Minneapolis entrepreneur John Mooty spent a year living at the Lofts at International Market Square. They were perfect digs for someone so fascinated with manufacturing and textiles and proved a fruitful source of inspiration.
Mooty’s dad, Chuck, stopped over for a visit one day in 2013. On a whim, the pair — who had worked together on the relaunch of the Minnesota heritage brand Faribault Woolen Mill — decided to start researching old Minneapolis labels to see which trademarks were still unclaimed.
That’s when they stumbled upon Northwestern Knitting Co., formerly based in the very building in which Mooty was living.
International Market Square has long been known as a hub for interior design, but the building was also the birthplace of Munsingwear, an iconic underwear manufacturer that developed the Original Penguin brand. The Mootys found that the trademarks for Munsingwear and Penguin were owned by Perry Ellis International. But they were delighted to find that Northwestern Knitting Co., the original name for Munsingwear, was still available.
“It was a perfect fit for John,” said Chuck, who explained that the younger Mooty has a passion for “rekindling history” and “bringing a new angle and relevance” to classic brands.
Established in 1888
Northwestern Knitting was established in 1888, when two Minneapolis milling tycoons invested in George Munsing’s method of knitting wool fibers with silk or cotton to make underwear less itchy. The company eventually became the world’s largest underwear manufacturer, changing its name to Munsingwear in 1923. The factory was closed in 1981.
John Mooty fell in love with textiles while working as Faribault Woolen Mill’s marketing and creative director from 2011 to 2015. He was drawn to Northwestern Knitting for its history and its innovative manufacturing method. Through his Faribault Woolen Mill connections, he met up with a North Carolina textile manufacturer that was developing a knitting method similar to the original Northwestern Knitting approach. So he partnered with that company, called Coville, to develop the exclusive Merino Dual Cloth, a combination of fine merino wool with a cotton/synthetic blend and Spandex.
“The story wouldn’t have been there if there wasn’t this fabric component,” Mooty said. “It comes down to the combination of the historical significance with this updated proprietary fabric.”
Keeping it small
While its knitting technique is inspired by tradition, the Northwestern Knitting product line is thoroughly modern. Taking a page from the so-called “ath-luxury” trend, the line has four basic designs: a pullover hoodie, a crew-neck sweatshirt, a heavy T-shirt and a jogger-style trouser. The pieces are priced from $95 to $150. They are technically sized for men, but Mooty said women also shop the collection.
How does the clothing come to life? Reams of Merino Dual Cloth are shipped from North Carolina to New York City’s Garment District to be cut and sewn. From there, the pieces travel back to Minneapolis for finishing touches — including the addition of a signature striped “badge,” knit at century-old family-owned Minnesota Knitting Mills in Mendota Heights.
The relaunch of Northwestern Knitting runs parallel to Mooty’s other business, the popular North Loop store Wilson & Willy’s, which opened in early 2015. Described as a “modern general store focused on thoughtfully made products,” Wilson & Willy’s sells exclusive products created in collaboration with its roster of U.S. makers and manufacturers. The basement of the store is now a dedicated shop for Northwestern Knitting.
“Both ideas came around the same time,” Mooty explained. And yet he thought that they needed to remain separate.
“I wanted Wilson & Willy’s to be more seasonal with a higher turnover of different products, while having the Northwestern line to rely solely on this special fabric. I wanted it to feel different and live on its own.”
For now, Mooty is planning on keeping the Northwestern Knitting brand small, with no seasonal collections and entirely made in the United States.
“I’d love to be able to wholesale it, but not if it means increasing the price,” he said. “I think it’s just the nature of small-batch, American-made production in trying to compete within the market at a price where you feel comfortable. I don’t want to sell a $300 sweatshirt.”
Jahna Peloquin is style editor of Minnesota Monthly and a freelance writer and stylist in the Twin Cities.