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The Uncertain Future of Made in America

Made in America is a powerful phrase, even for people who don’t reside in the United States. It carries connotations of blue collar American workers–idealized or not–who built the nation and created its current prosperity. But in the latter half of the twentieth century, the concept seemed destined for obsolescence, as manufacturing increasingly moved offshore to countries that offer cheaper labor.

Now, in the early twenty-first century, there’s a resurgence of Made in America manufacturing, particularly as younger generations grow disillusioned with fast fashion and consumerism-driven trends.

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We talked to Mike Hodis about some of the issues involved in American garment production. Mike was quick to emphasize that the present situation was largely of our own creation: of the demand for cheaper and cheaper garments making it impossible to produce in the United States at competitive prices. The upside is that people are coming to a higher awareness of the production methods and ethics involved in fast fashion, which is increasingly stigmatized in the eyes of conscious consumers. As Mike pointed out, the more that people understand the cause and effect involved in the creation of their clothing, the more aware the customer becomes of why high-end clothing of the sort featured on this website costs what it does.

The denim industry in the United States has been particularly affected by the outsourcing – the only remaining mill in North America to produce selvedge denim, Cone Mills’ White Oak Plant, teetered on the edge of closure before the revival of interested in selvedge denim over the past decade. As if it wasn’t bad enough that there aren’t more North American denim mills, even the production of high-end, vintage-style clothing has become difficult.

An old photo from inside Cone Mills's White Oak Plant, the last selvedge denim manufacturer in the United States.

An old photo from inside Cone Mills’s White Oak Plant, the last selvedge denim manufacturer in the United States.

Many of the working vintage sewing machines made by Union Special and other companies were snatched up by Japanese brands, for use in their own vintage-inspired garments. And finally, without skilled artisans to carry on the techniques of using these sewing machines, production itself becomes impossible, as the use and upkeep of vintage equipment is considerably more difficult than modern machines. The current generation of garment workers is greying rapidly and there doesn’t seem to be another group of skilled workers to follow behind them.

But Mike pointed out that there are some silver linings. Young people are becoming increasingly interested in learning skills and crafts – as evidence by the myriad of small-company leather workers, exemplified by Tanner Goods. Mike is hopeful that young people will pursue these as long-term careers, which might be bolstered by in-house apprenticeships at companies specializing in this type of work.

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Inside the Tanner Goods studio, Image courtesy: Portland Made

What’s most encouraging is that young people interested in these careers are overwhelmingly middle-class Americans–hinting at a possible return of the middle class to clothing manufacturing unseen in decades. While such work once carried the stigma of lower class, uneducated labor, many young Millennials have grown increasingly disillusioned with a prefabricated white collar office career and are looking off the beaten path for alternative, potentially more enriching, career choices.

But these changing attitudes are adopted only very slowly in the face of a culture that discourages blue collar work. Public schools offer very little in the way of an education for practical, hands-on work like sewing, woodworking, and the use of other machinery. They have been replaced in favor of courses that advocate technology and the white-collar career path.  Part of it can be chalked up to insufficient funding in schools and particular government policies, but more than anything else it’s linked to a culture that discourages young people from pursuing hands-on careers.

And it’s had disastrous results, as many young people go off to college and get wildly in debt for the sake of near-useless degrees, who might’ve otherwise gone to trade or vocational schools and learned useful skills that could have been applied to other types of labor.

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The lack of shop classes in public schools has led places like the Craftsman & Apprentice in Denver to offer woodworking as an after-school extension.

Inevitably, these discussions also involve the issue of free trade.  As long as similar products are produced more cheaply overseas, the demand for American-made goods will be limited to high-end luxury items that can shoulder the higher production costs. Even trickier is the issue of free movement of labor–who’s going to hire a young Roy Slaper, for example, when someone abroad will do the same job for less money? There are no easy answers to these kinds of questions, and they fly in the face of culturally-prevailing attitudes about free trade and immigration.

But the increasing mechanization of American society may actually be a benefit for hands-on careers. Your white collar office job can be outsourced or replaced by new technology, but we’ll always need plumbers, electricians, technicians, and mechanics domestically. While one can rightfully criticize policies that promote white collar careers that might end up obsolete in the future, the upside is that these traditionally blue-collar careers might end up with a much greater deal of respect than they’ve historically earned, as young Americans increasingly recognize them as more stable and with long-term potential compared to the more conventional path.

With the cubicle-dweller lifestyle a constant subject of ridicule in modern pop culture, it’s quite possible that the past is the key to the future, and the act of making things in America will become increasingly appealing to Americans tired of the corporate rat race. And that’s good not just for making jeans, but maybe also for the entire ethos of rugged independence that the garment industry symbolizes for so many people around the world.