Tag Archives: clothing manufacturing

The Vanderbilt Shirt Company, Part II

The slightly fuzzy girl in the photo is me, circa 1974.  It was taken by my boyfriend (now husband!)  at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville.  I chose this particular photo not to show off how short I was wearing my skirts in 1974, but because I made the top from fabric I bought at the Vanderbilt factory outlet.  At the outlet one could buy the finished products of the factory, and they also had a big bin of fabric pieces that were left over from their products.

I remember this fabric well because it was such a bear to sew.  It was a two way stretch knit that had a mind of its own.  The top is actually a bodysuit, and there is a zipper down the front.   And you can’t tell, but what looks like dots are actually ladybugs.  I loved that outfit.

Today my plea on my last post about Vanderbilt paid off.  My post was seen by Pat Purvis whose mother Helen Watts had worked for the company.  I was able to talk with Helen on the phone and got some great information about the company.

The Vanderbilt Shirt Company was started in 1946, and had no connection to the Vanderbilt family who built the Biltmore House.  As Mrs. Watts put it, people in Asheville just like to name things for Biltmore and the Vanderbilts.  The factory was located in downtown Asheville, on the corner of Walnut and Lexington in the building I showed last week.    In the late 1960s there was a fire, started by a homeless man who had gone into the building to stay warm.  Because of that, the owners built a new factory  where they relocated in 1969.

My biggest question was how was Vanderbilt shirt connected to Langtry, Ltd.  As it turns out, Langtry was a label that was actually started by the Vanderbilt Shirt Company.   Previous to this label they did contract sewing for other companies like Levis and they made shirts and jackets for the US military.  Most of the output of Langtry was women’s blouses, but they also made other women’s garments like dresses and jackets.  Mrs. Watts was not sure about where the name Langtry came from, but thinks that it probably was named for actress Lillie Langtry.

As American companies began to outsource part of the manufacturing process, Vanderbilt Shirt Company turned to Haiti.  For a while much of  their product was made in Haiti, and this led to the ultimate undoing of the company.  During the political unrest of the late 1980s following the ouster of the Duvalier dictators, the Vanderbilt factory in Port-au-Prince was destroyed along with all the machinery, the fabric and inventory.  It was a hard blow from which the company never truly recovered.

The company limped along in a smaller facility on French Broad Avenue, until the early 1990s when they finally declared bankruptcy.  

Before talking to Mrs, Watts, I just assumed that Langtry was just another victim of the flood of cheaper imported goods that was making it harder and harder for American manufacturers to compete.  How much more interesting the story turned out to be.

Many thanks to Pat and Helen.


Filed under North Carolina, Textiles

Roadtrip Double-take

I thought I had my entire week planned out, thanks to a letter from the court system inviting me to sit for a week of jury duty.  But as it turned out, I was graciously thanked for showing up, but told my services would not be needed after all.

So what to do?  I settled on a trip to a flea market in South Carolina that I’ve heard so much about, but have never had the chance to visit.  It is held every Wednesday through the year, and it is too cold in winter and much too hot in summer, but as it turned out, yesterday was just right.  I’ll tell more about the market later in the week.

I’m fairly familiar with the northwestern corner of South Carolina, so after the flea market I drove to a few antique and junk shops in the area.  While driving down the road I did a double-take.  High on a hill was a Jantzen sign.

Over the years, there have been many garment and textile companies in the South, but Jantzen was founded in Portland, Oregon.  Founded in 1910, the company originally made knit woolens, and by 1918, they were making wool knit bathing suits.  The famous diving girl logo was added in 1920.

So how was it that I encountered a Jantzen facility in South Carolina?  As it turns out, this is a distribution center.  The Jantzen name and logo are now owned by Perry Ellis, International, and they still make bathing suits (but not in Portland, unfortunately).

The sign has neon lights, and I’d really love to see it at night.  Is there anyone in the Clemson, SC area who can tell us if they light it?


