Made-in-the-USA

They’re Coming (Back) To America

Mike Clark is the Associate Editor for Printwear magazine covering timely news in the apparel and textile industries. Contact him at mclark@nbm.com

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It’s no secret that sourcing domestically-produced apparel and decoration equipment can be a challenge in the U.S. From the 19th century into the mid-1980s, the country saw a flourishing industry of textile and garment manufacturing, starting with cotton production and evolving with the advent of other fibers like polyester and rayon. A large portion of these operations dotted the Southeast, along with some textile mills in the Northeast. Equipment-makers also churned out machinery in hubs across the Midwest. Since the 1980s, a sizeable chunk of this industry has since migrated to countries like India, Vietnam, Mexico, and Central America.

While much divisive rhetoric is in high supply on how to bring apparel and equipment manufacturing back to the U.S., it’s worth noting current trends already taking place around the country.

The shift

As the millennium dawned and the internet became an everyday tool for information, news, and conversation, a culture of transparency in manufacturing and overall supply chain details became more prevalent.

The Rana Plaza collapse in April of 2013 marked a noticeable rise in the concern for responsibly-made apparel. The eight-story building in Bangladesh, which housed production for various large-scale apparel companies, imploded killing more than 1,000 workers and injuring more than 2,000. To date, the incident is still regarded as one of the deadliest garment factory accidents in history.

“As tragic as that event was, it began to raise awareness on the consumer level,” explains Glen Brumer, Royal Apparel. “Transparency [for the buyer] just became so important.”

That consumer awareness has trickled down into how decorators source and choose their blanks. Brumer points out that buyers now look closely at all aspects of the supply chain. This includes the actual manufacturing process as well as human elements of the business too.

Brumer, adds that his company gets calls from clients who request everything from information on organic cotton to pictures of American employees at the organization’s cut-and-sew and fabric dyeing operations.

“We’ve seen a much bigger influx of people exiting Asia [for sourcing] and moving to the States,” says Mark Huebner, HookFish Manufacturing. He expands saying that he believes the decline of the traditional wholesale to retail and more direct-model supply chains has also contributed to this trend.

“Because of lower order minimums, and the ‘need-it-now’ manufacturing model, it’s made it easier for a lot of people to say, ‘we only need 200 units’ with a faster turnaround,” he states.

John McMillan, King Louie America, adds that he’s seen recent trend of more people trying to purchase USA-made goods, however, it hasn’t been a massive uptick.

“The issue is that they are willing to do it if it doesn’t cost a significantly more to do so,” McMillan says. He also notes that the demand for domestic goods has often fluctuated over the past three decades with shifting political climates.

“Election years wake people up to the current state of domestic manufacturing or lack of,” states McMillan.

Equipment manufacturing meanwhile has been a constant mix of both entirely U.S.-made machinery along with multi-continent operations.

“The demand for Made-in-the-USA equipment has always been very strong because of its strength, reliability, and support.” says Rich Hoffman, the M&R Companies.

Above: Overseas apparel manufacturing is still very much a reality, but there are multiple manufacturers based in the U.S. (Image courtesy Royal Apparel) 

The benefits

When examining the benefits and drawbacks to the American-made market, there are some top-level considerations. The most obvious is proximity. With a stateside company, businesses can typically expect faster turnaround, shorter ship times, and more flexibility when it comes to customization.

Hoffman says with equipment, buyers can expect the benefit of being on the same schedule as the manufacturer if they work with an American company. Whether it be placing an order, calling in for buying guidance, or technical support, shops can count on someone being there to pick up the phone.

“All of the holidays match in the United States,” he adds. “So, you’re not dealing with holidays in Italy, for example, where people are gone for the whole month of August.”

In addition to timeliness, McMillan contends that buying American-made easily cuts out many of the ethical gray areas seen in other countries, as common issues like child labor and toxic or harmful ingredients are less probable in the U.S. where health and safety regulations are stricter.

“It’s also just more environmentally-friendly,” Brumer contends. With a manufacturer situated in the same country as opposed to halfway around the world, shops can buy goods without the need for a massive cargo ship polluting the ocean.

Addressing shifting trends like annual Pantone color updates also becomes an easier task in the near-home facilities, which enables buyers to take advantage of demand quicker than they may have with an overseas shop.

