Category Archives: Made in the USA

Currently Reading: Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local, and Helped Save an American Town.

Factory Man by Beth Macy has nothing to do with fashion, and very little to do with textiles, but it is one of the most interesting and compelling stories I’ve read in a very long time.  It’s the story of John Bassett, who despite all odds has managed to keep his furniture business, Vaughn-Bassett, producing in the United States.

John Bassett was born into the the Southern furniture business.  His grandfather, J.D. Bassett founded Bassett in 1902, and from there the various branches of the Bassett family formed furniture factories all over south-western Virginia.  For years the companies were highly successful, even weathering the Great Depression without worker lay-offs.  After John Bassett’s grandfather and father died, he was presumed to be the next head of the family business, but instead his brother-in-law was put in charge.  In 1982, John Bassett was essentially edged out of his family’s company.  He decided to leave and work as the head at Vaughn-Bassett, which was a company owned by his wife’s family.

At this point I have to say that keeping all the Bassett’s straight was a difficult thing.  Thankfully there is a family tree in the back of the book to help keep who owned what in order.

Things continued to be fine in the furniture business until the 1990s.  At that point, workers began noticing groups of oriental people coming through on tours of the factories.  As amazing as it might sound, the factory owners welcomed people from Taiwan and China to come in and observe.  In many cases they took notes and even video taped the operations.

The furniture makers should not have been surprised when Chinese-made furniture began showing up in the American market.  At Vaughn-Bassett, which makes bedroom suites, they noticed a chest that looked very much like what they were making, but that had a price tag of only $100.  John Bassett bought one as a sample, had his engineers disassemble it and work up a cost projection.  They realized that the cost of the materials far exceeded $100.

So Bassett sent his son and an interpreter to China to try and locate the maker of the chest.  After days of searching, the factory was located.  John himself went to the place to talk with the head of the Chinese factory, and was told point-blank that it was in his best interest to close the US factory and to buy from China, that they could and would continue to undercut American furniture makers until they were forced out.

Today this story does not seem to be very surprising, but in the early 1990s, the first ripples of the Chinese way of doing business were just beginning to reach the US.  John Bassett went home and studied the trade laws and realized that the Chinese were guilty of a practice called “dumping.”  You flood the market with a cheaply priced product until the competition either joins you or folds, then you can raise prices and make a profit.

John Bassett then began legal proceedings against the Chinese.  It was not easy because he had to get the other bedroom furniture makers to join him, and many were reluctant because they were already involved with importing the cheaper goods.  Eventually, the case was won, and Vaughn-Bassett and the other companies who signed on with the complaint were granted millions of dollars in duties that the Chinese were forced to pay in order to continue to do business in the US.

Vaughn-Bassett took its share and reinvested it in the company, buying the latest equipment with the aim of becoming more efficient and more competitive.  But other companies were not able to survive even with the influx of cash.  The original Bassett eventually closed all seven of its US factories.  They put their duty money into developing retail stores.  Today, Bassett is mainly an importer and retailer.  The company survived at the cost of the communities that made Bassett rich.

All in all, there have been around 300,000 furniture manufacturing jobs lost in the US since 1990. Today Vaughn-Bassett employs around 700 people, and other companies, mainly makers of upholstered furniture, have also managed to keep domestic production.  With the closing of Bassett, the town of Bassett lost much of its infrastructure. Other towns in the area have unemployment rates as high as one third.

I’ve heard some know-it-all experts say that America does not need manufacturing jobs as long as we have the design and engineering that goes into manufacturing.  Try telling that to a 45 year old man or woman who worked for Bassett for twenty-five years and suddenly found themselves jobless.  All the fast food and retail jobs in the world can’t absorb 300,000 workers.

The book is very well researched, with what must have been hundreds of hours of interviews conducted by Beth Macy.  I was just thinking what a great movie this would make when I read on Macy’s website that a HBO mini-series based on the book is in development. What could have been a pretty dry story instead comes across like a spy novel.  The only negative thing I have to note is that Macy can’t resist trying to mimic the Southern Appalachian accent when recalling conversations with John Bassett. It comes across as patronizing.

I was given a digital review copy of Factory Man by the publisher, through Net Galley.  Just be aware if you read books on Kindle or other e-reader, that there are lots of end notes.  In my review copy they were not linked to the text, so accessing them was very inconvenient.

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Filed under Currently Reading, Made in the USA

Denim Couture by Magda Makkay

There are times in your  life when a simple action has a very unexpected effect.  When I first called handbag designer Magda Makkay last November I had no idea that I was really gaining a new and treasured friend.  But since that day we talk and write, and when I least expect it, a box shows up at my house with her return address.

