Made in the USA: Snapshots in On-Shore Manufacturing
Textile and apparel manufacturing continues to thrive in the United States, often in specialized niches. This article examines four companies: a California knit fabric specialist, a young entrepreneurial jeans maker in South Carolina, a family-run narrow fabric manufacturer in Rhode Island and a well-known sock maker in North Carolina.
North East Knitting
Pawtucket, R.I., home to historic Slater’s Mill, the first water-powered spinning mill in the United States, is known as the birthplace of the U.S. textile industry. Once a thriving textile center, there are just a handful of companies left in the city, but one of them happens to be a successful manufacturer with an inspirational story behind its founding.
North East Knitting, (NEK) a narrow fabrics manufacturer, specializing in elastics and webbing, serves a variety of markets, including apparel, safety, sporting goods, medical and automotives. Its founding is a story of hard work, perseverance, determination, and a testament to the critical role immigrants have played in the success of U.S. manufacturing.
Rosalie DaRosa, a native of the Cape Verde Islands, was among several founders of the company in 1986. She came to Pawtucket with her father when she was 18. Speaking very little English, she began working with her father at a company called International Stretch, a producer of elastic textiles.
North East Knitting has grown with its customers. About 15 years ago, following a downturn in business, the company added weaving to its capabilities, allowing it to broaden its customer base. Offering braiding, knitting and weaving services, the company became a one-stop shop for its customers. During this period of growth, Rosalie’s three sons — Eric, Michael and Alex — joined the company and now manage its operations.
“I’ve always liked textiles,” she says. “I’ve been here for 50 years and I was very fortunate to have three young boys. They got a great education and went to work for other companies until I told them I needed them. They go to trade shows and see what demand is there and what markets to try to get in to. They have taken this company to another level. What I do is support them and make sure the factory goes smooth and we hire the right people. That’s the role I play now.”
Greenville, S.C., is home boutique jeans maker Billiam Jeans, the brainchild of 30-year-old entrepreneur, Bill Mitchell, who as a senior at Clemson University back in 2009 discovered he had a penchant for making tailored clothing. His Greenville shop doubles as Billiam’s factory, where Mitchell and his lone employee laboriously churn out top quality jeans at the rate of about one pair per hour.
In addition to his retail shop, Mitchell sells Billiam jeans online and to wholesalers serving boutique shops mostly in the Southeast. Billiam has also gone international with eight stores in the U.K. carrying the jeans, and stores in South Korea and Japan selling them as well.
At $250 a pair, Billiam’s jeans aren’t for everyone. Mitchell describes his clientele as ranging from consumers who like locally made products and don’t mind paying extra to well-heeled customers with the means to buy the most expensive designer jeans who instead choose to pay for the experience of buying tailored jeans.
Initially, Mitchell purchased denim from Liberty Denim in South Carolina, which closed in 2012. From that point until the end of December 2017, Mitchell sourced his denim from Greensboro-based Cone Mills’ White Oak plant, the only remaining facility producing selvage denim in the United States, weaving it on vintage 1940s Draper looms. However, Cone’s owner, International Textile Group, decided to close the venerable and world-famous plant at the end of 2017, cutting off the supply to Billiam and other boutique jeans makers around the United States. Much of White Oak’s appeal derived from the way the denim was crafted, as well as from being made in the United States.
Upon learning the news of the plant’s closing, Mitchell scrambled to maintain his supply line by buying as much of White Oak’s inventory as he could.
“I took about every penny I had in the bank and bought as much denim as I could,” Mitchell says. “The plan was to stock up. We now have material to last us for the next three or four years, and we are as full as we could possibly be.”
Mitchell laments White Oak’s closing, saying that in addition to putting niche jeans makers in a sourcing bind, it also may stifle the next generation of young entrepreneurs who want to start jeans companies. Long-range, he says, Billiam may explore sourcing denim from Trion, GA-based Mount Vernon, which now operates the last remaining U.S. denim mill. In the meantime, Mitchell says he plans to get into the cut-and-sew of t-shirts and sweats.
Sean Sassounian, CEO and founder of Vernon, Calif.-based SAS Textiles, a versatile circular knitter of contemporary and performance fabrics, says his company has persevered despite cheap imports by offering top quality and quick turnarounds, yet in other areas there have been many changes since he founded the company more than 25 years ago, among them smaller programs by customers and a move to online sales.
Sassounian founded SAS Textiles in 1993 while studying business at the University of Southern California. He had previously helped his father sell imported yarns from Brazil. He partnered with a knitter when he founded the company because, as he says, “I had no idea what knitting was all about.”
SAS works with “select” dye houses in the area for dyeing and finishing. At one time, the company had a cut-and-sew partner in Mexico, but SAS is currently only offering fabrics, although Sassounian hopes to move back into cut-and-sew sometime in the future.
SAS has a product development team that focuses on innovation and an extensive library of more than 20 years of styles that Sassounian says inevitably come back into vogue.
In addition to rising labor costs, which are coming about in part due to California’s new law that will see the hourly minimum wage rise gradually to $15 by Jan. 1, 2021, textile companies are increasingly finding it difficult to recruit skilled labor.
SAS Textiles has moved into a more performance-oriented market in recent years as a way to diversify its product mix. The company works with a lot of the better contemporary brands in the activewear market. Quality control is essential, particularly in these markets, and SAS puts a lot of effort in this area.
Although SAS’ sales increased in 2018, market conditions continue to be tough, says Sassounian. While today SAS has more customers, orders are smaller, and tariffs on yarn made in China is causing SAS to increase fabric prices.
“We are cautiously optimistic about 2019,” Sassounian says. “We are planning on going beyond only offering fabric and offering full-package garments. We are in the process of setting this up and will be offering this service shortly.”
Padded-sock innovator Jim Throneburg credits his company’s success to his father’s simple philosophy of being the best at anything you do.
“He said there will always be a place in the marketplace for the best,” recalls Throneburg, founder of Statesville, N.C.-based Thorlo. “We’ve always tried to be different and serve consumer needs rather than retailer needs as our first priority.”
Throneburg and his dad were contract knitters of sock, in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, before he founded Thorlo in 1980. With Thorlo, Throneburg has carried forward the same philosophy of being the best in foot protection.
To achieve that goal, the company has built its business around listening to consumers. Several years ago, Thorlo began soliciting online customer product reviews and the management team reads these reviews every day.
“Ninety-eight percent of them have been positive,” Throneburg says. “Many of them tell us we have helped them with some foot problem, or have helped them to play tennis as much as they want to without blistering.”
Ask Throneburg about the sock business, and he will tell you that Thorlo is in the foot protection business. He notes that a lot of competitors have incorporated some of his company’s innovations, but that comes with being a pioneer.
“Some [sock manufacturers] have learned from us and are doing a better marketing job,” Thornburg says. “But that’s not the point. We changed the way the industry views itself when we developed our activity-specific product line. We really don’t consider ourselves to be in the sock business. We’re in the foot protection business. I don’t follow the sock industry stats as much as I used to.”
John McCurry is a Colorado-based Apparel contributing writer with many years of experience covering the apparel and textile industries.