The Last Makers
Shortly before the last-minute holiday shopping rush, NPR’s All Things Considered covered a curious but not altogether surprising story: With “heritage” style at its apex and lumberjack-chic having drifted from the streets of Williamsburg to the American mainstream, iconic retailer L.L. Bean’s most iconic product, the “Bean Boot,” was flying off shelves and the company was having trouble meeting demand.
Perhaps the most surprising part of the story to many All Things Considered listeners: Bean Boots are still handmade in three factories in Maine, a state that used to be the largest shoe-producing state in the country. But that industry, like so many other veins of American manufacturing, is largely gone.
Our renewed love of homegrown, thoughtfully-produced goods often focuses on individual artisans or small-batch operations – from Best Made Co.’s axes to Little Seed Farm’s goat-milk soap (which earned West Elm’s seal of approval). Not that there’s anything at all wrong with that. But the heart of U.S. manufacturing was, for decades, small- to mid-size industrial operations that were the source of nearly everything in the American home from tables to windows to socks. And these are the factories that are, in many cases, down to only a handful of stalwarts.
Much of the focus in the press on the loss of mid-scale manufacturing industries (as opposed to massive ones like the auto industry) in the U.S. have focused on furniture factories. Indeed, Beth Macy’s recent book Factory Man details one particularly poignant instance of this: The family-owned Bassett Furniture Co. in Bassett, VA was facing potentially fatal threats from cheaper offshore production in the 1970s and 1980s, but survived with determined tactics that included showing up at the door of one of the overseas knockoff factories that was making cheap copies of its wares. Yet on the other hand, the independent documentary With These Hands details the 2007 closure of Hooker Furniture’s Martinsville, Va. plant in the face of globalization, noting that one of its employees was one of only 50 people in the world who knew how to operate a mechanical tenon machine.
But furniture operations were typically vertically-integrated operations that in many cases were large enough to sustain an entire town’s livelihood. Smaller operations that have been crucial parts of the supply chain for bigger manufacturing operations have also been on the wane; in creating its Essential Collection’s inaugural sweaters, ZADY had to undergo a search that led it to a bespoke production design that touched family-owned and small-batch producers and creators in Pennsylvania, California, South Carolina, and Oregon.
Even the considerable rise in interest levels – not to mention a premium in price and prestige when it comes to anything “heritage” or “American-made” – is sometimes not enough to preserve a manufacturing process that can only be financially sustainable when produced en masse. Take vinyl record pressing, an industry that’s not just moved overseas but also hasn’t been the mainstream medium for listening to music in decades. With interest in vinyl among music enthusiasts on the rise, a group of Montreal-area entrepreneurs bought up unused record manufacturing equipment from the U.S. in 2009 and opened RIP-V, which became Canada’s only record plant. But in 2014, [RIP-V closed](http://www.rcinet.ca/en/2014/12/18/the-last-vinyl-record-plant-in-canada-going-going/_, with its owners citing a bittersweet truth: The rising interest in vinyl meant that they’d have to expand operations well beyond their scope or means. The equipment was sold to interested buyers back in the U.S., and its next chapter remains unknown.
But the resurgence of the Bean Boot shows that these last vestiges of American industry can, in fact, rise again. In many cases, it’s a new acumen for business that can bring this kind of manufacturing to new audiences. Satya Twena, a young New York City hatmaker, learned that the local millinery she relied on was closing and raised over $100,000 on Kickstarter to save it, thanks in part to savvy partnerships with fashion and DIY powerhouse bloggers. Wool dyeing company Saco River Dye House, similarly, used Kickstarter to power its way to move legacy equipment to the site of a former Westpoint-Stevens textile mill in the onetime manufacturing town of Biddeford, Maine, where it now dyes certified organic wool.
And sometimes, there are stories inspiring enough to keep entire industries alive. In 2012, Maine’s Bangor Daily News reported on a curious incident: A visitor arrived at the Quoddy Trail Moccasins Co., which has its factory in downtrodden Lewiston, a former “company town” brought to its knees by the decline in American manufacturing. It was a man from Japan, where in recent years the “made in America” label – and particularly, “made in Maine” – has borne a premium.
His reason for arrival? He’d flown to the other side of the world because he wanted to see where his shoes were made.