Slowly but surely, a small amount of textile and apparel manufacturing is springing up in the United States. Although developments are incremental, the trend shows signs of gaining momentum. Here we take a closer look at four relatively new companies producing stateside.
Gina Locklear (pictured above, with her parents) started thinking about joining her family’s Fort Payne, Ala., sock manufacturing business when she was in college in the early 2000s. Sock manufacturing in the United States was in full decline during those years. Momentum toward cheap imported socks was robbing the northeastern Alabama town of its revered reputation as the “Sock Capital of the World.”
Locklear’s parents started Emi-G Knitting in 1991, naming it after their two daughters, Gina and Emily. Following her college graduation, in 2008, Locklear took her concept for organic socks to her parents, and convinced them that was the future of the company. A year later, she created the Zkano brand, and three years later, the Little River Sock Mill brand. Both use organic cotton grown in Texas; the socks are made through sustainable manufacturing processes. Yarn comes from a spinner in North Carolina that uses low-impact dyes. Late last year, the company opened a retail space inside its mill to sell its socks.
“We decided to open a mill shop because we had a lot of customers visiting our mill hoping to buy our socks. Before our shop opened, the only shopping experience we had to offer was selecting socks from corrugated boxes from our inventory room,” Locklear says. “I knew we needed something better. So, we decided to create a space inside our mill where customers can come and purchase our socks, from the people who make them, just a few steps away from where they are made.”
Ben Waxman never figured on making a living in textiles, despite having grown up in a family involved in New England’s woolen fabric business. But after a career in politics and working with labor unions, he returned to his hometown of Portland, Maine, to do just that.
In October 2015, Waxman and his fiancé and business partner, Whitney Reynolds, launched American Roots (americanrootswear.com), an apparel firm specializing in U.S.-made jackets, pullovers, vests, scarves, throws and blankets. Growth has been rapid.
The inspiration for American Roots traces to a trip Waxman and Reynolds made during the summer of 2014 with his mom, Dory Waxman, a woolen textile veteran, to a woolen mill to look at new wools for blankets.
“I had this moment and I looked at Whitney and said, ‘we are going to make stuff,’” Waxman recalls.
The company began its third full year of production in 2018. It began with just four employees, today has 22 and expects to grow to 30 by year’s end. American Roots has grown its sales from $400,000 in its first year to $1.1 million in 2017.
“We started with Polartec fleece. We have since added a cotton line of sweatshirts, heavy and lightweight, zip up and pullover, and will soon be adding a warm weather line of cotton products,” Waxman says. “Our factory continues to see steady growth and we will be moving from our current facility of 4,000 square feet to a new facility of 15,000 square feet. We continue to build our supply chain and remain committed to using only 100 percent U.S.-made raw material.”
A six-year-old yarn-dyeing operation in Maine has grown rapidly and diversified its services. Maine Dye and Textiles, based in Saco, is now processing 18 tons of yarn per month. It has expanded its services into yarns for technical textiles and high-performance apparel.
Formerly known as Saco River Dyehouse, the company formed in 2012 to dye yarn skeins for the home-knitting industry, moved into a new facility in 2016, and has invested heavily in new equipment as it broadens into a variety of technical textiles markets.
“It’s about diversifying,” managing director Claudia Raessler said of the expansion.
“We’re moving into technical and industrial markets. Our message is simple. If you have an uncolored thread or yarn, we want to put color on it.”
Raessler, who previously made her living as an attorney, bought the assets of a defunct dye house in 2012 with her husband Ken, and a few partners. Most of the equipment was usable, but relatively antiquated, so the investment should to take the company to a new level and greatly expand production capacity.
To In line with its new offerings, the company decided to change its name as well.
“We have changed the type of services we provide, and one of the recommendations from our marketing team was to get the word textiles in our name,” Raessler said.
“This also helps bring more recognition of the return of textile manufacturing to the State of Maine.”
Merrow Manufacturing, the relatively new apparel manufacturing company spawned by venerable machine builder Merrow Sewing Machine Company, sees the burgeoning wearables market as a big part of its future. Formed last year, it produces athletic apparel and offers contract sewing, but perhaps more important to its long-range outlook is its strategic plan to position its soft goods production to develop partnerships with technology companies.
The Fall River, Mass., company has been family-owned throughout its history and is currently owned and managed by the seventh generation of the family. Charlie Merrow and his brother, Owen, bought the family business in 2004 and dedicated themselves to rebuilding it.
Two years ago, Merrow wrote a plan for the overall company that envisioned what it would look like in 10 years, including which technologies would intersect with manufacturing and what Merrow Manufacturing’s role might be in that scenario. In going through that exercise, says Merrow, he recognized that “instrumented soft goods” — his term for wearables — would be an area where the company has an edge due to its ability to leverage technology as it relates to soft goods. The company is nearing the end of the first year of a two-and-a-half-year rollout of its program for instrumented soft goods. Merrow expects the first products to be manufactured near the end of 2019 or in early 2020.
The apparel manufacturing operation was formed in July 2017 with 25 stitchers and as of March of this year was up to about 100, with a total staff of 150. About 75 percent of the apparel products Merrow manufactures involve knit fabrics. Products include lingerie, base layers, hoodies, and combat jerseys. The most recent product initiative is a woven dress shirt program. Plans are to enter the footwear market this year.
John McCurry is a Georgia-based Apparel contributing writer.