Follow the Thread

a textile & costume history blog from the Design Center at Thomas Jefferson University

Minerva Yarns, part 1

03.21.2024

by Ann Wilson

Among the textile history treasures in our collection is a book of knitting and crochet patterns by Minerva Yarns. Although the object is missing its cover and publishing date, I was able to date these patterns to c. 1919 by searching some of the images.

T&CC 1982.27.20, Minerva Book for Knitting and Crocheting, circa 1910s

I was excited to learn that Minerva Yarns has a rich local history. Manufactured by James Lees & Sons, Minerva was one of the brands that produced “Germantown yarn,” a term that was synonymous with high quality, affordable yarn in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Germantown section of Northwest Philadelphia became a major center for the production of woolens in the mid 1800s. Revolutionary advancements in the textile industry combined with newly developed aniline dyeing processes enabled Germantown mills to mass-produce quality yarns in an array of colors (Tenaglia). The Civil War period saw a huge demand for woolens, which fueled production and sales of what became known nationally as “Germantown yarn” or “Germantown Zephyr” yarn (Scranton). As a 4-ply worsted weight, it was ideal for making blankets, sweaters, mittens, and other accessories, plus it was affordable and available in many appealing colors.

James Lees & Sons

Eventually this type of yarn was produced in other areas of Philadelphia and its surrounding counties (Tenaglia). It was in Bridgeport, PA—19 miles north of Philadelphia along the Schuylkill River—where James Lees & Sons established itself in the 1850s (Buck). Their Minerva line of yarn featured a 4-ply “Germantown Zephyr.” The Minerva Yarns Standard No. 10 color card (circa 1920) includes the Zephyr yarn in 46 colors. Also featured on this color card is an illustration of the Minerva plant in Bridgeport, featuring two tidy rows of houses next to the plant (perhaps for the company executives?).


Minerva Yarns Standard No. 10. James Lees & Sons; 1920. From the collection of the Paul J. Gutman Library, Thomas Jefferson University.

A promotional publication from 1935 called “Minerva yarns: millions of sheep and miles of yarn” chronicles each step of the manufacturing process, from the sorting of raw wool all the way through the shipping of the final product.

The success of Minerva Yarns enabled the company to expand to an additional plant and warehouse in Carlisle, PA. By the 1930s it had showrooms in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco.

Apart from its commercial knitting yarns, James Lees & Sons was even better known as a maker of carpet yarns and rugs. These fun advertisements featuring “carpets by LEES” are from 1952.

As the American textile industry shrank dramatically in the latter half of the 20th century, Minerva Yarns went the way of many textile firms. In the 1950s it merged with Columbia, another company associated with Germantown yarn (Kelley). The new brand name was Columbia Minerva. Another major restructuring occurred in 1960, when James Lees & Sons was merged with Burlington Industries, the leading American textile company at that time (“Burlington”).


Part 2 preview: knitting & crochet patterns

To promote Minerva yarn, James Lees & Sons created pattern booklets geared to the home knitter or crocheter. Part 2 of this post will be a journey through decades of vintage Minerva (and later Columbia Minerva) patterns, from the 1910s to the resurgence of crochet in the 1970s.

the “Road Runner Pullover” crochet pattern by Columbia Minerva, 1970

Sources

Buck, William J. History of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. ed by Bean, Theo. W Philadelphia, Everts & Peck, 1884. Pdf. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/02023211/>.

“Burlington, Lees Agree to Merger.” New York Times, Wednesday, January 27, 1960.

Kelley, Courtney. “Germantown: Redesigning a History.” Kelbourne Woolens, February 10, 2018. https://kelbournewoolens.com/blogs/blog/germantown-redesigning-a-history. Accessed February 9, 2024.

Minerva Yarns : Millions of Sheep and Miles of Yarn. James Lees & Sons, 1935.

Minerva Yarns Standard No. 10. James Lees & Sons, 1920.

Scranton, Philip B. The Philadelphia System of Textile Manufacture 1884-1984. Philadelphia College of Textiles & Science, 1984.

Tenaglia, Nic. “A Brief History of Germantown Yarns.” Kelbourne Woolens, November 10, 2018, https://kelbournewoolens.com/blogs/blog/a-brief-history-of-germantown-yarns. Accessed February 2, 2024.

“Welcome to the Columbia Minerva Publisher Page.” Vintage Pattern Dazepast. https://blog.vintagepatternsdazespast.com/buy-original-patterns/shop-by-publisher/columbia-minerva/. Accessed February 9, 2024.

Special Collections Technician, Textile & Costume Collection, Thomas Jefferson University

Images of objects in our collection are copyrighted by Thomas Jefferson University. For inquiries regarding permissions and use fees, please contact: thedesigncenter@jefferson.edu.