My latest design from Magda is probably my favorite.  This is the Bella bag from her Denim Couture line.  It is so incredibly well made, and I love the “snake” trim.

Inside are pockets and a zippered pouch with a key ring.  You can tell from the attention to detail that Magda knows the features that are practical and functional.

There are lots of different styles in the Denim Couture line, including clutches and totes.  I really like the Carrie model…

And the Roxie as well.

If any reader would be interested in purchasing a Magda Makkay original, I’ll be happy to pass along her phone number, as Magda does not use the computer.

Magda also sent along some photos.  Above you have her with Oscar de la Renta at a cocktail party.

This is Magda’s daughter, modeling a Magda Makkay handbag sometime in the 1960s.

I want to again thank everyone who sent cards to Magda on her birthday back in June.  From her letter:

I had the most wonderful birthday in June thanks to you!  Getting all the attention and cards from all over! I never had so many birthday cards in my life!

So thanks for helping me give my new friend such a nice surprise.

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Made in the USA: Hats by Satya Twena

Late last year I ran across an interesting Kickstarter campaign.  A young hat designer, Satya Twena, was hoping to save one of the last two remaining hat factories in Manhattan.  Twena had been working with hats made at the Makins Factory when she heard that the factory was closing.  Her business had become dependent on the factory, so she decided to try and save it.  She ran a very successful Kickstarter, and the factory is once again up and running.

Contributors to the campaign got to pick out a hat, and I finally settled on this navy woven straw fedora.  It’s a bit different from the hats I usually wear, but I liked it and thought, “Why not?”

There were dozens and dozens of hats to choose from, but I’m very happy with the one I got.  It fits perfectly and looks snappy.

The hats are made the old fashioned way using vintage machines and hat blocks.  The materials are hand blocked using steam and skill to fashion the shape.

I’ve noticed lately that Twena’s company has been getting a lot of press coverage, including Glamour and Lucky magazines, along with the  Today Show.  If you are interested in a new, top quality hat, there are plenty of styles for sale on the Satya Twena website.

And I even found a photo of me wearing the hat several months ago at the Liberty antiques Festival.  I added a scarf for a bit more color.  Seriously, I had women stopping me wanting to know where I got the hat.  One even tried to buy it!

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Filed under Made in the USA, Proper Clothing

Emilio Pucci for Formfit Rogers

Not long ago I spotted the half slip pictured above in my not-so-secret shopping place.  My first thought was that it was an Emilio Pucci for Formfit Rogers so I started looking for the evidence:  the initials EPFR printed within the print.  I was just about to give up and call it a good copy when I spotted them.

In 1959 Pucci decided that he wanted to expand into lingerie.  Rather than do the production in-house, he was advised to look for an established lingerie company that would handle production.  Pucci came to the United States, and signed a deal with Formfit Rogers, a Chicago company.  Pucci provided the designs which were printed onto nylon tricot.   Much of the production took place in a factory in Tennessee.

I’ve seen the uncut fabric.  They printed it in big squares, about 72 inches, with an overall print surrounded by a small , about three inches, border.  The pieces were cut, using the border at the hem.  Sometime the border was cut and sewn, for a detail like a V-neckline.

We tend to think of designer “collaborations” as being a new scheme, but this is a good example of how even in the 1960s designers were finding ways to get their designs into the hands of people who could not afford their regular designs.  In 1969, a Pucci for Formfit half slip was priced at $9, or about $55 today.  Years ago I bought a bra and matching slip from a woman in Asheville.  She told me that she was living in New York City in 1969, working at her first job.  When she got that first paycheck she wanted to go out and splurge, and she ended up buying the Pucci set.

The line was quite successful, and lasted into the 1970s.  Still, the pieces are relatively hard to find, probably because people recognize them for what they are and snap them up.

In the early days of ebay, these Pucci Formfit pieces were very inexpensive.  I once bought a lot of six pieces for around $30.  Then the fabrics in modern ready-to-wear got thinner and thinner, and people started buying the lingerie to wear as outerwear.  They are no longer a bargain.

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Filed under Designers, Made in the USA, Southern Textiles

Wellco Shoes, Boots and Slippers

Photo copyright and courtesy of Small Earth Vintage

I’ve known about Wellco for a long time.  The factory used to be located just up the road a bit in Waynesville, North Carolina.  I guess I’d never considered doing a post about the company because in my mind they are makers of combat boots for the US military.  But there is a very interesting story behind Wellco, and some very pretty slippers.

