Today's Reading

PROLOGUE
THE 2 PERCENT

In 1989, the American workwear brand Carhartt produced a special clothing collection to mark its centennial in business. While shopping with my wife at a vintage store in Lambertville, New Jersey, a few years ago, I came across one of these garments—a cotton-duck work jacket with a patch on the chest pocket that read "100 Years, 1889-1989." The same was embossed on each brass button. Intrigued, I took the jacket off its hanger and studied it more closely. The inside was lined with a blanketlike fabric to provide extra warmth when working outdoors. "Crafted with Pride in U.S.A." read the neck label, and the underside bore the insignia of the United Garment Workers of America, a labor union founded around the same time as Carhartt itself. Nineteen eighty-nine doesn't seem that long ago. But holding this jacket in my hands, I began to have the feeling you get when looking at a very old photograph. I was holding an artifact from a lost world.

It wasn't simply the reference to the trade union, which ceased to exist not long after the jacket was made. Or that modern work coats rarely have the practical feature of a blanket lining because it adds to production costs. It was that the country's entire apparel-making industry had all but vanished in the decades since. We still wore blue jeans, high-top sneakers, Western boots, button-down dress shirts, and durable workwear, all of which are American inventions, but we no longer produced them. Most clothing, Carhartt's included, was now made in low-cost factories around the world, principally in Asia. The statistics tell the harsh story. In 1980, around 70 percent of the clothing Americans wore was made domestically. Today, that figure is 2 percent. Over a period of forty years, America had outsourced the shirt off its back.

* * *

As a longtime Styles reporter for The New York Times, I covered the apparel industry, but only glancingly. I rarely attended fashion shows and never once spent a day trailing around after Ralph Lauren or Tom Ford for a profile. My interest was in how style was created and took shape in little-known, often unglamorous corners of the business. I wrote, for instance, about a retail liquidator in the South that sold heavily-marked-down Balenciaga and Chanel out of strip malls. Another story centered on a century-old family business, M&S Schmalberg, that made fabric flowers for Broadway costumers and fashion designers like Vera Wang and Marc Jacobs. The week I spent at the upper-floor factory in New York's Garment District, watching workers assemble the delicate creations with silk, wire, and craft glue, was more thrilling to me than sitting front row at Paris Fashion Week. Not long after I happened upon that Carhartt jacket, I began to think about garment manufacturing and why the United States, which once had a thriving apparel industry, no longer practiced these things. Clothing is a basic human need. What did it mean for a nation to lose the ability to make it on any scale?

Researching the subject, I came across the work of Christopher Payne, an architectural photographer who some years ago had made a project of documenting America's textile mills. Payne grew up in New England, where the country's textile, apparel, and shoe industries began in the late 1700s and flourished for a century and a half. The massive brick mills loom over the landscape, he told me. "The shadow of it—the weight—is strong." One day, Payne recalled, he was on the phone with a factory owner in the Massachusetts city of Fall River, which in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had been a world leader in the production of cotton cloth. The man ran a cut-and-sew factory for men's shirts, making them for a variety of high-end brands. "There's one area of the building I can show you," he told Payne. "In that room, you're going to get one shot, and in that one shot, you will see the entire arc of the textile industry." Payne drove there eagerly. The factory was typical of the other mill buildings in the area: granite exterior, open floors, wood columns and beams, wood floors, wood stairwells. The factory occupied two floors of the building. The owner welcomed him inside and led him to the workspace. Payne expected to see a room filled with humming machinery and busy workers. Instead, he said, "You open this door and there was this giant hall, this vast space. And it was empty."

Payne was stunned speechless. "And the millowner looked at me and said, 'Gone to China.'"

At first, I dwelled on the 98 percent of clothing now made overseas, one more sorry outcome of America's decision, starting in the 1970s, to renounce its role as factory to the world and outsource to developing countries. But after a time, my focus reversed, and I became intrigued by not what was lost but what remained—the 2 percent, and those who were working to grow that number once again.
...

Join the Library's Online Book Clubs and start receiving chapters from popular books in your daily email. Every day, Monday through Friday, we'll send you a portion of a book that takes only five minutes to read. Each Monday we begin a new book and by Friday you will have the chance to read 2 or 3 chapters, enough to know if it's a book you want to finish. You can read a wide variety of books including fiction, nonfiction, romance, business, teen and mystery books. Just give us your email address and five minutes a day, and we'll give you an exciting world of reading.

What our readers think...

