American Flannel

From The Wall Street Journal:

Many years ago, during a reporting trip to Copenhagen, I met an economist for the Danish labor federation. I had just visited a company that was transferring production of hearing aids abroad, and I asked him about this move. To my surprise, the economist was entirely in favor. “We want to be a wealthy country,” he said, “and we can’t be a wealthy country with low-wage jobs.”

That conversation came back to me as I read a pair of books about people committed to reviving U.S. garment manufacturing. Both Steven Kurutz’s “American Flannel” and Rachel Slade’s “Making It in America” follow entrepreneurs who have dared to produce American-made apparel at a moment when the domestic supply chains for such products barely exist. Both books are interesting to read. The human stories are moving, the founders’ determination admirable. But neither book finally provides a convincing answer to a question that lurks in the background: Should we even want apparel manufacturing to rebound in the U.S.?

Mr. Kurutz introduces Bayard Winthrop, a descendant of the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He grew up in Greenwich, Conn., and spent two years on Wall Street before deciding to seek more meaningful work. After stints selling snowshoe bindings and marketing messenger bags, he created American Giant in 2011 to manufacture clothing in the U.S. Labor costs precluded products that would have required extensive sewing. Instead, Mr. Winthrop settled on cotton hoodies with heavier fabric and better construction than most others. A favorable news article brought a flood of orders, enabling American Giant to buy sewing plants and inspiring Mr. Winthrop to attempt a far more complicated product: the flannel shirts to which the title of Mr. Kurutz’s book alludes.

For guidance, Mr. Winthrop turned to James McKinnon, the head of Cotswold Industries, a family-owned textile company. “Flannel is an art and an art form,” Mr. McKinnon explains. He introduced Mr. Winthrop to small companies that had survived the textile industry’s contraction and that might have the skills and equipment to dye yarn and finish cotton fabric the way Mr. Winthrop wanted it. Mr. Kurutz’s on-the-scene reporting provides a ground-level view of what it means to reassemble a domestic supply chain for flannel, colorfully illustrating why “reshoring” is so complicated a task.

Mr. Kurutz’s other main character is Gina Locklear, who grew up around her family’s sock mill in Fort Payne in Alabama’s DeKalb County. At the start of the 1990s, the author tells us, “there was hardly a man or woman in all of DeKalb County who didn’t have a connection to the hosiery business.” But as imports gained ground, the self-proclaimed “sock capital of the world” lost its kick. Many mills closed. In 2008 Ms. Locklear used spare capacity in her parents’ factory to start Zkano, a company that knits high-fashion socks from organic cotton spun and dyed domestically. The socks sold well. The challenge, she found, was finding workers. As Mr. Kurutz writes: “You could create new business. You couldn’t invent someone with thirty years of experience in the hosiery industry.”

Rachel Slade presents a similar story in “Making It in America,” featuring Ben Waxman, a former union official and political consultant who decided in 2015 to start a business with his then-girlfriend (and now wife), Whitney Reynolds. They mortgaged their home in Maine to fund American Roots. “Together, they would bring apparel manufacturing back to America,” Ms. Slade writes. “They would be uncompromising in their commitment to domestic sourcing and the welfare of their employees.” They began with a hoodie designed to fit large men doing physical jobs in harsh weather, a product whose manufacture required 54 operations on six different kinds of sewing machines. At $80, it was too expensive for the retail market, but Mr. Waxman sold it to labor unions that were delighted to offer members a garment made by union workers in the U.S.

I have no criticism of the individuals Mr. Kurutz and Ms. Slade profile. If these entrepreneurs can make a profit and create jobs by producing clothing in the U.S., congratulations are in order. They are well-intentioned people committed to doing right, and it’s hard not to admire them. But it’s disingenuous to pretend that a handful of mom-and-pop companies sewing hoodies and socks point the way to the revival of manufacturing in the U.S. Apparel is fundamentally different from most other manufacturing sectors; its factories still rely heavily on sewing machines, usually operated by women stitching hem after hem or attaching collar after collar. The U.S. has no great productivity advantage when it comes to making hoodies.

The authors present gauzy portraits of the industrial past. Fort Payne, Mr. Kurutz writes, was “a Silicon Valley for socks” where the annual Hosiery Week “bonded the community together” before the U.S. government lowered barriers to sock imports. That’s not exactly true: Silicon Valley is notorious for ample paychecks, Fort Payne’s sock mills less so. In 1993, the year before apparel and textile makers received what Mr. Kurutz calls a “death blow” from the North American Free Trade Agreement, the 5,478 hosiery workers in DeKalb County were paid, on average, 11% less than the average private-sector employee in the same county. In North Carolina, where American Giant does its sewing, the gap was even wider: The average private-sector worker was paid $22,000 in 1993, the average apparel worker $14,649. People took jobs in garment factories not for bonding but because that was all they could find.

The American garment industry was in decline for decades before Nafta. That it survived as long as it did was due to strict import quotas and high tariffs on both textiles and apparel, fought for by an unholy alliance between garment-workers’ unions and virulently antiunion textile manufacturers. The result was that U.S. consumers were forced to pay high prices for linens and clothes to keep those industries alive.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

A very long time ago, PG practiced law in a small town located in a part of the United States not known for its wealth.

