J.L.Stifel and Sons, a textile manufacturing brand, was the foremost cotton production company in West Virginia from 1835 to 1956 and was known for quality, indigo-dyed cotton calicoes. Calico, one of the oldest cotton products around, was a popular plain weave textile in no more than two or three colors. Softer and thinner than canvas or denim but durable and affordable, it was once widely used in workwear clothing. Common motifs included polka dots, flowers and dotted lines as found in bandanas and ticking.
German immigrant J.L. Stifel first brought his skills as an apprentice dyer and calico printer to the United States in 1833. After spending a brief time working in Philadelphia and then in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania at a local woolen mill, he decided to head to West Virginia, walking most of the distance barefoot in order to preserve his shoes. Poor and alone, Stifel arrived in the growing town of Wheeling, spending the winter working at a local farm. His interest in textile dying returned, however, and in 1835, he spent what little money he had on a single bolt of unbleached cotton from the local mill, hand-dyed and sold it, then used the proceeds to buy another. A business was soon born.
As the town of Wheeling was connected to the rest of the country through national roadways and the Ohio River, it quickly became a destination for labor and industry, especially steel and cigar production. The large workforce required to sustain these industries needed low cost, durable garments, and J. L. Stifel saw to it that its needs would be met, marking the beginning of a prolific enterprise.
Later that same year Stifel married Barbara Becht and their small business soon grew. In 1859, he asked sons Louis and William to join the company, and J. L. Stifel & Sons quickly became known for its high quality handcrafted textile, hand pressing each piece of material with carved wooden stamps coated in ink resist, then dying the cotton in large indigo dye baths, creating a fabric that was both aesthetically pleasing and hard wearing. The company continued to use this technique until the introduction of mechanical processes at the end of the century. By the turn of the century, a third generation of Stifels managed production that included a 70,000 square foot plant employing 50 workers. At this time the company logo, a boot with the word “stifle” inside, was born, and as the word literally meant ‘boot” in German), it was fitting. A simple error – stamping the logo on the inside rather than the patterned side – became a mark of quality, and customers in countries as far as India, Africa, Latin America, and the Philippines chose to wear their garments inside out. Stifel wisely promoted itself largely through print ads and signage that would hang in dry goods stores. The signs would sometimes show neatly folded stacks of cloth with a detailed view of the prints, but often the products were seen in action; on a railway brakeman in overalls or a child in a romper. These prosaic signs claimed the “garments [were] sold by dealers everywhere” though the company was a maker “of cloth only.” In the twenty-first century, while labels or designers may be familiar to the consumer, rarely, if ever, is the maker of the fabric. This may be a testament to the fact that making one’s own garments was more common then than it is now. Stifel finally closed its doors in 1957. Pressure from foreign imports, increased prices of raw cotton and the introduction of new synthetics in the textile market led W. Flaccus Stifel, the last company president, to conclude that “the dyeing, printing and finishing of cotton goods just could not be done economically and competitively under current conditions.”
It’s not hard to understand why clothing created for an industrial workforce would demand durability over style. Workwear makers today still advertise hard-wearing products, but the textile is rarely credited. Materials, whether for clothing, furnishings, or technological gadgets tend to remain obscure. It’s only at the very high end of the market, where exclusivity sets it apart, that we hear about the origin of a textile and its virtues, like a fine silk or a rare species of wood. Though produced at such a high volume, Stifel calicoes managed to intertwine these very virtues with quality and craftsmanship, reminding us that the two need not be mutually exclusive.