Filed under Curiosities, Road Trip

Cottons for Spring 1952 from South Carolina Mills

I was interested in this little catalog because I’d never heard of the company, South Carolina Mills, located in Spartanburg, South Carolina.  Spartanburg is a quick trip down the mountain, in the SC Upstate, or piedmont.  It was at the beginning of cotton country, and a lot of cotton is still grown in the region today.

Unfortunately the generic name of the company brought up every mill that ever existed in South Carolina in a google search.  But after a careful consideration of the contents of the catalog, I’ve pretty much decided that there was not a “South Carolina Mill,”  but that the company was a sales outlet for many of the region’s textile and garment factories.

In the catalog there is a wide variety of cotton-based products – clothing for the entire family, towels, carpets, blankets, curtains, and fabrics.   All of these are products that were made throughout the Carolinas.

One of the few brand names mentioned in the catalog was Startex.  Startex was located just west of Spartanburg, and made printed cotton towels and tablecloths.   Today the factory is gone, but there is still a village remaining by the name of Startex.

The catalog does not give us the brand name, but these sure look like Beacon blankets to me.  It could be that because that mill is in North Carolina, they did not want to mention it.  Or it could be that they were made by another company.  There were lots of small blanket makers in the area.

There were several pages of fabrics for the home sewer.  A few of them are labeled as being from Springs, which was a large mill in Lancaster, South Carolina.  They are the makers of Springmaid.

The catalog clearly shows the diversity of products that were being produced from cotton.  And here is a look at some of the clothing:

Probably my favorite page from the catalog was this one showing clothes for boys.  Is that argyle shirt nifty or what?

I did a Google maps search for the address given in the catalog of where to send the order.  Today it is an empty lot.


Filed under Collecting, Textiles

Inside the Blue Bell Overall Company

I found this photo at The Metrolina  Flea in Charlotte last week, and I literally had to talk the dealer into selling it to me.   Fortunately, I had previously given her a huge bag of vintage photos, so she has a bit of a soft spot for me.  I’m telling you, it pays to be nice.

I loved the photo as soon as I spotted it, and then saw that the details were written on the back.  This was made in 1914 in the Blue Bell Overall Company in Greensboro, NC.   The fourth worker from the left is Daisy Overman.  I’m pretty sure that the dealer saw the pure desperation in my eyes, so she sold it to me with the condition that if I ever decided to sell it myself, I had to offer it to her.  Sure, no problem.

Factory scenes are very hard to come by, and the ones I have found are usually not identified.  The wealth of information made this a very special treasure.

Blue Bell was the forerunner of Wrangler Jeans.  It was started in 1904 as the Hudson Overall company, and they made, of course, denim overalls.  The story goes that they did a big business with railroad workers, who like the overalls so much that the factory was gifted with a large brass railroad bell.  The bell was located within the factory, and was soon covered with blue cotton dust.  (Unfortunately, the dust was also breathed in by the workers.  It can lead to  “brown lung disease,”  a deadly asthma-like disease.)

The company acquired the Wrangler trademark in the 1943, but did not use it until after WWII.  For a while they made both Wrangler and Blue Bell jeans, and it is possible to find really great womens side zip Blue Bells from the 1950s.  That might be next o the search list!

To see the full size of the photo, go to my flickr page and enlarge it.



Filed under Collecting, Made in the USA, North Carolina, Textiles, Vintage Photographs

Making Jeans at LC King

As promised, today I’ll show a bit of how Pointer Brand constructs their dungarees.  Actually, I think they were making overalls, but you’ll get the idea!

It starts with a pattern , laid out on a computer.  Marinda manipulated the pattern pieces to maximize the use of the fabric.  The goal is to eliminate as much waste as possible.  So the pieces are placed as closely together as is workable.

When she is satisfied that she has the best arrangement of the pieces, the pattern is sent to this huge printer, which prints the arrangement of pieces onto paper.

Look closely to see the lines of the pattern appearing on the paper.

The pattern is then taken upstairs to the cutting room, which I showed in yesterday’s post.  Many thicknesses of denim are pulled over that table, and then the pattern is put in place and stapled to the fabric.

