This story first appeared in the summer issue of Digiday magazine, available exclusively to Digiday Plus members. Join the community and receive the full magazine here.
At the Eagle Sportswear plant in Middlesex, North Carolina, a team of four sewers stands at a horseshoe-shaped work station, taking pieces of red knit fabric from a bin and stitching them into a hooded sweatshirt. The process happens in steps: one sewer stitches sleeve cuffs, another attaches pockets, a third attaches arms to torsos, and the fourth sews the seam on the back of the hood. As each sewer completes her step of the process, the item is passed along the line until it lands in a final bin at the end of the station, where it’s passed along to a different team, who will wash and tumble dry each item and attach the zipper.
“It’s exhilarating to see this in action,” says Bayard Winthrop, the founder and CEO of American Giant, bouncing on his toes as he looks on at the team stitching in tandem. His apparel company, which specializes in knit basics made entirely in the U.S. and sells direct-to-consumer, sends a portion of its product categories to be cut and sewn at Eagle. “There’s an elegance to it. A real dance.”
Eagle Sportswear implemented the team-sewing structure about three years ago, at the behest of Winthrop and his team. The decision, put into action by plant manager William Lucas, was part of a plant-wide update to improve efficiency, increase quality control, and open up incentives for workers, who would normally be stationed at a machine, sitting and performing the same stitchwork on a pile of fabric pieces until the day ended. The new structure allows them to take on different tasks, as well as cover for someone else if they break for lunch.
Elsewhere, plant innovation has resulted in the obsoletion of former manual labor jobs: a computer program that automatically lays out fabric markers and prints them onto sheets of paper can save time and materials. After switching to a machine, the plant saw a 10 percent decrease in waste.
Eagle currently employs about 200 people across three plants in North Carolina, which is the country’s leading textile producer. But the region is still a shell of what it was: after cheap labor led to companies taking their businesses overseas in the 1980s and 1990s, 98 percent of American apparel is now made abroad. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2.4 million people worked in the U.S. textile and manufacturing industries in 1973. In 1996, that number had dropped to 1.5 million. Today, the industry employs just 385,000. In North Carolina, jobs have been cut by 85 percent over the past 25 years: from 284,000 employees in 1992 to 42,000 today.
Revenues have been slashed as well. Textile revenues in North Carolina have dropped to $3 billion annually, from $7.5 billion in 2000 (after inflation adjustments), according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.
But recent investments in automation and technology at American factories, as well as a rising emphasis on made-in-America products, are promising for the domestic manufacturing industry.
“Everybody thinks that the industry went overseas because of cheap labor, which, in part, is true,” says Dan St. Louis, the director of the Manufacturing Solutions Center, based in Conover, North Carolina. “But it was also because of the automation. An automated supply chain means fewer people — but it means we’re more competitive.”
Spinning yarn, with fewer lost fingers
Parkdale Mills in Gaffney, South Carolina reopened in 2010 — after sitting dormant since the 1990s — with 130 workers. Parkdale produces yarn for brands in the U.S. like Hanes, Fruit of the Loom and American Giant, but 90 percent of its business is exported.
The process of taking bales of cotton, sourced from U.S. cotton farms, cleaning, mixing and spinning them into yarn, is now largely completed through a web of automated production lines run by machinery that does the work quickly. In a week, Parkdale processes 2.5 million pounds of yarn, a production level that, back in the 1970s and 80s, would have taken a workforce of 2,000 people.
When visiting Parkdale today, the factory floor is largely vacant, though operations are still humming. Manual labor is only needed to drive forklifts that unload cotton bales from trucks, and keep an eye on screens in case of machine error.
“You used to be able to tell how good or bad a production line worker was based on the number of fingers he had left,” says Robert Nodine, Parkdale Mills’ Gaffney plant manager. “It’s not dangerous anymore. The machines do it. People say it’s only 130 jobs — but that’s 130 jobs.”
What it means to make in America
For American Giant, keeping its supply chain in the U.S. is less a valiant act of patriotism and more about maintaining clarity and control over production. Because it doesn’t deal with wholesale partners or discount products, American Giant is able to spend about double what a traditional brand can spend on producing its apparel.
“The industry here has become efficient, automated,” says Bayard. “But you look at brands like Levi’s and wonder, why can’t you do what you were doing here 40 years ago? It’s because they’ve gotten themselves into a trap. Just like promotions is a cycle, a business model built on razor-thin margins and promotions is really difficult to escape.”
Direct-to-consumer brands that aren’t beholden to wholesale payouts and promotional cycles simply don’t need to send their production overseas in order to cut costs. And by keeping production domestic, direct-to-consumer brands get another advantage: they can react quicker to customer demands.
“To get a low price overseas, you have to order a lot of product, and you have to order it at least six months in advance,” says St. Louis. “Small, nimble companies don’t want that. More and more, customers don’t want something produced in such massive quantities. Retail is getting pushed hard, and it’s clear people aren’t shopping the way that they used to.”
The future in the fabric
The dance of the production teams at Eagle Sportswear has improved efficiencies while incentivizing workers, but stitchwork’s resistance to automation is the reason these people still have jobs in tact at all. American labor still comes at a high cost — Chinese labor works for about a third of what American sewers are paid.
“Some stuff isn’t coming back — a gazillion and one things are not coming back,” says St. Louis. “We’re never going to see a 2,000-person factory again that can shut down an entire community when it goes out of business.”
But according to St. Louis, the region doesn’t want to see that, and even when make-America-great-again slogans are hurled around, dangerous factory jobs under harsh conditions is hardly a return to paradise. Instead, St. Louis sees a new phase of U.S. manufacturing that leads in innovation around fabric technology and techniques like 3D printing. The Research Triangle Regional Partnership, a collaborative effort between textile experts at Duke University, North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina, is working with startup founders to bring technical fabric development to the region.
The future of U.S. fabric doesn’t need to solve health problems or check the weather, either. Carolina Cotton Works, a plant that dyes and finishes fabric, works with its brand partners, which include American Giant and Delta Apparel, to devise new product lines that can be entirely sourced and produced in the U.S.
“We can’t tell brands what to do with their business,” says Page Ashby, the president of Carolina Cotton Works. “But what we can do is develop a new product line that will keep their business here. They’re interested in listening.”