The story revolves around Heinz Rollman who was a third generation shoemaker in Cologne, Germany.  In the 1930s he and his brother Ernst and two cousins,  Walter and Curt Kaufman, were working on ways to mold and attach rubber soles to leather uppers.   Because they were Jewish, in 1935 the family shoe factory was confiscated by the Nazi regime and was “aryanized.”  They then left the increasingly hostile atmosphere in Germany and settled in Brussels, Belgium where they formed a corporation to protect their patents and try and grow their business.

But by 1939, Germany was at war, and Belgium was being threatened.  The partners chose Heinz to go to the US to see if it was reasonable for them to relocate there.

In the US Heinz Rollman got in touch with rubber manufacturers, and found an ally in A.F. Friedlander, the owner of Dayton Tire and Rubber.   Together they scouted out for a location for a new rubber processing factory, and found the idea spot in Western North Carolina.  Friedlander built a factory, which became Dayco, and Rollman’s shoe operation was located in a wing of the factory.  Ernst Rollman was able to get to the US in 1943, and after the war they were joined by the Kaufmans who spent much of the war in Switzerland.

Over the years the company was involved not only in making shoes and slippers, but also in research.  They held many patents on the vulcanization of rubber and  its application in shoe manufacturing.  In the 1960s they developed a combat boot for the US military that was suitable for the wet conditions of Vietnam, and ironically, many years later they developed a boot for the desert conditions of Iraq.

The most interesting part of this story is the man, Heinz Rollman.  He was known for his generosity and helpfulness, and many credit him with the original idea for the Peace Corps.  He wrote two books, My Plan for World Construction in 1952, and The Observer Corps, a Practical Basis for Peaceful Coexistence in 1957 that outlined how people from various countries interacting and helping one another might be beneficial for world peace.

I was pretty amazed at all the information there is on the internet concerning Heinz Rollman.  I found stories about his generosity on various local chat boards.  One told how he would visit a local store and spend $5000 a time on gifts for employees.   When the factory burned in the 1960s, Rollman paid the workers for the days they missed, and very quickly found a new building and machinery to get people back to work.  When people today lament the loss of American jobs, they are remembering businesses like Wellco and men like Heinz Rollman.

Wellco passed out of family hands several years ago, and the community was upset when the new owners abruptly moved the operation to Tennessee.  The slipper division was sold in the 1980s, but Wellco continues to make boots in Tennessee and elsewhere.

I want to thank Jan Schochet for alerting me to the Wellco story.  Jan co-wrote The Family Store, a book based on her research of Jewish businesses in Asheville.  Her family owned a store called The Bootery.  They sold Wellco shoes, mainly because Jan’s father was so impressed and moved by Heinz Rollman who personally traveled around the area with his suitcase of samples.

Correction:  I have corrected the name of Jan Schochet’s family store where Wellco shoes were sold.  It was the Bootery.  They also owned A Dancer’s Place.

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Filed under Made in the USA, North Carolina, Shoes

Olympic Uniforms, 2014

Photo copyright Ralph Lauren Media LLC

You’ve got to hand it to him.  Ralph Lauren did exactly as he promised and followed through with his pledge to have the Team USA ceremonial Olympic uniforms made entirely in the USA.  Not only were they made here, but all the materials were sourced domestically as well.  It was not an easy task, but earlier this week the results were unveiled.

The media focus seems to be entirely on one piece – the schoolteacher Christmas sweater gone wild as seen above.  I mean really, was Lauren just trying to get even with all the complainers of 2012?  “They want Made in the USA?  I’ll give them Made in the USA they’ll never forget!”  could possibly have been his thought process.

Photo copyright Ralph Lauren Media LLC

But once he got that out of his system, the design team came up with some really great looking sportswear.  I think the pea coat is really sharp.  Yes, it does have the Polo Logo prominently displayed, but even that is toned down from the past few Olympics.  Could it be that Ralph Lauren actually listens to his critics?

Photo copyright Ralph Lauren Media LLC

As bad as the cardigan is, this sweater is really great.  It says all it needs to say:  winter sports, Olympics, Team USA.  And there is a similar one with reindeer on the front, and this design on the back.

You can see (and buy) most of the collection at RalphLauren.com.  The stuff is not cheap.  The pea coat is $795.  Unfortunately, you can’t buy the tacky patchwork sweater as it is sold out.  Things are selling quickly, so act fast!

Polo does not make the active apparel for competition.  Each sports contracts with a manufacturer to develop and make their clothing.

