First led by three generations of Jewish Clevelanders, Ohio Knitting Mills experiencing resurgence under ‘fourth generation’
A shopper holds up a colorful, striped skirt to herself in front of a mirror and declares aloud her delight with the knee-length piece before enthusiastically walking to the fitting room to try it on.
Scenes like this commonly unfold at malls, lifestyle centers or department stores, where national retailers stock their shelves with mass-produced clothing deemed to be the season’s most fashionable.
But this particular shopper wasn’t at any of those places. Instead, she – along with several other customers – was traversing the hardwood floor of a small, sun-filled Ohio City storefront surveying shirts, skirts and sweaters that were first fashionable the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s and ’70s.
Not only that, but also this clothing was born in Cleveland. The racks and hangers were filled with pieces designed and produced by Ohio Knitting Mills, which for three generations was overseen by the Stone-Rand family.
On the verge of disappearing for good, the company started to experience a rebirth a few years ago when Steven Tatar entered the picture.
After being introduced to what remained of the decades-old company – and the history behind it all – the 53-year-old Cleveland Heights resident almost immediately immersed himself in revitalizing Ohio Knitting Mills.
“The fact that it’s within the family and was a Cleveland Jewish manufacturer was a very big part of what I saw and what inspired me,” said Tatar, a member of Kol HaLev in Pepper Pike. “I want to be able to tell and represent the whole narrative of this multi-generational story.”
Where it all began
The story of Ohio Knitting Mills starts 85 years ago, when Harry Stone founded Stone Knitting Mills in 1927. The business opened in what once was the National Screw complex at 7510 Stanton Ave., on Cleveland’s East Side.
In 1947, Stone Knitting Mills was liquidated, and almost immediately following, Ohio Knitting Mills was started by Stone; his son-in-law Leonard Rand, who then took over day-to-day oversight of the company; and a business partner, Henry Rubin.
A third generation began to oversee the family business in 1968 when Gary Rand came aboard shortly after graduating from the Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science and working in the apparel industry in New York City.
Following the sale of National Screw that same year, Ohio Knitting Mills moved to a new building at 1974 E. 61st St.
“That was the old Rich Sampliner Knitting Mills in the early 1900s,” said Rand, now 67 years old and living in Moreland Hills. “That’s where my grandfather (Stone) started when he was a teenager as a floor sweeper and salesman.”
When Ohio Knitting Mills moved, all of its equipment and machinery moved with it. All told, the company occupied about 130,000 square feet – almost the entire building.
“That building was (also) a coat factory called Printz-Biederman until 1967,” said Rand, a member of Suburban Temple-Kol Ami in Beachwood. “In the interim, my father and part of the Ratner family bought that building. When we had to move out of National Screw, we moved into that building and bought out the Ratner interest.”
Cleveland garment industry
Cleveland was once home to a bustling garment industry. At its peak in the mid-20th century, the mills – of which there were as many as 18 – employed about 8% of the working population in the Greater Cleveland area, Rand said.
“It was viable,” he said of the industry. “It was very productive. It was mostly family-owned; you had companies like Lampl Fashions, Bobbie Brooks, Lion Knitting, Dalton, Bamberger Reinthal and H.E. Frisch.”
Ohio Knitting Mills was prominent among these business, however, the company’s name never appeared on anything it made. Instead, the products sported labels belonging to stores like Sears and Montgomery Ward or brands like Pendleton and Jack Winter, Tatar said.
Fueled by a post-World War II population and industrial boom – and subsequent expansion of the middle class – the market for stylish clothing grew exponentially. Ohio Knitting Mills clothing helped supply that demand, Tatar said.
“It was never made as couture. This was affordable clothing for the masses, but it was also fashion for the masses,” he said. “The American Dream was coming true for a number of people.”
But as the turn of the century approached, the world market was shifting, and a number of industries that for decades had called Rust Belt cities like Cleveland home were fleeing the industrial Midwest.
“By the end of the 1990s, the apparel industry had disappeared from Cleveland,” Tatar said.
Decline and resurgence
Over the years, Cleveland’s population and economic declines mirrored that of the garment industry.
“Over the period of 35 to 40 years we owned that building, a lot of the property around it became distressed and abandoned,” Rand said. “We bought up all the properties along Euclid Avenue and East 59th Street.”
In the early 2000s, Rand was approached by the city of Cleveland, which was interested in buying the property to make way for a new biotech center, he said.
“It took about two years to make the deal, and in the interim, my father passed away and I ran the mill for another year and a half,” said Rand, adding that Ohio Knitting Mills also lost a “major customer” during that time. “So, it came time to do the deal with the city and close it down.”
Not long after, in 2005, Tatar was part of a marketing committee that was scouting locations to hold an annual meeting, and by coincidence, he discovered the Ohio Knitting Mills building.
“I’d never heard of Ohio Knitting Mills,” he said. “When I came into the factory, they still had a couple of machines working, and they were still sewing in a couple of places – and that fascinated me.”
Tatar subsequently asked to talk to someone in charge, which turned out to be Rand.
“He was inquisitive, and we had some family connections,” Rand said. “We hit it off right away.”
Said Tatar: “We chatted, had lunch, and he told me that one of the things they (still) had were sweaters – one, two, three of everything they made from World War II on. Needless to say, I was interested.
