Dyed in the Wool

Textile company tied to the fabric of Jefferson.

Sprawling textile mills once dotted the Philadelphia-area landscape, and while many have become casualties of the shrinking U.S. textile industry, one company has continued to thrive and now stands as the oldest textile dye house in the country.

Since 1869, G.J. Littlewood & Son Inc. has operated as a commission, raw stock dye house. Its longevity comes from the founder’s philosophy, which the fifth generation of Littlewoods still espouses: to work closely with clients to meet their needs. This mantra has guided the Littlewood operation to maintain control of the U.S. wool and synthetic dyeing markets for 150 years.

Vice president and director of new product development Richard Graham Littlewood, son of Graham J. Littlewood III ’42 (a chemistry alumnus and former president of the company), believes a successful business requires being stalwart and a good listener.

“At Littlewood, we do whatever is necessary to give our clients exactly what they need,” he says. “We’ve built a reputation in the industry as the go-to company if you want dyeing and color done right.”

Janet Brady, associate professor of materials technology at Jefferson, marvels at the company’s tenacity to protect and uphold an American institution that has fallen victim to an evolving global market and an ever-changing economic landscape.

“The Littlewoods celebrate their 150th anniversary as a textile dye house this year,” says Brady, also director of the University’s Grundy Materials Evaluation Laboratory. “That in itself is amazing. It speaks to their ability to meet the needs of a transforming industry and find ways to develop new business even in niche markets.”

Preserving the textile industry’s regional heritage and grassroots spirit goes beyond the factory doors. Nine members of the family have attended Jefferson, and they continue their ties with the University by hosting tours for current students and providing internship opportunities.

It all began when founding father Graham G.J. Littlewood brought his company to the U.S. from England when the European market was losing trade to less expensive foreign industries. Appropriately, he established his first factory on Dye Street in Philadelphia. Years later, the business moved to its current location on Main Street in Manayunk, notably a more textile-driven spot.

Today, the company has over 40 domestic clients, ranging from artisan crafters to the Navy—they’re the official dyers of the fabric used for all U.S. naval pea coats.

Being family-run and -operated has been a key ingredient to the business’s success. Richard and his cousin, and chairman of the board, David Littlewood, remember the years they spent in the mill cleaning the dye vats, sweeping the boilers and repairing the machinery in order to learn the complexity of the business from the bottom up. Richard points to the family’s legacy portrait wall, a symbolic reminder of their forefathers and their determination to maintain a business built on integrity and grit.

But it takes more than hard work. The Littlewoods uphold a collaborative, out-of-the-box thinking approach; are environmentally conscious and energy efficient; repair equipment in-house; and, above all, diversify. Their list of clients includes companies manufacturing socks, teddy bears, sports and entertainment mascot costumes, paint rollers made from recycled plastic, aerospace fabrics, personal protection gear, and, most recently, working with hemp-related products for both medicinal and fiber applications.

Preserving the textile industry’s regional heritage and grassroots spirit goes beyond the factory doors. Nine members of the family have attended Jefferson, and they continue their ties with the University by hosting tours for current students and providing internship opportunities. Students learn the trade onsite—weighing pigments on a gram scale; formulating the color mix; evaluating customer standards using international color matching techniques; running lab dye machines; writing lab formulas; filing production dye records; and maintaining material safety data sheets.

Alumni association certificate on wall
The Littlewood family has worked with the University for over a century.

Richard frequently shares information with the University about advances and trends in fiber dyeing, and on one occasion, Brady recalls how the company helped out in a pinch.

“We had a very large piece of test equipment delivered to us while down in Manayunk at the Philadelphia University Research Center,” she says. “Our location was only a couple of blocks from Littlewood. The delivery truck was too large to drive down Station Street to our door and had to offload the equipment on Main Street. Richard came up with a forklift and delivered the equipment right into the lab and placed it on the table. I was so thankful. I don’t know how we would have moved the instrument into our lab had it not been for his assistance.”

As a longtime member and former president of the University’s Alumni Association, Graham J. Littlewood III understood the importance of continually engaging the next generation of textile professionals. The Graham J. Littlewood III ’42 Memorial Award was established to recognize alumni who demonstrated a thorough commitment to the continued excellence of the school, and the newly named Graham J. Littlewood III ’42 Time, Talent and Treasure Award honors those who have shown a similar dedication.

But this partnership has been mutually beneficial. “I have performed work for them in the Grundy Materials Evaluation Laboratory for many years,” Brady says. “We have also worked together as members of the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists’ Delaware Valley section to develop educational events for members to share their developments, needs and interests within the textile industry. Jefferson students were always invited and hosted, along with students from other area schools studying textile-related programs.”

The Littlewoods have worked harmoniously with the industry, Jefferson and each other for five generations. They have withstood the test of mergers and acquisitions, preserving their legacy by facilitating new ideas and incorporating novel approaches to business and technology.

“We remain committed to working with the growing number of clients who depend on us for our quality dyeing services,” Richard says. “We’re still here as G.J. Littlewood, and we won’t let them down.”

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