Thoughts on a Return to USA Production of Textiles

With all the talk about Made in America and bringing jobs back to the US, it is easy to look at the textile and clothing industries through rose-colored glasses.  I was reminded of this yesterday while visiting the Upcountry History Museum in Greenville, SC.  Like many cities in the Carolinas, Greenville was built on the textile industry, and the city really suffered when fabric and clothing makers began closing due to foreign competition starting in the 1970s.

Today, however, the city seems to be doing alright.  There is a downtown that is returning from the brink of emptiness, and they have an arts center, Heritage Green, that is simply amazing.

Are the textile jobs missed?  Yes, I’m sure they are.  Would it be possible to return textile jobs to Greenville?  I have my doubts.  Would people even be willing to work in a textile mill like the ones that closed?  My guess is no.

Along with this weaving machine, the museum had audio to simulate the conditions inside a cotton mill.  The background photo shows the rows and rows of machines, all noisily running to produce the cloth.  People had to yell in order to be hear above the din.

And look closely at the vertical belt that connects the machine to the source of power.  See the wisps of cotton?  Cotton was everywhere in the mill, and workers inhaled a lot of it.  Many became sick with “brown lung.”  My father’s youngest sister died from it.

As time progressed, textile technology improved, something that did not stop when textile jobs first began moving to Mexico and Central America in the 1970s.  My guess is that a textile worker who lost his job in 1985 would not recognize a modern textile plant, with so many of the jobs once done by humans now being done by computers and machines.

And that is the first major obstacle to returning textile production to the US.  Technology has progressed to the point where we don’t have the trained workers in the US who could run a modern textile mill.  We don’t have the machinery, except for these examples found in museums and in rare factories like the White Oak denim plant in Greensboro, NC.  Some sewing factories have even had a hard time finding enough workers who can run an industrial sewing machine.

The museum has this great display on the “stretch-out”.  The stretch-out began in the 1920s, when in an effort to increase profits, doffers, the workers who tended machines and removed ( or “doffed”) bobbins holding the cotton yarn from a spinning frame and replaced them with empty ones, were given more machines to tend.  Slower workers were fired, and the ones remaining had to pick up the slack by tending more machines.

The museum let visitors time themselves at a doffing task, and then see if the time could be improved upon.  If not, then I guess you would be history at that mill.

The president-elect has said that tariffs will be imposed on products imported into the USA as a punitive measure toward those who do not produce in the USA.  I’ve said in the past that this is not such a bad idea, but the truth is, whether tariffs are imposed, or whether firms move to US production, people had better get used to paying more for their clothes and other textile products.

Unfortunately, even in the USA, we have garment workers who make less than the pitiful minimum wage.  Jen recently posted this link to a Department of Labor investigation, and it is eye-opening.  As much as we would like to think that Made in USA insures an ethically-made product, I’m afraid that is just not the reality.

And even if minimum wage is paid, this paragraph from The Fashion Law, tells the story:

The current federal minimum wage, the lowest amount a worker can legally be paid, is $7.25 an hour or about $15,080 per year, before taxes, for an average full time worker. To put that in perspective: The current poverty threshold for a household of one is $11,880.

The bottom line is that there are no easy answers, no easy solutions.  The textile and clothing manufacturing industries have a very long histories of abuses and of circumventing law and human rights.  And when things improve for workers, this industry has a long history of packing up and moving where workers are more desperate for jobs and thus will tolerate less pay and dangerous working conditions.

It gets worse.  I recently posted a link to a company currently making camping clothing in the USA.  As it turns out, that company has ties to a White supremacy group.  Thanks to a reader who looked a bit closer at the company, I was alerted to the problem and quickly took down the link.

Do I want textile production to return to the US?  Of course I do, but I could do without the abuses of the past, and of the industry as it exists today in Asia.  This is just not a simple issue.

I’ll conclude with photos of company store tokens and coupons.

Remember that old Tennessee Ernie Ford song, “Sixteen Tons,” in which he sang, “I owe my soul to the company store”?  It was a common practice for workers to need a cash advance on their meager wages, and the payback was in tokens that could only be spent in the company-owned store.  With a system like this it was impossible to ever rise above the debt.

35 Comments

Filed under Museums, Textiles

35 responses to “Thoughts on a Return to USA Production of Textiles

  1. kathleenfasanella

    Long time subscriber here.
    Yes, it is tragic that even domestic factories, underpay and abuse employees. Those of us running factories outside of California, are simply puzzled. We (as you noted) have a hard time finding experienced workers even paying comparatively good wages ($15 per hour) so how do these factories manage to attract experienced people and pay them dirt?