Read Book

Today's Reading

PROLOGUE
THE 2 PERCENT

In 1989, the American workwear brand Carhartt produced a special clothing collection to mark its centennial in business. While shopping with my wife at a vintage store in Lambertville, New Jersey, a few years ago, I came across one of these garments—a cotton-duck work jacket with a patch on the chest pocket that read "100 Years, 1889-1989." The same was embossed on each brass button. Intrigued, I took the jacket off its hanger and studied it more closely. The inside was lined with a blanketlike fabric to provide extra warmth when working outdoors. "Crafted with Pride in U.S.A." read the neck label, and the underside bore the insignia of the United Garment Workers of America, a labor union founded around the same time as Carhartt itself. Nineteen eighty-nine doesn't seem that long ago. But holding this jacket in my hands, I began to have the feeling you get when looking at a very old photograph. I was holding an artifact from a lost world.

It wasn't simply the reference to the trade union, which ceased to exist not long after the jacket was made. Or that modern work coats rarely have the practical feature of a blanket lining because it adds to production costs. It was that the country's entire apparel-making industry had all but vanished in the decades since. We still wore blue jeans, high-top sneakers, Western boots, button-down dress shirts, and durable workwear, all of which are American inventions, but we no longer produced them. Most clothing, Carhartt's included, was now made in low-cost factories around the world, principally in Asia. The statistics tell the harsh story. In 1980, around 70 percent of the clothing Americans wore was made domestically. Today, that figure is 2 percent. Over a period of forty years, America had outsourced the shirt off its back.

* * *

As a longtime Styles reporter for The New York Times, I covered the apparel industry, but only glancingly. I rarely attended fashion shows and never once spent a day trailing around after Ralph Lauren or Tom Ford for a profile. My interest was in how style was created and took shape in little-known, often unglamorous corners of the business. I wrote, for instance, about a retail liquidator in the South that sold heavily-marked-down Balenciaga and Chanel out of strip malls. Another story centered on a century-old family business, M&S Schmalberg, that made fabric flowers for Broadway costumers and fashion designers like Vera Wang and Marc Jacobs. The week I spent at the upper-floor factory in New York's Garment District, watching workers assemble the delicate creations with silk, wire, and craft glue, was more thrilling to me than sitting front row at Paris Fashion Week. Not long after I happened upon that Carhartt jacket, I began to think about garment manufacturing and why the United States, which once had a thriving apparel industry, no longer practiced these things. Clothing is a basic human need. What did it mean for a nation to lose the ability to make it on any scale?

Researching the subject, I came across the work of Christopher Payne, an architectural photographer who some years ago had made a project of documenting America's textile mills. Payne grew up in New England, where the country's textile, apparel, and shoe industries began in the late 1700s and flourished for a century and a half. The massive brick mills loom over the landscape, he told me. "The shadow of it—the weight—is strong." One day, Payne recalled, he was on the phone with a factory owner in the Massachusetts city of Fall River, which in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had been a world leader in the production of cotton cloth. The man ran a cut-and-sew factory for men's shirts, making them for a variety of high-end brands. "There's one area of the building I can show you," he told Payne. "In that room, you're going to get one shot, and in that one shot, you will see the entire arc of the textile industry." Payne drove there eagerly. The factory was typical of the other mill buildings in the area: granite exterior, open floors, wood columns and beams, wood floors, wood stairwells. The factory occupied two floors of the building. The owner welcomed him inside and led him to the workspace. Payne expected to see a room filled with humming machinery and busy workers. Instead, he said, "You open this door and there was this giant hall, this vast space. And it was empty."

Payne was stunned speechless. "And the millowner looked at me and said, 'Gone to China.'"

At first, I dwelled on the 98 percent of clothing now made overseas, one more sorry outcome of America's decision, starting in the 1970s, to renounce its role as factory to the world and outsource to developing countries. But after a time, my focus reversed, and I became intrigued by not what was lost but what remained—the 2 percent, and those who were working to grow that number once again.
...

Join the Library's Online Book Clubs and start receiving chapters from popular books in your daily email. Every day, Monday through Friday, we'll send you a portion of a book that takes only five minutes to read. Each Monday we begin a new book and by Friday you will have the chance to read 2 or 3 chapters, enough to know if it's a book you want to finish. You can read a wide variety of books including fiction, nonfiction, romance, business, teen and mystery books. Just give us your email address and five minutes a day, and we'll give you an exciting world of reading.

What our readers think...