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July/August 2008
Berwick Offray Ribbon Plant: Factory for Frill-Seekers
Berwick Offray’s Decorative Ribbons & Bows Garner Widespread Appeal.

by Richard Belisle + photos by Mahlon Yeager Photographics

• • •

In an unassuming factory off Willow Circle in Hagerstown, workers create a product so diverse it appeals to customers ranging from homemakers to heads-of-state — at a rate of 10 million yards per week. Over the years, employees at the 275,000-square-foot Berwick Offray ribbon plant have dyed and finished ribbons for occasions headed by the Pope and the White House, Maryland’s governor and local groups, organizations and businesses. A framed collage in Plant Manager Richard Lee’s office holds samples of ribbons the plant manufactured for the Olympics in 1980, ’84, ’88 and ’96. And, to help celebrate a local tradition, Offray donated the ribbons that decorated the Maryland Symphony Orchestra’s 25th anniversary of the Salute to Independence at Antietam National Battlefield.

From Humble Beginnings
French immigrant Claudius M. Offray started what is now the nation’s largest ribbon manufacturing company in 1876, when he began selling fancy fabric and silk ribbons manufactured in his native France. By 1900, Claudius had opened his own factory in New Jersey to produce “The World’s Most Beautiful Ribbons.” He expanded to Hagerstown, opening a plant on Prospect Street, 22 years later. Production shifted to parachute tapes and webbings to accommodate the military effort during World War II, after which time Offray assumed a pioneering role in designing and developing woven-edge ribbons using modern manmade fibers. Notably, Offray was the first to meet government specifications for flame retardancy without the use of chemicals — a leading factor in the children’s sleepwear industry. Claudius’s grandson, Claude V. Offray Jr., took the helm of the company in 1962, focusing on growth through diversification. That same year, the local factory began operation at its current 12-acre site. Pennsylvania-based Berwick Industries Inc., an affiliate of CSS Industries Inc., acquired the business assets of C.M. Offray & Son, Inc.
in 2002.

Take a Bow 
More than 200 employees handle office, management and production tasks at Offray, which produces ribbons and bows for the company’s seven divisions: Christmas Retail, Trim Time Retail, Everyday Retail, Craft Retail, Floral Wholesale, Packaging Wholesale and Custom. The Hagerstown plant gets its raw ribbon — in widths ranging from 1/16th of an inch to three inches — from the Berwick Offray plant in South Carolina. That factory weaves polyester yarn into ribbon material that the Hagerstown plant uses as its basic raw material. “It comes in from South Carolina in off-white only. We dye, print and finish it here,” Richard says.

Operators run the machines that thread rows of plain ribbon over huge rollers that carry it through a process that washes, dyes and dries it. They also operate machines that apply the decorations to the ribbons.

While the garment industry was the primary market for Offray’s ribbon for many years, the company’s customer base changed when many domestic textile plants moved overseas to take advantage of cheap labor — and a good number of American ribbon makers followed suit. “There aren’t many ribbon factories left in America. Our biggest competitor was William E. Wright in Massachusetts, but they moved to China two years ago. We picked up some of their customers, and now we’re the biggest,” says Richard, who points to several reasons why Offray has enjoyed continued success as a domestic textile manufacturer. “We can offer better service and guarantee faster delivery. Let’s say a company gets a large order from China and it’s wrong; it will take three months to ship a corrected order. We can do it right away. It’s less about price and more about service and delivery.”

Today, the company sells its product line mainly to manufacturers of accessories, home furnishings and crafts. Florists, candy makers and the packaging industry also make up a large chunk of Offray’s customer base. The business’ ribbons are used for giftwrap and lanyards, and for adorning perfume containers and high-end gourmet items. “When you pay $50 for a box of chocolates,” Richard says, “you want the box to look like $50.”

But it is Offray’s retail operation that boasts the biggest benefits for local consumers. Tucked off  Willow Circle across from the factory, the store sells deep-discounted closeout, overrun and discontinued ribbon products. About 300 customers each week comb through large bins filled with ribbons and bows, bolts of cloth and ready-made items for craft projects. The store’s four well-trained employees provide friendly instruction and how-to advice. “We help people with their craft projects and even make bows for their weddings,” says Store Manager Michelle Staley. “We give lots of personal service in this store.”

----

Berwick Offray Ribbon Outlet Store
857 Willow Circle, Hagerstown
301.745.4714
www.ribbondeals.com 

   view more articles from the July/August 2008 issue >>

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