U.S. company’s high-tenacity, waxed polyester thread for hand sewing is standing the test of time.
By Lynn Ascrizzi
The historic Pepperell Mill, situated along the Androscoggin River in Lewiston, Maine, is a monumental testimony to America’s bustling 19th century manufacturing era. Built in 1876, the brick behemoth first functioned as a bleachery and dye works for the city’s booming textile mills.
But after WWI, mill towns like Lewiston began to decline. Hydroelectricity replaced waterpower and businesses moved south for cheaper transportation and labor. Around the late 1950s, the city’s big mills began to close. As jobs left, so did people. And then, by the 1980s, the once-thriving New England footwear industry crashed.
But for the past 55 years, and seemingly against all odds, the old Pepperell has provided a roomy two-floor, 16,000-square-foot workspace for the resilient and creatively evolving manufacturing business, Maine Thread & Machine Company.
“You can still see the remnants of old pulleys that drove the machinery — once all water powered by the Androscoggin,” said company owner and operator, Rusty Vallee. Although he is well-versed in the history of local industry, his made-in-USA product now is sold, not just regionally, but around the world.
“We manufacture 100 percent, high-tenacity, waxed polyester thread made for hand use only — for people who sew by hand or for handcrafting. You don’t use it on a sewing machine. Its not for machine use,” Rusty, 57, explained. “Our thread is offered in 36 colors and in three different ways — on a single end tube, a multiple end reel or cut to length with tapered ends.”
The family company also distributes a variety of industrial sewing threads, such as polished cotton cord and made-in-USA, bonded nylon thread, cotton splicing or lacing thread for rug braiding and pre-wound bobbins. Miscellaneous items, such as canvas tool bags and C.S. Osborne harness needles, are also offered.
Rusty Vallee’s grandfather, Alfred “Honey” Baril, founded Maine Thread in 1965. “That was where we started. Back in the day, the local footwear industry was 100 percent of our business,” Rusty recalled, referring to the bygone era when Maine and New England were footwear industry giants.
His dad, Ron Vallee, began to work for his father-in-law, “Honey” Baril, while still in high school. He joined the company in 1977, after his service in the U.S. Navy.
Rusty stepped in to work with his dad in 1985, after he graduated from the University of Maine at Orono. By that time, Maine Thread’s focus was largely shifting from U.S. sales to building a solid customer base with overseas footwear manufacturers. “Rusty has navigated the uncertainty of this industry,” Ron, 78, said, in appreciation of his son’s steady contribution during difficult changes in the industry.
“Now, I’d say that probably 65 percent of our thread business is from the footwear industry in America and abroad. We get email orders from shoe factories in countries like Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Canada, India, El Salvador, Mexico and The Dominican Republic,” Rusty said.
To make tapered, hand-sewing threads, 12 strands of thread are wound onto reels. “During production, we pull from two reels at a time to cut 24 strands to length at once. These groups of 24 strands, or ‘hanks,’ are then tapered, so they can be used to hand sew shoes,” he explained.
Their waxed polycord with hackled or tapered ends is also being used by U.S.-based footwear companies, like Sperry, L. L. Bean, Rancourt & Co. Shoecrafters, San Antonio Shoemakers, W.C. Russell Moccasin Co., G.H. Bass & Co., Quoddy Inc., Allen Edmonds and White’s Boots.
Rounding out its bulk thread sales is the company’s convenient line of smaller 70-yard spools. About 10 years ago, Rusty came up with the successful idea to boost sales.
“These smaller ‘put-ups’ satisfy the ‘makers’ — the do-it-yourselfers and small cottage industries — people who need short runs,” he said. “The exact same, high-tenacity, polyester filament thread and yarns that we do for the factories, is the same ‘up-to-spec’ material we do for the makers. Our product is strong and it’s going to last.”
The 70-yard spools are sold retail at the company website and wholesaled to a dozen distributors, such as Silver Creek Leather Co., of Jeffersonville, Indiana. “We wind our waxed cord onto preprinted cards for Silver Creek,” Rusty said. “I can go into a craft store like Hobby Lobby and look for their Realeather brand cards and find our thread. They’ve been great customers.”
Among handcrafters who order 70-yard spools are a number of uniquely creative businesses, like Sea Bags based in Portland, Maine. “They take old sails, cut them up and make bags out of them. They started whipping the end of the rope handles with Maine Thread,” he noted.
Then there’s Found My Animal, a leash company in Kingston, New York. “They use our waxed cord to whip the ends of their rope leashes,” Rusty added. Recently, he got an order for Melvin Reeds, a custom bagpipe reed-making shop in Streamwood, Illinois. “They use our thinner waxed cord to wrap around the bagpipe reed.”
Another customer is an envelope company. “They needed the right red thread to wrap around a small button closure on their manila envelopes. Their supplier had changed threads and the envelope company reached out to us.”
Today, Maine Thread has seven employees and sells to roughly 1,225 companies, large and small. Rusty keeps busy doing administrative work and hands-on projects, like waxing thread in the factory’s upstairs production space.
The fact that the business has more than survived the mass exodus of the U.S. shoe industry is due in large part to the long experience and adaptability of its succession of family owners. And, it’s a testimony to the tensile strength of its waxed thread.