    As per POTUSE, ostensibly we stand to gain if tariffs are enacted but I have my doubts (and have curtailed any further capital investment in my factory for now) because consumers will have to pay a lot more money for many things; apparel being one small part of their budgetary needs. Maybe people will stop buying disposable clothing? Here is to hoping.

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    • Kathleen, it is good having your perspective on this issue. I can’t imagine how hard it is to maintain a sewing factory.

      I agree that the great amount of disposable clothing being consumed is a major problem, not just for the industry, but also for the environment. If people knew all the problems associated with the clothing manufacturing business as it stands, would they be willing to adapt, paying more for less?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. rockyspace

    Well done!! A superb insightful assessment of the future Made in America initiatives in context with the historical realities of wages, working conditions, employee health and safety, then unskilled labor, etc. The price of wishful thinking for the good old days might be too much. Canada will not likely impose such tariffs. There is still the opportunity for frugal “non patriotic” (?l) Americans to shop for foreign clothing there.. and at a further 25% discount (US exchange). It will take many presidential terms in office before Made in USA is a reality one can wear. Thank you!

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  3. rockyspace

    One thing for sure though… Made in USA meant quality, durability, and style. Whenever i shop for vintage clothing I always look for those words.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. I’ve already stepped off the disposable clothing wheel as much as I can. I buy second hand when possible, and when I can’t I buy simple basics I intend to use until these clothes wear out. I never shop at malls. When I do treat myself to something new I buy it at a locally owned boutique that specializes in natural fiber clothes made in the USA, hoping that their workers are paid and treated fairly (hard to find out).

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  5. Reba Worth

    Lizzie, back from the early 1980’s to 1990, when I lived in Greenville, SC, the Salvation Army had a huge used clothing distribution center in the city.

    Every Saturday morning for those years I would wake up early and hightail it over to the sale…rows and rows of tables with sides…full of jumbled clothes….if you turned your back, other back-to-back bargain hunters would steal the clothes right out of your container…mine was a tall Rubbermaid hamper which I quickly learned to guard diligently.

    When finished shopping, you rolled up your final selections and carefully packed them in a medium-sized paper bag for $1.58. By the time we moved to NC in 1990, the price had jumped to over $5 a bag, but it was still a steal. (I was able to build my and my husband’s wardrobes and to send clothes to my sister for her children, plus afford to buy for the ladies in my office on my meager to modest salary.)

    My comments here also apply to your previous post about admirably swearing off retail shopping. I think what kept me going back to the Salvation Army was the thrill of the hunt and knowing that my money was going to a very good cause. I still visit the two SA locations in my area, but nothing will ever compare to Greenville, SC!!! I loved seeing these pictures and reading the history…Thanks!!

    Greenville, SC, was voted one of the top-ten cities in the USA in which to live a year or two ago. The downtown park with the Reedy River is a huge draw.

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  6. Amanda

    I am a production sewer for a made in the USA furniture company. The company has been in business for 30 years and many of the employees have been with the company from the very beginning. It’s a fantastic company to work for and pays way above average for the area in which I live, but I can’t help but notice that yes – we are having a hard time finding people who can and/or want to sew for a living. And it concerns me even more that I am one of the youngest sewers at 39 years old! The vast majority of our sewers are 5 to 10 years away from retirement.

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  7. Pal Mac

    More complications: My grandmother was a pieceworker in the 20’s and 30’s and later became involved in the ILGWU …
    Comprehensive immigration reform would allow skilled workers in to staff these new factories. Currently, there is no way to visa these workers and native born Americans don’t go into this field….
    The assumption is that these will be good jobs will only happen if there is a resurgence in strong unions to represent the workers and fight for living wage, health care, safe working conditions and entry into the middle class.
    The same people who want steep tariffs, probably starting a damaging trade war, also want to keep immigrants and unions out of business…

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    • It’s my experience that people would rather blame the union for high prices, etc, rather than laying the blame at the door of the ones actually making all the money.

      My favorite example is Ralph Lauren. His companies “can’t afford” to produce in the USA because of wage and labor laws, but in the meantime he becomes a billionaire off high priced clothing made in Asia.

