Dehen knitting company portland oregon since 1920 for William Peter Dehen emigrated from his native Germany to the United States in 1903. He brought with him an incredibly strong work ethic, a healthy respect for tradition, and a fearless, pioneering spirit. He was equal parts pround of his heritage and thankful to his adopted country that presented him with a whole new world of opportunities.In America, William and his brother Matthias had a reputation for being driven young entrepreneurs unafraid to take some risks, William worked at Golden State Knitting in San Francisco, and on the side worked with his brother, running liquor from Canada to the United States. While the side job was profitable, it soon landed the Dehen brothers on the worng side of the law, and each received a short jail sentence. William got out first and graciously offfered to take care of his brother’s girlfriend, Celia, who unsurprisingly fell for William’s famous charm. Soon they were planning a wedding.William moved his new bride north, to focus on opportunities of a more legal nature. After spending some time both in Port Angeles and Seattle, they eventually settled in Portland, Oregon. William found work as the night knitting manager at Jantzen Knitting Mills, and the family settled down in Portland’s Goose Hollow neighborhood.William never lost his entrepreneurial spirit or his appetite for risk, and after cobbling together his savings and a bit of borrowed money; he left Jantzen and formed Dehen Knitting Company in 1920.Business boomed. The company outgrew its shop, and moved into a new facility in what was then the eastern edge of Portland at Southeast 86th and Stark Street (in present day Montavilla). The company provided a steady income, and William and Celia were able to provide a great life for their three young children. Then the depression hit.The market crash meant that most of Dehen’s customers, who paid with credit, were unable to pay their bills. The bank foreclosed on the factory, but William was undeterred, paying a visit to his padlocked mill in the dead of night. When the bank officers visited the property the next day, they found that the knitting equipment had disappeared.If they visited the Dehen’s home, they might have noticed a hole in the kitchen floor, from which protruded the top of a particularly tall knitting machine. Operations never ceased; the knitting just happened in the basement of their home, and William peddled his sweaters door to door, sometimes taking food as payment.By 1936, business was back on track with orders for school sweaters and work apparel piling up. A retail store was opened on 10th and Yamhill in downtown Portland, and the Dehen kids, led by their youngest sibling Bill, began to learn the trade from their father.Things got more serious with the approach of World War II. Bill joined the Navy, the company battled the scarcity of wool and other materials, and William helped his Jewish friends get safely out of Germany.Once the war was over, business surged, and new markets opened up for Dehen. They added car coats, motorcycle togs and other new styles to their repertoire, and expanded their school business into varsity jackets and cheerleading uniforms. Bill returned from the war, rejoined the family company, and hired other veterans to sell on the road to small town men’s stores across the west.Slowly but surely William handed the reins of Dehen over to Bill and his brother Henry, and the brothers carried on their father’s legacy of producing high quality woolens. Like their father, Bill and Henry did not subscribe to any notions that race, religion, or class affected a person’s worth. In the 1940’s they hired Otto Rutherford, without giving much thought to the color of his skin. While the hiring of a black man was newsworthy at the time, the fact that he was African American made no difference to them.Otto’s determined spirit made him fit in well with the Dehens; he started as a machine mechanic and developed into a master knitter. He was also instrumental in organizing a union at the company, ran the Portland chapter of the NAACP, and played a part in getting a key anti-discrimination bill passed by the Oregon legislature.Dehen never ceased to be a family business. At one time or another all ten of Bill’s children worked there, as well as several of their Dehen cousins. Just like their father, all of the Dehen kids started in the factory on weekends, after school, and during their summer breaks. They learned the craft from their older cousins and siblings, and shared not only an appreciation for the art of knitting, but also a deep respect for the family business that William had built.The company opened a new downtown store near the waterfront on 2nd and Alder, and built a state-of-the art knitting mill and apparel factory on Flanders and 10th street in Northwest Portland (in the present day Pearl District). Dehen grew to over a hundred employees, expanded into new product areas, and invested in new machinery that would allow them to knit cotton and other materials.While the business grew and their capabilities expanded, Dehen held close to its traditional ways. Quality never wavered, corners were never cut, and the company continued to focus on the small “mom and pop” retailers that had been with them all along.The tide turned again during the late 20th century, with change in the country and the world hitting Dehen’s business head on.Just as Dehen had expanded its manufacturing capabilities, the consumer landscape in the US shifted to one based primarily on low cost Asian imports. Fueled by the expansion of Big Box stores and their discount pricing, consumer sentiment shifted away from long-lasting, high-quality apparel, and toward the inexpensive goods that were flowing in from overseas. Dehen was not in the business of manufacturing cheap, disposable goods, and could not compete on price with the overseas factories who were. It was a consumer trend that more or less killed American manufacturing and Main Street retailers – the “mom and pop” stores that were the backbone of Dehen’s business.At the end of the century, Dehen remained, but to survive it had to embrace some change. By the late 90’s, Dehen had evolved, increasingly relying on those consumers looking for custom manufacturing and exceptional service. Ever the innovators, the Dehen family stayed true to their craft while thinking of new ways to reach the people out there who still valued quality products, made to last.Dehen persevered and continues to provide crafted product, still made in Portland, Oregon, often on machines that are older than the people that operate them.In addition to manufacturing product for well known brands in the US and Japan, Dehen has stayed true to its roots – manufacturing custom jackets and sweaters, outfitting cheer squads across the US, and working with the 2nd and 3rd generations of family businesses that have grown up relying on Dehen.At Dehen, we feel it is important to know where you came from in order to know where you’re going. We came from a place where history, integrity, and excellence matter – not fads, gimmicks, or quick fixes. Our story is a source of pride that sets the bar for us as we continue to grow.William Dehen first built his business by knitting unique heavyweight wool sweaters that withstood the test of time. Today, well into its third generation, the Dehen family is still committed to the tradition of manufacturing distinctive apparel, using time honored methods and the highest quality materials. Dehen has survived market crashes, world wars and fashion fads, and continues to provide both brands and consumers with quality product, honesstly made.
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