Goods made to last

Steven Kurutz's American Flannel is an intriguing look at the challenges of reshoring America's lost textile industry

Goods made to last
Image: Andrew Liptak. Depressingly, none of the shirts in the background are made domestically.

Ever since I wrote Cosplay: A History, I've been interested in the history of garments and clothing. Coupled with my work at the Vermont Historical Society, I've been interested in how the history of textile manufacturing played a role in the communities here.

I grew up in Vermont, and there's always been some sort of low-level understanding that clothing was once a big part of the economic puzzle here. Water-powered mills along the Connecticut and Winooski Rivers once employed thousands of people (and plenty of children) and throughout the bigger cities in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. My mother would point out the big brick factory buildings when we went to visit family in places like Lawrence or Lowell. Those industries have largely vanished from their riverside factories, leaving behind empty buildings.

That's part of a story that New York Times Style reporter Steven Kurutz recounts in his new book American Flannel: How a Band of Entrepreneurs Are Bringing the Art and Business of Making Clothes Back Home. It's a breezy, accessible book that aims to look at the immense decline in domestic textile manufacturing, and how a handful of companies have been working to try and once again produce clothing here in the US. At its core, it's a book about how the country's consumers have voted with their wallets when it comes to clothes, and the effect that's had not only on the nation's economic prospects, but also the quality and pride in the goods that are no longer produced here.

Kurutz takes us through a thumbnail sketch of the US's manufacturing history: mill towns in the Northeast produced countless reams of cloth, focusing on a couple of companies like Woolrich of Pennsylvania, and how there was an exodus of industrial power to the American Southeast in the 20th century. In the 1980s, free trade agreements slashed quotas and tariffs on goods produced in places like China, India, and Sri Lanka, prompting companies one by one to shift their production overseas. The textile mills that produced garments shuttered or drastically downsized, hollowing out an entire industry over the course of a couple of decades.

In that aftermath, Kurutz explores the rise of two companies: American Giant, founded in 2012 by Bayard Winthrop, and Gina Locklear of Zkano, founded in 2009. Both were frustrated by the lack of options for high-quality garments produced in the United States, and set out to try and realize that vision, encountering a host of problems that accompanied the globalized textile marketplace.

The result is a high-level overview of overcoming those challenges. As the title suggests, Kurutz focuses on American Giant's efforts to produce a flannel shirt (with a nice side trip to Barre, Vermont to talk about the Vermont Flannel Company!) It's a harder task than it might sound because flannel is a complicated fabric to produce (or to produce well. After companies relocated their production overseas in search of cheap labor, Kurutz explores why the efforts to reshore production is so fraught. The offshoring movement didn't just mean that factories went idle domestically; it destroyed the center of gravity of a skilled labor force that had developed for generations. Workers who understood how to work and finesse the machines they used were let go and scattered to find other low-paying work elsewhere, collapsing the network of companies and factories that made up the textile manufacturing process.

Kurutz presents a look at the country that is contending with a serious crisis: we've collectively lobotomized ourselves when it comes to producing what we need. We no longer produce a majority of the clothes we buy and wear, and the result are cheap, disposable garments and a significant industrial sector eliminated. A central (and maybe a bit idealized) tenet of this book is that America's textile industry was the product of generations of blue collar workers who maintained a close relationship with their work, work that was deeply embedded in the character of their communities.

There are some obvious complications to this argument: the textile industry has always been reluctant to treat those workers well, even if Kurutz pulls out some examples of places where company towns were fairly benevolent toward their employees, like Woolrich of Pennsylvania. This is a point where I wish that he'd dug a little more deeply and critically into the nation's labor history, because it shows that without the rosy nostalgia of a time when goods were made here in America, it's a bloody and fraught history: books like David Von Drehle's Triangle: The Fire That Changed America or William Moran's The Belles of New England: The Women of the Textile Mills and the Families Whose Wealth They Wove provide some essential perspective here.

But what I appreciate about the book is a line from Locklear that Kurutz uses to close out the book: "I'm not a sock seller, I'm a maker." Despite the US's troubled history here, there is something valuable about maintaining a tangible connection a consumer and a producer. Knowing that you've made something, or that you're wearing something that was produced just down the street is a key ingredient to this entire process. I have little connection to the Sonoma shirt from India that I'm presently wearing, but I know exactly where the Darn Tough socks that are on my feet came from. I know that my neighbor across the street worked at the factory in Northfield, where I've visited a handful of times during the company's annual Sock Sale. When I need new socks, I'll go out of my way to buy their products because I know they'll outlast anything else I'll buy.

As the country's legacy clothing brands have been acquired and sold by financial firms, their reputations have suffered. They've been pushed to water down their work by pursuing cheaper labor, cheaper fabrics, and greater consumer audiences, forgetting why they arrived at their reputations in the first place. Throughout the book, Kurutz speaks with designers who noted that as production went offshore, they no longer spent time going over fabric swatches with producers and they didn't spend time in the factories understanding how the manufacturing process worked. They'd transmit their designs and hope for the best. They're no longer clothing companies: they're merchandisers producing cheap crap.

At its most honest, the efforts to bring the "Made In America" label back to clothes isn't an act of empty virtual signaling to people frustrated with the direction of the country: it's an attempt to recognize the underlying work that made the label stand out in the first place, and rebuild the infrastructure that we've lost. It's an understanding that the finished product is just part of the picture: it's the craftsmanship that goes into the making of the thing in the first place, the work that ensures that these aren't just disposable items, but goods made to last. It's an approach that's antithetical to the last half-century of how we've done business in the country: prizing convivence and low costs above all else. It's an attitude that's made us poorer as a whole and it applies to far more than just clothing, it crops up in our movie theaters, in our homes and cars; anything we buy.

I came away from this book a bit more optimistic. Kurutz recounts how entrepreneurs were told these sorts of ambitions were fruitless and impossible, but when they examined the challenges, they found that they weren't insurmountable. The result: companies able to withstand challenges like a global pandemic or economic downturns, companies that hired people in their communities, and craftspeople who were able to make good things. Hopefully, consumers will follow.