March 2, 2011 -- As we searched far and wide across this country for American-made products, we found one industry particularly difficult to locate. Where can we find fabrics made in the United States?
According to business owners, it's almost impossible to create textiles from start to finish with 100 percent American-made materials.
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The textiles and apparel Americans use are increasingly foreign-made. According to data from the 2010 Census, nearly 100 percent of all apparel Americans use is imported, up from nearly 57 percent in 2000. More and more textiles come from overseas as well: Nearly 52 percent of textiles Americans use are imported, up from nearly 33 percent in 2000.
Nancy Reib, founder and president of Wildcat Territory, maintains a commitment to manufacturing fabrics in the United States. She said a textile that is 100 percent made in America "just doesn't exist."
"It's just not the world we live in anymore. There's a ton of fabulous companies out there -- small companies -- but their products just don't all originate here. They're still American companies," she said.
Reib said 80 percent of Wildcat Territory's products are made in America. Her company buys fabric from all over the world, but also develops its own fabric in American mills. There aren't that many left, but there "is a small but still core group of people" who own mills in this country.
"Part of that is because of policies of past administrations, who didn't support American manufacturing. Many of the grand American mills closed down -- we watched in great sorrow, you'll never get that back," she said.
The company, founded about 15 years ago, employees what Reib calls "the best craftspeople," and the small staff of 20 is like family, she said. "I have so much pride in their work, and I feel committed to supporting that" by keeping manufacturing operations in the United States.
Despite the recession, Reib said she's optimistic for Wildcat Territory's future. "If you're an American manufacturer or designer, you don't quit -- you adapt," she said. "We're one company making a go at it, and that's what being American is about -- having great ingenuity, a sense of optimism and great style, and that's very much what I think Wildcat Territory is about."
Companies Struggle To Compete in a Global Market
Larry Hulighan, vice president of Copland Mills, takes pride in being part of the community of Burlington, N.C. "We employ 300 people, but we really employ 300 families," he said. "That's typical of a family-owned business -- we serve the family, we serve the customers."
Copland Mills is a family-owned business "70 years strong," Hulighan said. The company, which manufactures its products in the United States, is predominantly a polyester house, but finishes cotton as well.
Hulighan has worked in the fabric industry since 1973. "As you track the dynamic changes that have occurred in the production and consumption of textiles in this country since 1975, you will see a devastation of the textile industry, and it continues," he said.
Those changes are products of a global market, he said. "A company like Copland does not compete against individual companies. We compete against China, Incorporated -- against the government." Imported and American-made products differ so vastly in price, that "manufacturers here can't compete," he said.
At Copland, "virtually everything we touch here and utilize is manufactured in the United States," Hulighan said. But it's impossible for every aspect of fabric production to originate in America -- no looms are manufactured in the United States, he said. Aside from the looms, and certain chemicals, "we're as American-made as you can possibly be," Hulighan said.
Wildcat Territory and Copland Mills are just two examples of companies following the new definition of American-made in a changing industry -- staying committed to manufacturing in the United States with as much domestic raw material as possible. As Reib said, the new recipe for an American-made product is just like making a cake: "You might buy eggs and milk locally, but buy vanilla that comes from Madagascar. It's still American by my definition."