Dealing with a U.S. company also streamlines logistics when it comes to measurement systems.

“You aren’t trying to convert metric (measurements) with an American company,” explains Huebner.

Similarly, for equipment, replacement parts are much easier to source when dealing with American companies, says Hoffman. Components like bolts, hoses, fittings, and cylinders use American Standard measurements, again removing the need for complicated conversions from metric.

Brumer does note that while dealing with a stateside producer can be beneficial, a sizeable amount of customization can also become cost prohibitive. If a decorator wants a significant set of cut, sew, and dye parameters outside of a standard garment build, this can get costly because of higher labor wages in the U.S., he points out.

McMillan reinforces this point, saying that while U.S.-based facilities adhere to quality, the reality of wage costs is hard to avoid.  

Left: The demand for domestic goods has often fluctuated over the past three decades with shifting political climates, says John McMillan, King Louie America. (Image courtesy King Louie America)
Right: The modern Made-in-USA market often calls for better-fitting, softer-hand blanks. (Image courtesy Royal Apparel) 

Popular products

With the shift to more American-made products, the desire for a higher-quality product also continues to be a constant reality. Better fitting, contemporary looks, and more comfort-focused fabrics are all requests manufacturers in the U.S. receive.

“[Decorators] want shirts with a softer hand, things like ring-spun T-shirts are a common request,” Brumer states.

In addition to T-shirts, McMillan says golf shirts are a frequent request because of their versatility for promotional events.

“Obviously, the price point for these are more than a T-shirt,” says McMillan. “But it is still a great way to show off your organization in a high quality, more upscale way.”

Other popular U.S.-made products include hooded sweatshirts and the athleisure category of apparel. In the non-apparel realm, soft goods accessories are also a big request for companies looking for American-made promotional goods like beanies.

Huebner says he sees team sportswear as a commonly requested product, particularly sublimated goods. While many sportswear companies bring in goods from overseas, he says, a business with cut-and-sew capabilities can maintain a competitive business model because of the fast turnaround, flexibility, and reliability of a close proximity.   

With equipment, Hoffman notes continued demand for direct-to-garment and computer-to-screen systems as technology advances. These systems, he explains, empower customers to meet short-run demands efficiently.

Left: The team sportswear market continues to be a popular request for many garment decorators. (Image courtesy LEAN ATHLETICS)
Right: While the Made-in-USA economy may not return to its original form, some manufacturers are maintaining a competitive edge with overseas manufacturers through specialization and niche markets. (Image courtesy LEAN Athletics)

Living in the future

While market and economy shifts are hard to predict, some companies say they see an emerging trend of younger buyers leaning towards the trend of corporate social responsibility. Glen Brumer reiterates that he’s noticed millennials and even younger demographics frequently inquiring about the specifics of their blank garments. This concern, he says, is a combination of accountability and supporting a market that can offer them a future of sustainable careers.

“They’re tired of seeing jobs go overseas, and they’d rather pay a little more and support [American businesses],” Brumer asserts.

Despite buyers pushing for more American-made products, the production of these goods sees its own, complicated future. Both Brumer and Huebner state that the demand for skilled labor continues to grow, while the supply of workers equipped for the jobs, like cut-and-sew or machine operators, aren’t as easy to find. Because of the country’s shift towards other markets in the past three decades, there simply hasn’t been a trend of nurturing this skilled labor industry.

Hoffman states that with equipment, finding a balance between efficiency and labor costs is key.

“We’ve seen in the last 10 years that the focus was on speed,” he comments. “Now the focus is on short-run (production).”

Also, Hoffman sees more U.S. shops shifting from plastisol to water-based printing, similar to other countries.

“This drives the machines to become larger to meet the demands of printing water-based inks” he explains.

While the consensus is that made-in-America apparel and equipment will most likely not reach its peak from past decades, Huebner says that businesses who specialize in services or specific markets may have a promising future.

“You really have to find a niche within that vertical to even try to compete with places like Asia,” explains Huebner.

With the combination of younger Americans seeking out USA-made goods and the demand for skilled labor growing, one thing is certain: Where both factors intersect will certainly make for an interesting shift in the American workforce and economy.