      Liked by 3 people

  8. Lizzie….your subject was really interesting to me especially, because all this was unknown news to me back when I first came to the south in about 1953 or so. Especially of a comany store even existing. It was news to me that the citizens of a whole city like McAdenville, North Carolina not only had company stores….but also company houses….where they paid little or no rent. Lowell, Norh Carolina was another of these. Also a few in Gastonia were similar.
    My mother in law was a mill worker and her hair was always full of cotton lint.
    I often wonder why people even purchase cotton fabrics when they now run as high as 12.50 a yard at Mary Jo’s in Gastonia. When I was a child, my mother used to give me a dollar and send me up the street to J.C. Penny to get 3 yards of cloth to sew. Those were the days!
    Needless to say….I enjoyed your subject…very interesting. Thanks Much.

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    • Hi Marge. The South is full of former mill villages. Sometimes the mill even built schools and churches, and community centers. The quality of life varied vastly depending on the value a mill owner put on the lives of his workers.

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  9. THANK YOU -as always- for “truth” and sincere investigative reporting! I totally agree with you! “Jobs promised back” -using the clothing/textile industry in the South is THE PERFECT example of ..it was not ever going to happen – for ALL the reasons/circumstances YOU have shown! I wonder if the tech was made available to those workers they would have taken advantage?

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    • In some places technical training has been made available by community colleges, and this has worked out to be a good solution to untrained workers. But manufacturing and the colleges have to work very closely to ensure the correct skills are being taught.

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  10. My FIL left New Hampshire and joined the Marines early to stay out of the shoe factory because he saw it as a dead end job. And when they went out of business because they could not compete, all the jobs disappeared. Now that town is a bedroom community for another town with a prison.

    There’s so much automation and people’s price points are so low, I just don’t see it happening.

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    • Maybe some of the posters who have more experience with manufacturing could better address this, but in the factories I’ve visited over the past 10 years, I’ve been shocked at how much work is done by so few workers. I was particularly struck by a weaving plant where a lot of fabric was being made by only about 12 employees.

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  11. I really don’t know to much about the fabric mills, but I think the purchase of new equipment would just be prohibited. I do know that our designers in Kansas City just can’t find skilled people to sew for them. We do now have the non-profit “Rightfully Sewn” whose mission is to train at-risk women so they can have skills to work in and help in the regeneration of this area’s (Kansas City) garment manufacturing history. I think part of the answer is people working on the grass root level, like what is happening here.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Carol

    I grew up in Greenville and it has changed very much from my youth. The downtown is inviting and lively. I was so glad to see that the New York Times named Greenville to it list of 52 places to visit in 2017 (at #12).
    The situation around manufacturing and trade is very complex, but tarifs hurt more workers than they help and lead to retaliation from other countries. One area of manufacturing growth in the US is specialized and highly technical production. The jobs pay better and are more likely to stick around. The point that often gets overlooked is that many manufacturing jobs lost out to automation. That is very clear here in Michigan in the car industry just as it is in many other industries. Someone else mentioned small local production facilities; these seem to be a new trend and may have the most potential to create textile jobs, just not in the numbers of the past.

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  13. The PEOTUS’ labor secretary pick is against raising the minimum wage and for eliminating jobs in favor of further automation. I’m not sure how this would impact American factory owners, but it certainly won’t be good for workers.

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  14. There was just an op ed in the LA Times about a garment manufacturer who was moving his company from California to Nevada because he said he couldn’t afford to pay California’s rising minimum wage.

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  15. Agreed on automation–again, if you want to compete against $1/hr or less in China, Thailand, or Bangladesh, you’ve got to have some edge; either inherited capital or automation, really. Cone does it with selvedge denim here on 1940s looms; Albini Group does it with automation in Italy. Thankfully in either case, the steam engines, drive belts, and chaff in the air are long gone.

    My best guess is that anyone starting a new plant here would be competing with Albini on the same basis they use; spinning and weaving the cloth just a few hundred miles or less from where the premium cotton is grown to eliminate 20k miles (+ 3 months + cost) of shipping to Asia and back, and then doing a ton of “lean” manufacturing to allow the factory to make the product just hours before it’s shipped. Definitely start with “premium” products to increase the gross margins, too.

    Unions and minimum wage would not be an issue, really–to make it work, you’ve got to have really good management, and when management is really good, you don’t tend to get the mistakes that get the organizers salivating. And most workers would be above minimum wage due to automation.

