Part of my collection of Susan Bates crochet hooks © Dianna Huff, 2022

My mission with this blog is to help people become aware of the importance of buying Made in USA products. My long-term vision, however, is to tell the stories of companies that no longer exist. It’s important their history isn’t lost and that we remember that manufacturing is much more than production and machines — it’s about people.

This is the story of C.J. Bates / Susan Bates, Inc., manufacturers of Susan Bates crochet hooks and knitting needles.

In its heyday, the Bates factory in Chester, CT produced over 100,000 knitting needles and crochet hooks a day under the Susan Bates brand. A person who knitted or crocheted (or both) would own all sizes or gauges of needles and hooks.

Why I was prompted to dust off my crochet hooks — baby afghan for a friend! © Dianna Huff, 2022

I personally own 20 Susan Bates crochet hooks, which until recently had been sitting in a box down cellar for over 20 years. I began crocheting as a teen; by the time I was in my late 20s, I was crocheting intricate patterns – and would often gift these items to friends and family.

When I retrieved my hooks from my dust covered crafts box earlier this year, I immediately noticed the “Made in USA” stamped into them. After some searching, I learned the Bates company was no longer in business.

Intrigued, I ended up driving to Chester, a small town nestled by the side of the Connecticut River, to view the buildings where my crochet hooks had been manufactured.

During my visit, I met Cary Hull, Director of the Historical Society. She gave me an impromptu tour and a copy of the Chester Scrapbook.

I made the visit because the Bates company had employed 75 people and was the town’s largest tax payer.

As a made in USA advocate, I wanted to get a sense of what happens when a technology and manufacturing plant leave a small town like Chester. Mostly, I wanted to tell the story of a company that’s a forgotten footnote in the annuals of US manufacturing.

Chester, CT: Manufacturing and industry bred in the bone

Located north of Old Saybrook, Chester’s first industry began in 1680, when men sailed up the river to cut and then export shingles and clapboards from the cedar trees that grew in abundance.

Once the town was settled in 1692, its bustling industry grew to include shipbuilding, grist mills, tanning, and iron foundries. Winding through Chester are the North and South branches of the Pattaconk River – along which were located several industrial buildings, including one owned by brothers Daniel and Joseph Silliman.

The brothers manufactured wooden goods, including portable inkwells, which Union soldiers carried with them to the Civil War. Fountain pens replaced ink wells and the Silliman brothers died; the Silliman factory was purchased by Carlton J. Bates in 1873.

C.J. Bates – Largest manufacturer of crochet hooks in the US

Carlton Bates produced articles from bone, including crochet hooks, and expanded his line to include steel manicure implements. After his son Horace joined him, the business expanded yet again – and the Bates company moved into a larger but old factory complex, which had been owned by another Silliman family member.

Bates wooden crochet hooks and needles, courtesy of The Chester Historical Society.

The firm officially became C.J. Bates in 1907 and began expanding its needlework tool line by introducing wooden crochet hooks and knitting needles. Plastic and aluminum crochet hooks made their way into production in the 1930s – but manufacturing was paused during WWII as the factory was converted to produce parts for the war effort.

The company replaced the old wooden factory buildings with a modern brick factory in 1940. Carlton Bates remained active in the business until his death in 1941.

The company incorporated in 1960; in 1970 it moved to a more modern and larger building across from Town Hall. The name was changed to Susan Bates, Inc.

According to an internal Bates document I found at the Lace Buttons blog, by 1971 Bates was the oldest and the largest operating crochet hook manufacturer in the United States. Fifty people made and packaged over 100,000 hooks and knitting needles a day!

The company also received several patents and awards. “In 1944 Bates received a patent for the in-line hook shape. In 1952 a patent was issued for the Clips-on thread retaining clip. The 1960s saw changes in mass marketing and Bates received several awards for packaging and display including awards for color coded crochet hooks and point of purchase displays,” reads the internal document.

A tradition and a history reduced to a “brand”

In 1976, the family-owned company was purchased by Coats & Clark – which itself was purchased by Coats in 1986. Coats moved all production to Greenville, South Carolina in 1992. The seventy-five people who worked at the factory lost their jobs – many of whom had worked there 20, 30, and 40 years.

