in the building, a knitter creates the fabric while another employee finishes the fabric by steaming and straightening it. Cutting cuts by hand each individual sweater. 

One sewer can construct a varsity cardigan. Buttons and buttonholes are the responsibility of one employee. And finally the sweater is inspected, pressed, folded, hang-tagged and bagged for shipping or inventory by yet another. Start to finish, seven employees contributing a total of approximately six hours.

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H: I was wearing my sweater in a store here in town, one that carried a similar product that was made overseas. A salesman commented on how much he liked mine, then suggested it was, “better than it needed to be.” He clearly didn’t get it…how do you respond to that kind of attitude?

D: Sounds like sour grapes? Given his comment, he obviously liked your sweater. But listen; everyone is different. And we all value things differently. Quality costs. If you’re looking for a garment that will literally last a lifetime, you’re going to have to pay a little more. But you are buying value. And substance. And we’re making our sweaters here in Portland, Oregon, paying a living wage. Dehen sweaters are long lasting, generational items. Not everyone is looking for that, nor can for that matter, afford it. We get it.

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Dehen in the heyday of American textile industry

H: Is there anything about being based in Portland, some quality of life or makeup of the people, that finds its way into the clothing Dehen makes into my sweater?

D: I wish that I could say yes. But the fact is, there were dozens of small manufacturers around the country, perhaps hundreds, doing the exact same thing that Dehen was (and is) doing 70 years ago. Our quality was not as unique back then. But as has been well chronicled by Heddels over the years, the U.S. apparel manufacturing industry is a far cry from what it once was.

Dehen is one of only a handful of surviving companies producing with the same focus and techniques as it has been for the last century. I will say, though, that ‘s been a groundswell over the last number of years of new Makers here in Portland, committed to both quality and sustainability. It makes this an exciting time!

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Dehen T-Shirt

H: Is there some element of design or aspect of manufacturing found in the varsity sweater that represents Dehen’s larger business philosophy?

D: Heavy Duty Old School Truth has become our Mission Statement and rallying cry here at Dehen 1920. Our Varsity Cardigan certainly embodies this philosophy. We choose to produce classic, traditional, lasting products, while still developing styles well suited for today’s market.

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The label celebrating 100 years of Dehen

H: Congratulations on your 100th birthday as a company, though it’s less than an ideal time for a centennial celebration. Can we at least count on a reliable supply of Dehen varsity sweaters for the next 100 years?

D: Well, it’s been a tough year for everyone, right? Plans had to be scaled back. We’re celebrating our 100th year in true Dehen style, a bit understated. We created a striking Anniversary woven neck label that has been placed in every garment produced in 2020. And we have some commemorative items, including a Century Club Varsity Jacket and a range of Anniversary graphic tees.

Also, we just completed twenty-five weeks of “Business Family Friday” IG posts honoring our team! Have you been following along? And finally, here’s a little teaser: Dehen 1920 will soon have its own retail store within our factory, where customers can not only purchase our products but also get a glimpse of our manufacturing process. You’ll have to come and check it out! Let’s see, another 100 years? If I were a betting man…

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This is the second installment in my Big Man on Campus series (Golden Bear varsity Jackets being the first), where I champion and wear clothing celebrating my imagined athletic prowess.

In a sweater this fine, there’s no way you can help but feel worthy of dating the head cheerleader (even though we all now know she ended up having six kids and now sells real estate in Schenectady). It’s a nice and weighty gauge of wool, and the knit construction is as fine if not finer that a lot of suiting I’ve seen. I’m in an XL and still have plenty of sleeve to be able to roll the cuffs and comfortably (mostly) button up the front over my…roundish front. (It’s 25 pounds of quarantine weight or I’m six-months pregnant.)

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It’s the finest sweater I own, and feel confident that fact won’t change, ever. Quality like this don’t come cheap—it’ll cost you $325 at the Dehen site, but that’s a steal when you consider that it will likely (if you can keep the moths and sticky-fingered college kids away), be in your closet for Dehen’s bicentennial. I mean, why buy five different sweaters when you’ll just want to wear this one all the time anyway?