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  16. I moved to Greenville, SC in 1990 and today live in one of its neighboring small towns. There were still a few textile manufacturing facilities back then and I still remember the joy, when as a young mother with not much money, I could buy the most beautiful fabrics at $.50 – $1.00 a yard at the textile outlet stores to make clothes for my children. Knits, cottons, misc. wovens, home dec fabrics and lacy sweater knits are a few I remember. It was such a blessing and always such fun! Today all those fabric outlet stores are gone. I believe the Coats and Clark Threads may have even been manufactured in Greenville at one time until moving production to Mexico. One of their corporate offices remain in business here and back in the early 2000’s, they were a generous sponsor of our local 4-H Sewing Club. I miss those days very much.

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  17. Christina

    It’s complicated. Here are two articles which in my opinion give perspective;

    https://www.businessoffashion.com/articles/intelligence/can-fashion-manufacturing-come-home

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  18. Excellent post, Lizzie. It is disheartening to read about the ongoing abuses in the Dept. of Labor report. Some years ago I toured a small, local fabric mill here in California where there was little automation and also few workers (blogged about it here: http://bit.lay/2j4woTM), Screen-printed t-shirts were produced by hand. Ironically, at the time, the clothing line produced in house was shipped to Asia. Outwardly, conditions looked good and I’d like to think that wages were also fair. There’s no way to know without speaking directly to an employee but I think that the fact that my sewing class was welcome tour the plant on a normal production day speaks volumes.

    One of the major challenges I face as a plus-size woman is finding ethically sourced clothing in my size. It’s very difficult to find plus-size second hand clothing on a regular basis. In fact, there is only one consignment store in my area (almost an hour from me) that takes and sells plus size clothing. And of course it’s rare to find plus size vintage. Plus size women don’t have as many options as smaller-sized women when making clothing purchases, and I still hope that in the future that “Made in America” on clothing will actually mean that the clothing was made with fairly sourced materials by workers who are treated fairly and paid a living wage.

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  19. You highlight the complication surrounding the issue really well. I believe the biggest hurdle is the supply and demand. The American customer likes the idea of Made in the US but doesn’t like the idea of higher costs. And what she says goes. How we can ready the customer for a price hike when manufacturing is brought home from deepest Asia is the conundrum but if we could sell the idea that it is responsible and humane to pay more, CEO’s would act on it. The slavery work of US prison populations is now one of the examples of at-home abuses within the apparel manufacturing industry too. It will be a long process but a turning away from fast fashion is a good start. I never go near those stores anymore and am trying to convince others to shop alternatively.

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    • Christina

      But this is a “global economy.” Every country needs global trade. Supply and demand is not a hurdle it’s economics. The two articles I posted explain the challenges of bringing manufacturing back to the US. There is a “fourth industrial fashion revolution” happening and the US can be successful in driving innovation in that area but as to creating a garment manufacturing base to replace out-sourcing that isn’t going to happen. We would be talking about massive investment in building manufacturing plants in the US to either produce materials and manufacture garments and fashion accessories.

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  20. What a lovely blog you have! I grew up in Greenville, my Dad worked for Phillips Fibers, a producer of synthetic textiles used in carpets (unrelated to the topic at hand). I don’t recall the fabric store where Lisa shopped, I went to So-Fro at the Haywood Mall in the 1970’s as a teenager. There are sooo many issues here! We all own too many clothes and my feeling is that clothes should be locally sourced. However, when I looked at polo shirts made mostly in our state (http://www.southeastfarmpress.com/cotton/homegrown-shirts-south-carolina-cotton-farmer-solves-problem) they are pretty darned expensive. I look forward to making (weaving and sewing) more of my clothes. If you have not seen the movie “The True Cost” on Netflix, I can highly recommend it! And…a few more recommendations: “The Most They Ever Had” a book by Rick Bragg, nonfiction, about cotton millworkers. And there are a number of interesting documentaries on youtube including this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2XX1MIZyHiE. Thanks again, looking forward to visiting this museum on my next trip to Greenville!
    Wendy in Bluffton, SC

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  21. Hi Wendy. So nice for you to read and comment. I looked that the Homegrown shirts, and yes they do seem expensive, but then I went to Ralph Lauren, and his made-in-China shirts are $85! I really do think the solution is for all of us to buy less, but to be prepared to spend more per piece. Thanks for the book recommendation. It sounds like something I’d enjoy.

    Like

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