“Closing the factory is still a sore point with some people in town,” said Cary Hull.

The Susan Bates brand was absorbed into numerous Coats brands. Coats spun off the Coats & Clark brands in 2019. Today, the Coats & Clark brand (thread), along with Red Hart (yarn) and Susan Bates, are owned by Spinrite, headquartered in Canada.

I emailed Spinrite and learned Susan Bates hooks and knitting needles are manufactured in China, Malaysia and India. (Yarn is outsourced as well, although sewing thread is spooled in North American mills.)

Reading online forums and posts by crafters, it’s easy to see that Susan Bates crochet hooks still have a loyal following, but few people know the history behind them or where they’re now made – or that they were once made by people in a small New England community.

All I could hear were ghosts

Walking the downtown of Chester is like stepping back into a quaint New England village. I enjoyed lunch at a local café with tables set outside and wide plank wooden floors inside. I sat at a window table, with the late winter sun streaming in, and watched families, friends, and tourists come and go.

It was short walk from the downtown to the 1940 Bates factory building on Goose Hill Road; the factory is now a theater. (The company donated it to the Goodspeed Opera House of East Haddam.)

The 1940 Bates factory, now a theater. © Dianna Huff, 2022

The building has been modified to suit the theater, but even with the modification, it’s still a wonderful example of an old mill.

Bates factory stairs
Empty factory stairs — still in great condition. © Dianna Huff, 2022

It was so quiet, I could hear ghosts. While taking photos, I met an older couple out walking. The gentleman said his grandmother and grandfather both worked at the factory and that he would run down from school in first grade and visit his grandfather, who worked in one of the first-floor offices and oversaw anodizing. His grandmother did knitting needle assembly.

I could see him as a young boy, running down the hill, happy to be done with school for the day and eager to visit his grandparents at work – and perhaps share a cookie during their afternoon break.

Our shared manufacturing history: It’s all about people

I’ve thought a great deal about what happened to the Susan Bates Co. It’s the prerogative of business owners to sell their companies – to fund retirement dreams and/or leave a financial legacy to succeeding generations.

So, I can’t fault the Bates family for selling to Coats & Clark, who did keep manufacturing in Chester until they themselves were bought by Coats.

But, I can’t stop thinking about the 75 people who lost their jobs, and the businesses that relied on Bates for their livelihoods – companies such as Durable Wire, which was located in Branford, CT and supplied Bates with the wire used to make the hooks and needles.

And it’s disheartening to know a patented technology – in this case something simple and beautiful in the form of a crochet hook – was developed by American ingenuity but is no longer manufactured here.

The one thing I’ve come to learn buying Made in the USA products, is that you can often feel the pride and craftsmanship of the people who put their lives and souls into the company – and doing a job well.

These items possess an energy all their own . . . and it’s this energy that makes them a pleasure to use, touch, and display.

It’s even better when you know the story and the people behind these products. You form a connection.

I also understand technology has to advance – and that change is a constant. Fountain pens replaced inkwells, email has replaced hand-written notes.

But damn it, couldn’t we have found a way to keep crochet hook and knitting needle manufacturing here in the US?

Perhaps by sharing this story of Susan Bates, a company that positively impacted crafters’ lives for generations, a business owner reading it will reconsider selling his or her company, and work instead to keep the technology – and most important, the people – in place. (An ESOP is one viable alternative.)

It’s so important that we do, for our national and our own personal well-being.

Visiting Chester, CT

If you’re in New England, take a weekend and visit this charming town (and other towns along the Connecticut River). Chester is also home to the Chester / Hadlyme Ferry, one of the last remaining ferry services in CT. Check the town website for details.

While my visit was only for a day, I kept thinking, “This would be a wonderful place to live when I retire.” I loved poking around and reading the historical plaques. By visiting, you’ll get a wonderful sense of New England’s manufacturing and industrial history.

While you’re there, visit the Historical Society and say hello to Cary Hull for me.