On its Facebook page, browsers can watch a break-test being done on Maine Thread’s .045-inch waxed polycord, “which breaks, on average, at about 64 pounds,” Rusty noted. “It just shows you that we’re using high-tenacity yarns to make our product.”
For a number of years, his dad, Ron, has been taking on a popular customer service project — putting together complimentary sample thread cards. “He cuts the waxed threads, puts the cards together by hand and types a personal letter. No one does it that way anymore. He made it work. They’re a great little product,” Rusty said.
“We give attention to every customer,” he added. “We answer the phone. If you want to talk to someone else, we transfer the call just like the old days.”
SPARK OF ENTHUSIASM
In the summer of 2019, shortly before the COVID crisis blasted the country and world, Rusty’s daughter, Jennifer “Jenn” Ritchie, stepped in to work at the family business. When she came aboard, Maine Thread became a four-generation enterprise.
A University of Maine graduate, she worked for about four years in elementary education in Lewiston. She brought to her new job site a fresh, creative outlook and an instinct for new product design and development. She also updates the company website and tends to social media platforms and sales outreach.
“I do a little bit of everything including some production. There’s room to grow into and forge a new position as well. I’m taking some of my strengths and applying them to a new realm,” Jenn, 28, said.
“Some days, that means I spend time sewing specialty products for customers, such as tool bags. I spend a lot of time operating a small winder, to wind thread onto cards. About 25 yards of waxed polyester thread go onto each card and are sold in craft stores under another brand name.
“Basically, when I first started here, dad and I had conversations,” she continued. “I wondered what else I could do about selling the smaller spools. Since we sell thread, I got to thinking about what people are using it for.”
One of her recent marketing ideas is The Maine Thread Color Collection. Each maker-friendly kit offers 34 different thread colors wrapped on small tubes. Each tube offers 10 yards of thread. A collection also includes two harness needles and costs $39.90.
“The kit makes a nice looking, complete set that people can buy as a gift or starter kit,” she said. “In a cottage industry business or for people doing leatherwork as a hobby, a lot of people only get a few thread colors at a time. This kit is a good way to give people access to all these colors.”
The factory’s production team makes the colored thread for the Color Collection and winds the threads on little pencil tubes. “Once the tubes are wound, I trim them all nice and tight and arrange them in a box with an insert with our logo stamped on it. I add the two harness needles and the info sticker that details the contents of the kit and has our website address.”
The kits, she said, are doing well. “It’s nice for us and our customers to see how our thread is used in different products. We’re starting to make larger volumes of the kits. A wholesaler, The Buckle Guy, is starting to sell them. They carry our whole line of waxed polyester threads and wanted to pick up the Color Collection as well.
“It’s a very new product, released this past fall. People are starting to know we have it. It’s on our website, and at Instagram and Amazon, as a standalone product. We’ve got customers showing interest, which is encouraging. We also sell Maine Thread products on Amazon.”
One of her earlier marketing ideas, also designed to appeal to handcrafters, is a set of four thread colors that work well together, such as standard black, white, brown and natural.
“I also have a seasonal set called Autumn. Its colors look and feel like the season — olive, burnt orange, ecru (the color of undyed linen) and gold-brown.” In the works this past fall was a holiday palette with scarlet, Kelly green, white and candy cane, designed with a red-and-white twist. “In this way, we’re offering something different on our website all year,” she said.
Her presence during the pandemic has been helping to keep moods buoyant and creativity flowing. “She is an artist. Any company is energized by the younger generation,” her grandfather, Ron, said.
“She does a real good job,” her dad echoed. “She’s organized. She has put together spreadsheets for our inventory, so we can track things even more efficiently.”
THE WAY DOWN IS THE WAY UP
Before the calendar year turned to 2020, business at Maine Thread was sailing on an even keel. Then, along came COVID.
“It all went quiet from March to the beginning of September,” Rusty said. “All the factories in Indonesia, El Salvador, Mexico, India and the like, stopped making shoes. Shoe stores closed. Everybody had to hunker down. That part of the business went dark.”
But a silver lining shimmered amid the clouds. “Our smaller ‘put-ups’ went crazy. Sales of our 70-yard spools jumped about 25 percent. It made a difference and it helped. We were able to make it through,” he said.
Also this past October, shoe factories like Sperry, a 75-year-old company based in Massachusetts that makes hand-stitched, boat shoes, top siders, sandals and boots with U.S. sourced leather, started to go again. “And, we started shipping to places like Indonesia. Orders continue to come in. Some other factory orders are getting more regular.”
Meanwhile, in a crowded world marketplace, competition keeps growing.
“There is a lot of competition,” Rusty acknowledged. “Leatherworkers find a waxed thread they like and stick to it. But we’re not staying stagnant. We’ve got our niche product. And, we’ve got a lot of people who think our thread is pretty darn good! They know the quality and the service they’re getting when they get ours.”
MAINE THREAD & MACHINE COMPANY
550 Lisbon St.
Lewiston, ME 04240
Rusty Valley, owner & operator
Facebook: Maine Thread Company