One of his clients was a small garment manufacturing business owned and operated by a husband and wife. As per expectations, the business employed mostly women and paid minimum wage or something close to it.

The jobs offered provided important income for families, including single mothers, but nobody expected to get rich working there. Had the garment manufacturer closed its doors, the result would likely have been an increased number of families relying on welfare payments for their survival.

In some circles, low-wage jobs are regarded with disdain, but they can play an important economic role in small communities as a first job or an emergency job in the event of a change in family structure or injury to a working member of a family.

In PG’s observations during this time period, while government welfare was sometimes necessary for families with no ability to support themselves, having a job-holder in the family made a positive overall improvement to the family’s long-term stability and happiness.

5 thoughts on “American Flannel”

    • Exactly.
      But too many folks theze days are so wrapped in their own bubbles of parochial presentism they don’t bother to look at what’s going on outside their neighborhood any more than they are capable of considering the other guys motivations, past or present.

      Just a few measures:

      “In **March 2024**, the world continues to grapple with **violent conflicts** across various regions. Here are some key insights:

      1. **ACLED Conflict Index**:
      – The ACLED Conflict Index ranks countries based on conflict levels. As of now:
      – **1 in 6 people** globally have been exposed to conflict in 2024.
      – **50 countries** fall into the categories of extreme, high, or turbulent conflict levels.
      – **Ukraine**, **Myanmar**, **Mexico**, and **Palestine** top each of the Index’s four indicators.
      – There has been a **22% increase** in political violence incidents recorded over the past 5 years¹.
      – The Index considers factors like **deadliness**, **danger**, **diffusion**, and **fragmentation** to assess conflict intensity. It aims to provide a comprehensive view of conflicts worldwide, accounting for varying impacts on communities and governments¹.

      2. **Conflict Watchlist 2024**:
      – The year 2024, marked by several elections, may exacerbate conflicts in countries already severely affected by violence.
      – In 2023, **97% of all political violence** occurred in the top **50 ranked countries** according to the ACLED Conflict Index².

      3. **Global Trends**:
      – Despite the Russia-Ukraine war dominating headlines in 2022, the overall number of conflicts worldwide has decreased since 2013.
      – In 2022, there were **174 instances of violent crisis** recorded globally, including wars and limited wars³.

      4. **UN Report**:
      – UN Secretary-General António Guterres reported that **two billion people**, a quarter of the global population, currently live in conflict-affected areas⁴.

      These figures highlight the ongoing challenges posed by violent conflicts and underscore the importance of efforts toward peacebuilding and conflict resolution.

      Source: Conversation with Bing, 3/16/2024

      And since peacebuilding has gotten us nowhere since “the end of history” (hah!) why not prepare contingencies? Especially when there are solid economic reasons to make those moves even under good conditions?

      The Age of Stupid rolls on.

  1. “Should we even want apparel manufacturing to rebound in the U.S.?”

    Unless they want to become nudists…

    Have they learned nothing the last 4 years?
    Or is the article 20 years old?
    If you want “stuff” you need to make it “close”, with ” close” taking on different values but always being an assured source. Close in distance, close in geopolitical interests are dominant.

    More importantly, the inputs for clothing are grown in the US to start with and the market that buys is also local. Now add advanced manufacturing and there are right *now* dozens of factories (with more coming) that make clothing in the US (Alabama and the Carolinas in particular) cheaper than in Bangladesh sweatshops. Some are practically colocated with the cotton fields; dirt to shirt they call it.

    Today everything in a clothing factory can be and is automated, from spinning the thread to weaving to laser cutting the cloth to sewing. An entire factory can run on three people: a loading dock supervisor, a mechanic, and an IT profesional.

    The bottleneck is capital availabilty and inflation and high interest rates are slowing it down but despite all this, investment in US manufacturing of all kinds is booming.

    “US manufacturing is a highly diversified sector that contributed $2.9tr to GDP in 2023, equivalent to just over 10% of all economic output. It also employed 13 million people, accounting for 8.3% of all US jobs. The sector can be split into two broad groupings. Firstly, there is final products & non-industrial supplies, which represents 54% of manufacturing output and includes the likes of cars, furniture and computers. The other 46% are classified as “materials”, which includes the production of items such as textiles, paper, steel and manufactured parts that go into the former category of final products.”

    All that is just starting.

    “As of July 2023, annual construction spending stands at US$201 billion, reflecting a 70% year-over-year increase. This sets the stage for further industry growth in 2024.”

    Those folks don’t seem to know what world they’re living in.
    2024 =/=2004

      • Not at $100K a year. 😉

        Mind you, that is what is posible.
        Given the high startup co$t$, the most common configuration out there replaces the most critical steps (laser cutting, sewing, and embroidering) with automation. So there isn’t a need for a jack of all trades technician and training can be done inhouse.

        The laser cutter in particular does wonders for productivity, cutting the cloth stack six inches high in one pass. The embroidery ‘bot s next in added value since it allows on the fly customization. A better product, cheaper. At a time of labor shortages. Win-win-win.

        On youtube, a search for “automated clothing factory” brings up the entire range of the off the shelf equipment in use, worldwide, today. Germany, Korea, Japan, China, and most especially the US.

Comments are closed.