Photo copyright Burton Snowboards

This, believe it or not, is the gear for the USA snowboarding team.  It was made by snowboarding company Burton.  The backstory of the parka design is interesting, and is worth reading.  It is based on an actual antique patchwork quilt, reinterpreted in high-tech performance fabrics.   It seems a bit understated for snowboarders, but I do think it is a great adaptation of an antique textile design.

Fashion Magazine did a feature on their favorite Olympic uniforms from around the world.  There is a slideshow, so click through to see if you agree with their favorites.  Personally, I love the Polish team’s look.  Really.

I also liked Canada’s uniforms, which were made by the Hudson’s Bay Company.  The red duffle coat is nice and is for sale on their website.  Unlike Polo, they outsourced their uniforms, and consequently they are half the price of the Polo ones.  They do, to my eye, look cheaper.

Photo copyright Sports Illustrated

And speaking of duffles, here is a Sports Illustrated cover from 1956, showing figure skaters Hayes Jenkins and Tenley Albright in their official USA Olympic coats.   An old episode of Pawn Stars was on yesterday in which a woman took into the pawn shop an identical coat.  It had an official Olympic Committee label inside, and the patch.  They paid her $850 for it.  (She found it in a thrift store for $15.)

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Filed under Made in the USA, Sportswear, Viewpoint

What I Didn’t Buy – Woolrich Tweed Knickers

One old American label that I’ve neglected is Woolrich.  It was founded in 1830 by immigrant John Rich, who built a mill in Pennsylvania and proceeded to make woolen products for outdoors workers.  Over the years they became leaders in the buffalo check business, selling to hunters and other outdoorsmen.   They also made blankets and motoring robes.

At some point in their long history they began making men’s shirts out of the wool that was woven in the Woolrich mill.    This was more of a casual wear shirt rather than something a man might wear in the field.  They also began making casual wool jackets for women.

Later, probably in the 1970s, the company began to diversity its products.  Instead of making all the Woolrich clothing from Woolrich fabric, they, like many other American companies, began to add imported goods to their product line.  In 1980 they started a woman’s label, “Woolrich Woman.”

I can’t say when exactly Woolrich changed from a strictly sportswear company to more of a fashion company.  And I use the word “fashion” quite loosely.   It’s more like conservative clothing for people who like the woods, though I’ve seen that the company has recently upped its game.

As for the knickers that I did not buy, there are several reasons they stayed in the big blue bin and did not make the leap into my shopping cart.

The first problem was the condition.  You can see a hole near the knee in the top photo, and there were several other holes, some repaired.

I thought it was interesting that the legs closed with velcro instead of buttons.  Look right above the velcro and you can see where the velcro has caught the fabric.

Velcro was invented in the late 1940s, but it was not really used until the 1960s.  Even then it was not a common closure.

This is the label, which was first used in 1965.  As far as I can tell, it was used into the 1990s.  I’m basing this on listings on Etsy and Ebay, but the clothing is hard to accurately date due to the unchanging, conservative nature of it.  Due to what I’ve observed, my best guess is that the label changed to a similar, but dark blue label in the early 1990s.

A really nice feature of these knickers is that they have a double seat.  Also, the pockets are functional.

But I didn’t buy them because of the condition, and also because it was my gut feeling that these were from the 1980s.  My interest pretty much stops with the mid 1970s.

However, I did find and buy another pair of vintage Woolrich pants.  There were men’s trousers, made from a very heavy wool herringbone.  A former owner had cut them off quite short and did not hem them.  Thank goodness I am also quite short, and after a good hem the length will be just right for me.

They are a little too big in the waist, but being men’s pants they are easy to alter. The waistband is faced, and the center back seam is easy to stitch to a smaller size.  I’ll probably remove the suspender buttons.

These have the same label as the knickers, and they are so classic that I’d have a hard time accurately dating the,  I’m guessing early 1970s due to the flat front and the width of the legs.

For comparison, this is the label that was used in the 1950s and up to 1965.  Note the R (registered) symbol.  This trademark was registered in 1949.  This label is from a pair of very heavy wool hunting pants.  They are my snow pants.

Woolrich is still is business today, but most of the things with their label are imported.  They are still making wool fabric in the mill, and I wish they would follow Pendleton’s example and offer more products made from their wool.  They do have a hipster label, Woolrich Woolen Mills, where many of the products are made from their cloth in the USA, but they are not promoted as being so on the website sales pages.  Not only that, there are three different websites, two of which do not tell if the items are imported or domestic.  But I’ll forgive then, just because of these:  Cute Woolrich Wool Ballerina flats.

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Filed under I Didn't Buy..., Made in the USA