“I realized when he showed them to me that they were A) amazing, gorgeous and cool, and B) there were thousands of them,” Tatar said. “It was like a core sample of great fashion. I thought, ‘Wow, this is really something special.’ … To find thousands of pieces from over five decades is like finding King Tut’s tomb.”
After discussing the matter, Tatar and Rand worked out an option agreement, which “essentially gives me exclusive rights to buy and sell archived material,” Tatar said.
“We’re keeping a core collection,” he added. “We came to the conclusion that this is an important record, and we should preserve it.”
Tatar’s background is as a brand strategist, and like Rand, he has familial ties to a design-based business: three generations of his stepfather’s side of the family oversaw a glove factory in New York.
“So, I have empathy for the story,” said Tatar, referring to the Stone-Rand family and Ohio Knitting Mills. “I feel responsible to honor that trust, and also, if someone doesn’t tell that story, it becomes forgotten history. It’s not something people can participate in.”
Bright lights, big city
Tatar started telling the story of Ohio Knitting Mills in October 2006, when he opened a boutique store in Brooklyn, N.Y.
“We started in New York because that’s where brands start,” he said. “Within a week, journalists and bloggers were writing our story.”
The shop enjoyed success in Brooklyn, but in spring 2008, as economic conditions worsened, Tatar realized the retail market was shifting.
“Fortunately, I’d just signed a book deal,” he said.
In the months following the closing of the Brooklyn store, Tatar penned “The Ohio Knitting Mills Knitting Book,” which featured 26 clothing patterns and touched on the company’s history.
The book was finished in 2010, released in summer of that year, and promoted by Tatar at events in cities across the country.
As that wrapped up, Tatar said he felt it best to return to the marketplace.
“It was time to get back out there,” he said, noting a desire to return to Ohio Knitting Mills’ roots. “New York is the place to launch a brand, but Cleveland is a place to launch development.”
Popping up in Cleveland
Following the success of the book, Tatar was approached by Gordon Square Arts District organizers, who asked if he’d be interested in opening a pop-up shop in the heart of Cleveland’s revitalized Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood.
Tatar agreed, and Ohio Knitting Mills’ first temporary storefront opened its doors for three months during the 2010 holiday season. Tatar wasn’t sure what to expect but was pleasantly surprised with the results.
“People in Cleveland really showed up; people came in and supported me,” Tatar said. “I didn’t know if Cleveland would step up, but it did. … It made me realize Cleveland was ready.
“Gordon Square put me back in front of customers, and that was inspiring,” he said. “The 2010 experience told me I had to keep doing this. I had to keep showing up.”
The following winter, Tatar opened his second pop-up shop, this time at a space belonging to design firm TWIST Creative at 1983 W. 28th St. in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood.
Greater fanfare surrounded the Ohio City opening, including a billboard at the corner of Carnegie Avenue and East 18th Street wrapped in a 24-foot sweater made from unused Ohio Knitting Mills materials.
“The result was awesome,” said Tatar, referring to the winter 2011 pop-up shop. “We did better here during those two months than in post-crash Brooklyn.”
Tatar’s third and most recent pop-up shop was open from June to July, again in the TWIST Creative space. A fourth pop-up shop is scheduled to open during the holiday shopping season in Ohio City.
In addition to the retail success the pop-up shops have experienced, Tatar said he’s had additional success in re-introducing Ohio Knitting Mills to Clevelanders.
“Some of the most heartwarming moments are when people come into one of the (pop-up shops) and say ‘My grandmother worked here in the 1940s. Do you have any pictures?’” he said, explaining that there exists several photos from Ohio Knitting Mills’ heyday. “People start crying when they see these pictures.”
The next generation
This growing awareness of the clothing and the story behind it brings Tatar’s vision for Ohio Knitting Mills one step closer to reality.
“We’re getting closer and closer to where Ohio Knitting Mills is making really cool clothing in Cleveland, and the difference between then and now is that we’re calling it Ohio Knitting Mills,” he said. “Long-term, we’d like Ohio Knitting Mills to be a household name and a valued brand around the world.”
Tatar said he realizes Ohio Knitting Mills represents something bigger than him, his book or the pop-up shops he puts together, and he modestly considers himself the “fourth generation” of the company.
“From Day 1, my intent was ‘Can we find a way to move forward and create a clothing brand built around the archive?’” he said. “We have all the DNA of a design language that’s distinctive, and we can combine that with the culture and the heartland industrial craftsmanship.
“Everything about the look and feel (of the clothing) is compelling, but when you tie that to the immigrant experience … a lot of what I recognized (from the beginning) is that whole package,” Tatar said. “We want to focus on the brand – the objects, what they represent and where they’re from.”
Rand, who feels a window for clothing manufacturing in America may be reopening, is optimistic about Ohio Knitting Mills’ new direction, and is pleased that the story of his family’s company is continuing on.
“It’s emotionally good,” he said. “It’s carried on my family’s tradition and my grandfather’s legacy.”
— Michael C. Butz —
Share your story for a book
Gary Rand, of Ohio Knitting Mills, and Marc Frisch, of H.E. Frisch Knitting Mills, are compiling information for a book that details the history of the garment industry in Cleveland. If you have information or a personal story to share, Rand requests that you contact him at 216-378-9509 or firstname.lastname@example.org.