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Family yarn: Palmer rug makers spin tradition, devotion to quality

November 20, 2005

BOB DATZ; STAFF Edition: Hampshire/Franklin
Section: Hampshire & Franklin Plus

It's his background signals that suggest Mitchell Garabedian's commitment to the manufacture of quality braided rugs from the family operation on Thorndike Street in Palmer.

He'll tell anyone flat-out that that's what they do at Thorndike Mills. But the little smirk when he talks about business that has moved overseas, or his bare restraint when intoning how using lesser quality fabric would be "ex-TREME-ly marginal" - those are confirmation that the enterprise he and his siblings pour their six-day work weeks into is more than just a business to them.

Here, thread and yarn march on like time. Issuing at about an inch a second from a couple of dozen 50-year-old braiding machines, the 2-inch strands ease into cardboard barrels that stretch across the room, filled with color blends that swirl like piled pasta. They began as individual strips of cloth, or yarn loomed in an automated section that seems to give Garabedian mixed feelings about high productivity. "These machines here, unfortunately, replaced about 10 or 15 people," he said during a recent tour of the plant adjacent to a retail showroom on Route 32.

Garabedian, at 68, is the elder statesman and president of Thorndike Mills, inheriting the title from his parents, the late Gabriel M. and Mary B. Garabedian. Edward P. and Anna I. Garabedian are his siblings and, respectively, the company treasurer and office manager. Karen M. Garabedian, his daughter, is the Quincy-based sales manager, overseeing relations with 1,100 outlets nationwide.

But titles aren't always descriptive in this 33-employee outfit. Any of the siblings could wander over to the retail showroom, and it's Edward who designs the color mixes that make a traditional braided rug match a couch or a room. With no formal training beyond his years at Wilbraham Academy, Edward has three words for how one learns to master that skill: "From my dad." Gabriel immigrated from Armenia, arriving in Boston in 1917 and eight years later starting his own business making hand-woven rag rugs from his basement. The Depression set him back, but in 1933 he moved to the Thorndike village of Palmer to found the G.M. Garabedian Co., evolving into Thorndike Mills. With a separate importing company, today it forms T.M.I. Industries Inc.

After he married Mary Babaian in 1935, the couple worked the braided rug business until their deaths, Gabriel in 1986 and Mary in 1996. The workforce peaked at over 60 people in the late 1980s, as the second generation faced off against what Mitchell Garabedian said were three dozen competitors.

Today, the brothers said, they are one of four U.S. braided rug manufacturers. They claim to be the only ones making high-end cloth braids, and their labor-intensive process still utilizes some unique processes designed by their father.

A decade before air hockey was invented, for instance, Gabriel used a similar idea to eliminate much of the need for helpers to rotate the rugs around the 20-foot work tables. The metal table tops are punctuated by inch-diameter holes that send a stream of air through the surface. This lets stitchers use one hand to easily rotate a rug that fairly floats. With the other hand, a stitcher will guide a braid through a sewing machine to be joined to the rest of the rug.

Rugs are made to custom sizes at no extra charge, and most are sold through smaller independent stores selling furniture or carpeting. Even with a large network of outlets and brand-name recognition, Mitchell Garabedian defers to heritage when asked what stamp the second and, now, third generations are putting on Thorndike Mills. "I think what's kind of been embedded in us," he said, "is to meet the quality end of this business."

Copyright, 2005, The Republican Company, Springfield, MA.

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