Then the cutter takes over.  Using what looks like a saw, he carefully cuts through all the layers of fabric.  Note the nifty chain mail glove!

Then the pieces are taken to the correct sewing room.  There the sewers work through the steps of making each garment.  There are roughly 30 steps in the sewing process.

The sewer will have a stack of pieces to work on, and she does the same process on the entire stack.  This sewer is putting the pocket on the bib of overalls.  Note how she is turning the corners manually.  Such skill!

In another part of the room, two sewers were making the front fly of jeans.  Having struggled through fly construction in the past, I stood there and learned a thing or two.  They certainly made it look easy.

This is the back pocket machine.  It automatically places and stitches on the rear pockets in a jiffy.

Yes, it IS fast!

The pocket machine:

Things are kept straight by use of computer labels, showing the garment and size.  Scraps from the cutting are used to bind the different sections during construction.

This great little gadget automatically makes the perfect flat felled seam.

Zip, and the back seam is done!

They have lots of machines that do one very specialized job, like this point maker.  This is what makes the corners of collars and cuffs so crisp.

One thing that really surprised me (though after thinking about it, made sense) was that one of Pointer Brand’s biggest markets is Japan.  Most vintage sellers know what a big market Japan is for vintage denim, but they love these classic American standards like a pair of work dungarees or a chore jacket.  In Japan, Pointer is a fashion brand, not a work brand.

And how does Pointer Brands stay so fashion forward?  They do their reading!!

Thanks so much to Marinda and Jack and all the super people at Pointer Brands.  I loved visiting and sharing your story.

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Filed under Made in the USA, Road Trip, Textiles

Made in the USA – L.C. King Manufacturing Company, Makers of Pointer Brand

This is the L.C. King Manufacturing Company  in Bristol, Tennessee.  It was opened in 1913 as a maker of jeans and overalls.  That’s not so unusual, because at one time there were dozens of small jeans factories scattered across the South.  What makes L.C. King so unusual is they are still in operation today.

I had no idea there was still a jeans company still making jeans in the US, especially not one a short drive away.  But thanks to The American List located at A Continuous Lean, I found out about the company, and proceeded to invite myself over for a look around.

What an experience!  Though I write about clothing history, and live deep in textile country, I had never been in a clothing manufacturing plant.  I was amazed by so much, especially by the mix of the old and new, by tradition and computer-age technology.

The photo above shows the original building, built in 1913 by Landon Clayton King.  The factory was later enlarged to the size they have today.

I was met by the plant manager, Marinda, who took me around and showed me the operation.  She explained not only the process of making the products, but also told me about the company.

Things like, why the company’s brand name, Pointer, comes from a dog.  Well, Mr. King loved his bird dogs, especially Carolina Jack, who became the model for the company’s logo and advertising posters.  The old sign above hangs in the factory.  And you still get Carolina Bill’s likeness on every pointer product.

And this is Jack – Jack King, that is, the owner and fourth generation King to run Pointer Brands. He was working, filling orders.  One thing I learned, everyone works hard in a clothing manufacturing plant.

This is the original office of the company in the oldest part of the building..  Today, this is the pattern making room, a process Ill show in tomorrow’s post.   You can barely see LC King on the wall on the far wall.

Above the pattern room is the cutting room.  It runs for most of the depth of the original building.  The denim is stretched out on the long tables in an many as 42 layers.

And here is a view of one of the sewing rooms.  There is a room for dungarees and overalls, and another room for jackets.

In tomorrow’s post I’ll show a bit of the process of cutting and sewing the garments.  In the meantime, you should check out the Pointer Brand website.  It’s incredible to see a site where almost everything is made in the US.  The only imported product is one ball cap.  Also the denim itself is made in South Carolina, with the exception of the Fisher Stripe.  Unfortunately, they could no longer source it in the US, and so it has to be imported.

Here’s another look at the handsome Carolina Bill.



Filed under Made in the USA, Road Trip, Textiles