Business

A Navy coat tradition, made in East Boston

Hundreds of workers fill the factory floor at Sterlingwear’s plant in East Boston. The company is approaching its 50th anniversary.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Hundreds of workers fill the factory floor at Sterlingwear’s plant in East Boston. The company is approaching its 50th anniversary.

Massachusetts has its share of peacoat industry contractors, but none like this.

By the end of the month, Sterlingwear Boston will have stitched about 40,000 peacoats this year for the Navy at the company’s East Boston factory, where scores of workers sit at rows of sewing machines on a cement factory floor nearly the size of a football field.

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It’s like a set piece from a bygone era, when America was all about making things. Frank Fredella, the 84-year-old chief executive, often walks the floor, as he did on a recent morning, chatting with employees over the steady hum of 200 sewing machines.

“When those machines are going,” Fredella said, cocking his head to listen, “it’s music to my ears.”

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While talk about the Massachusetts economy often buzzes around innovation, startups, and the latest app, Sterlingwear has perfected the art of manufacturing the rugged peacoat worn by Navy enlistees worldwide. The company just entered its fifth decade producing the classic garment — which continues to sell well among civilians, too — in an innocuous taupe-colored warehouse off Route 1A. Inside, hundreds of workers cut wool and sew button holes as inspectors tug at the seams of nearly finished coats. “Built like a battleship,” promotional literature states proudly, “but with the lines of a clipper.”

Navy and other military contracts have helped Sterlingwear thrive in the post-industrial era. Under the federal Berry Amendment, passed in 1941, the military is required to buy domestically. The rules were designed to protect the nation’s industrial base and supply chain during periods of adversity and war, and the tradition continues even though the military occasionally runs into problems finding manufacturers stateside.

The peacoat is about form and function — with a wide, stiff collar that can be raised to keep wind out — but includes no Gore-Tex, Velcro, or zippers. The design dates back 400 years to Europe, and the peacoat name is derived from the Dutch word for a coarse woolen cloth. Today, the familiar anchor-embossed buttons are made by Emsig Manufacturing Co., a global company with a plant in Putnam, Conn. The navy blue worsted wool comes from Northwest Woolen Mills in Woonsocket, R.I.

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Fredella’s father, Lorenzo, who immigrated to the United States from Italy in 1920 and worked at Massachusetts textile factories, started the company in 1965.

Frank Fredella, a decorated Korean War veteran, followed in his footsteps, working in area textile mills with his father and attending Boston University at night. In the mid-1960s, Frank and his brother, Anthony, persuaded their father to act on his dream of opening their own company. They named it Viking Clothing Inc. and found a niche doing contract work for retailers. In 1968, the company landed its first contract with the Navy for
peacoats. The company changed its name to Sterlingwear in 1982 after acquiring a local manufacturer of outerwear.

While the company’s core business is making the coats, it has also manufactured Air Force dress jackets, women’s Army skirts, and Marine Corps berets. Sterlingwear also has a growing line of civilian clothes and since 2009 has opened retail stores in the Pheasant Lane Mall, South Shore Plaza, and at its East Boston headquarters. Fredella said total annual revenue is as much as $15 million.

Fredella lives in a modest six-room house in Woburn with his wife of 61 years, Josephine. He rarely goes on vacation, employees said, spending most days in his office reviewing patterns on a mannequin, or making the rounds.

“He pretty much knows everybody’s name, and he can hear if a machine is out of kilter,” said sales director Jack Foster.

Government peacoat needs fluctuate, so the company has a second factory in Fall River to boost the 300-person workforce by another 150 if it lands an additional contract. Many of them are members of New England Joint Board UNITE Local 1 union, which represents New England textile and manufacturing workers.

Government work can be steady, but it’s not immune to economic swings. After the federal cutbacks known as sequestration, about 50 Sterlingwear workers were laid off in 2010. Those employees have been slowly rehired, and Fredella said the company’s commercial business is poised to increase. Although the coats are more expensive than ones produced in Asia — the women’s “authentic peacoat” retails for $259 — retailers who use domestic manufacturers save on shipping costs.

And US consumers are increasingly eager to buy American-made items, he said. “That’s where we compete,” Fredella said. “People want American-made, but they can’t find it.”

Fredella said he has fielded offers to relocate elsewhere in the United States or overseas, but he can’t imagine leaving behind Boston and a workforce that often feels like a second family.

The “family” includes Saadia Idane, who emigrated from Morocco in 2001 and has been working at Sterlingwear since. She inspects the peacoat stitches, button holes, and back vents.

Her job, along with her husband’s income from driving a taxi, has allowed them to send their daughter to Boston College.

Nearby, Joseph Sortino of Cambridge carefully pressed collars into shape on an ironing board, one of the final steps before the jackets are bagged individually and sent to military supply warehouses around the nation.

Sterlingwear makes 40,000 peacoats for the US Navy a year.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Sterlingwear makes 40,000 peacoats for the US Navy a year.

Sortino is among a group of Italian-
American employees who have worked at Sterlingwear for more than 40 years. He sometimes spends 10 or more hours a day on his feet.

The 81-year-old smiled as he carefully handled coat after coat. He said he’s nowhere close to considering retirement.

“I don’t get tired,” he said, “because I like what I do.”

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at megan.woolhouse@globe.com.
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