Tag Archives: manufacturing

Patagonia’s Worn Wear Project

Yesterday the Patagonia Worn Wear rig made a stop at Warren Wilson College, which is located in nearby Swannanoa, NC, and I was able to drop in to see it in action.  The rig, seen above, is actually a mobile clothing repair shop, which is currently touring the country with stops at selected college campuses.  Tiny Warren Wilson was lucky to be chosen, as most of the schools on the tour are large universities.

The purpose of the tour is to raise awareness of how clothing repair is an important part of making the production of clothing more sustainable.  It seems like an oxymoron for a company like Patagonia, which is in the business of making and selling clothes, to advocate for people keeping their clothing longer.  But Patagonia is not the average clothing company.

Patagonia is a producer of outdoor clothing and supplies, and is not a “fashion” company.  But all clothing reflects to some degree what is in fashion, either through color, or the length of shorts, or the fit of a tee shirt.  As a maker of fleece jackets and down jackets, Patagonia does not rely so much on changing styles in order to sell their products.  Instead, they sell garments that are actually needed.  Even so, they are working toward educating people that need can be reduced through repairs.

I’ve written about Patagonia before as an example of a company that makes it easy for the consumer to know where and how its products are made.  If you go to their website, on the sales page of each product it shows the factories where the product was made, along with a description of the responsible practices of each.  It’s about as transparent as it gets in the clothing industry.

The Worn Wear team did on the spot repairs, but even more importantly, they wanted to talk with students (and even non-students like me) about the importance of taking care of one’s clothing to make it last longer.  They encouraged visitors to learn the skills necessary to make repairs to damaged clothes to extend their life.  And of course, behind the message is the starting point of buying good stuff to start with.

The rig itself is really interesting.  It’s made of completely recycled materials and it runs on biodiesel.  It’s beautifully constructed, and I imagine they get lots of attention on the highway.

This is Rudy, who guards the thread and keeps the staff on track.

There was even free swag.  Besides the organic fruit bar and a small guide to making repairs, there was a shelf of free books, all titles pertaining to environmental and human rights issues.  I picked up a copy of Patagonia’s latest report on these initiatives, and spent much of the evening reading about the many things that Patagonia is working toward.

Most interestingly, the book did not back away from the mistakes they have made in the past few years, and gave honest reports on two controversies, the use of down from force-fed geese, and the use of wool from a farm which PETA exposed as being inhumane.  In both cases Patagonia did their own investigations, and found they were in the wrong, and then took the necessary steps to correct the abuses.

It’s really refreshing when a group just owns its mistakes.   I can’t help but think that this would be a great policy for all.

Currently, a big issue is the discovery that microfibres that get into the water by way of laundry has become a major source of pollution in our oceans.  In order to better understand what effect Patagonia fleeces and other products have on this problem, the company conducted a research project in which all their projects were tested for microfibre shedding.  They are also funding continuing research in the area.

Cute dog mascots are always a plus!

The issue of sustainability is a tricky one.  Most of the programs by clothing companies I have read about are just green-washing, meant to look to be more environmentally friendly than they truly are.  Most, like turning in old clothes for a store credit, are just ways of getting one to shop more.  And as pointed out in an excellent article at Vestoj,  even the way sustainability issues are presented by the fashion press usually misses the point.

Thanks to Patagonia for hosting this tour of the traveling repair workshop.  If it happens to roll into a college near you, go and check it out.

 

 

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Filed under Fashion Issues, Viewpoint

Lombardy Frocks Sign

I know that looking up while visiting a big city labels one as a country bumpkin, but when looking for traces of the past, it pays to risk one’s sophisticated image.  The Lombardy Frocks building was located in the heart of New York City’s Garment District, on West 37th Street.  Lombardy was the maker of both Suzy Perette and Gigi Young dresses.  The sign is a reminder of the important activity that was taking place all over this area of Manhattan.

The garment-making industry in New York goes back to the 19th century, but the Garment District as we know it today was built primarily in the first three decades of the 20th century.  The area had been a poor residential area, but in the early years of the 20th century garment makers  began buying up the old apartments, tearing them down, and replacing them with high-rise factory buildings.

The building that came to house Lombardy Frocks in 1949 was originally the Noxall Waist & Dress Company.  You can see what is left of that sign below the Lombardy Dresses one.

It’s a bit hard to imagine this building housing workers at cutting tables and sewing machines, but the large windows that let in the natural light must have seemed very modern to workers, many of whom had worked in sweatshop conditions in older buildings downtown.

Lombardy Dresses and Suzy Perette were owned by the  Blauner family.  The “Perette Silhoutte” was based on the New Look of Christian Dior.  The Blauners would travel to Paris to buy the right to reproduce Dior models each season.

The Suzy Perette matchbook was a lucky find from my friend Tiffany of Pinkyagogo Vintage.  You can see the same logo that is on the sign, and if you look carefully and squint a bit, you can see the words the “perette” silhouette under the dress on the sign.

“the perette silhouette”… The shape that’s sweeping the country…Created with a revolutionary new method of construction, employing intricate gores and clever detailing which moulds your body into a flattering long torso line with a billowing skirt below.

And here is an example of a Suzy Perette dress, on the cover of the December, 1953 issue of Glamour magazine.

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Filed under Curiosities, 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 Bassetts 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 Asian 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