Family Ties

Three generations craft quality outerwear in an East Boston factory.

Photograph by Pat Piasecki

There is, perhaps, nothing as New England as a wool peacoat. Chic yet commanding, the sailor-inspired look has held its own for decades. And Sterlingwear of Boston, founded in Cambridge by Italian immigrant Lorenzo Fredella and his sons Frank and Anthony, has been the official manufacturer of regulation Navy coats for nearly 50 years. In addition to collaborating with big brands like L. L. Bean, Woolrich, and J.Press, the Fredella family—which has held contracts with four branches of the military—­recently introduced its own fashion line of civilian wear, featuring on-trend details such as satin paisley lining and leather trim. Starting at around $200, the coats are inspired by the company’s military pieces. “Our plan is to break into Main Street USA,” says director of sales and marketing Jack Foster, who adds that while their designs have been picked up by boutiques and specialty stores worldwide, they’ve yet to see national retailers like Nordstrom and Barneys New York roll out the welcome mat. That said, he’s not discouraged, especially given that Sterlingwear has seen a steady rise in sales through its website and two retail outfits: “There’s a tidal wave right now of understanding that we need to bring back American manufacturing. My challenge to retailers is, give American-made a chance and let the consumers decide.”

From left, 400,000 anchor buttons are stitched on annually; navy peacoats are made from heavy worsted wool, fine textiles are cut on a CNC machine for precision. (Photographs by Pat Piasecki)

It’s a companywide mantra, one that trickles down from the top. President and CEO Frank Fredella, who employees call “the heart and soul” of the ­enterprise, is a Korean War Purple Heart recipient. His children and a few grandchildren also work at the plant, although he says all of his employees are considered family.

“As far as manufacturing is concerned, there was a time when the U.S. was second to no one. Fashion-wise we were second only to Europe,” Fredella says. “That’s obviously changed, but I’m doing what I can and hoping it comes back.” In fact, Foster says, Fredella is so invested in his workforce that when their original factory was bought out from under them, Fredella’s main concern was staying in the area. “I thought ­immediately of Fall River, which has a rich manufacturing history,” Foster says. “But Frank said no. He said, ‘I’m not putting a single family out of work.’” Ultimately, the company settled in East Boston, allowing everyone to keep their jobs.

Each piece is thoroughly inspected to ensure the seams are perfect. (Photograph by Pat Piasecki)

From left, Sterlingwear has held contracts with four branches of the military and produces a variety of products for them; more than 150 sewing-machine operators occupy the production floor. (Photographs by Pat Piasecki)

The company makes up to 1,500 coats a day. (Photograph by Pat Piasecki)

Materials are also sourced close to home. The familiar anchor-­embossed buttons are made by ­Emsig ­Manufacturing Corporation, an ­American company with a plant in Putnam, Connecticut, while the dark navy blue worsted wool comes from Northwest Woolen Mills, in Woonsocket, Rhode Island.

On the day of my visit, the 150,000-square-foot production floor is abuzz. CNC machines cut thick swatches of fabric to be sewn together and ­mechanically moved along the assembly line as inspectors scrutinize seams. Foster tells me that with the new factory came an improved layout that allows them to make up to 1,500 coats a day. Amidst the humming machinery we meet production supervisor Lina Raniera as she surveys the floor. She’s been working at Sterlingwear for 41 years—among a group of other Italian-American employees who’ve been there for at least four decades—and cites Fredella as the best thing about her job. “My boss, he’s number one. He’s 85 today,” she says, bubbling with pride and admiration. “He respects us and treats us like family. If it wasn’t like this, we wouldn’t stay here so long.”

Sterlingwear employees are considered family by the Fredellas. (Photograph by Pat Piasecki)