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Made in America Staging a Comeback?

Wool blankets from Faribault Woolen Mill Company.Wool blankets from Faribault Woolen Mill Company.
Yes, Virginia, some home textiles are still made in the U.S.A. More often, though, they are assembled in the U.S.A. from constituent parts - fiber fill, pillow shells or towel blanks - that come from elsewhere, often China.
     While the political debate over restoring jobs to the economy has thrown a spotlight on the state of America's manufacturing sector - and spawned a Made in America series by ABC World News - most manufacturers still constructing product here don't anticipate a restoration.
     A few, however, said the Made in America label is beginning to pique some interest at retail.
     1888 Mills does most of its towel production off-shore, but maintains a small manufacturing operation here for short runs of better goods and to meet quick-replenishment needs. It also has had several retailers inquire about getting some U.S.-made product to put on their ecommerce sites.
     "They're getting requests from their consumers online," said Lexi Schladenhauffen, vp of marketing and design.
     1888 already offers U.S.-made towels on Amazon and Costco.com, she said. The company was also called on by "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" to contribute towels to seven homes in Joplin, Mo., that are being rebuilt after sustaining hurricane damage. And 1888 was included in a dorm room makeover featuring U.S. product for a segment on ABC World News.
     "In the past, we wished [Made in the USA] was a piece of the decision-making process," said Schladenhauffen. "Now it seems like some people are looking for it."
     To what extent consumers are clamoring for U.S.-manufactured goods remains unclear. Certainly the national news outlets are interested.
     Faribault Woolen Mill in Faribault, Minn., reopened earlier this year under new ownership. Its 14 looms are operating at about 60% capacity, primarily pumping out wool blankets, according to Chuck Mooty, president and ceo. So far, the manufacturing relaunch has resulted in coverage by USA Today, CBS National News and CNBC.
     "We've gotten some nice media attention," said Mooty.
     The mill this month will open a store in The Mall of America in Minneapolis. Mooty hopes to receive first-hand feedback from consumers on products through the store. As to whether the Made in the U.S.A. factor helps Faribault sell product from its website, Mooty said: "I don't think there's any doubt."
     Rival Pendleton Woolen Mills is seeing an explosion in business and has brought some wool production for its apparel back to the U.S. plant. The home end of Pendleton has also expanded, with a new major hospitality account as well as exclusive co-branded blanket products for Eddie Bauer, Urban Outfitters and Dwell Studio.
     "It's rocking and rolling. The retro American look is very hot right now," said Bob Christnaught, head of Pendleton
Wool blankets from Faribault Woolen Mill Company.Wool blankets from Faribault Woolen Mill Company.
Home. Boutique and bridge stores are adding Pendleton blankets for the first time, he said. The mill is now running three shifts a day for five days a week and investing in additional high speed dobby looms for blankets, he said.
     "Blankets used to be a five-to six-week season. The season has gotten longer," he added. "A lot of that, I think, is the fall off in the heavier top-of-bed looks."
     Aside from rug manufacturing (see page 8), much of the home textiles production in the United States consists of blowing fill into pillow and comforter shells produced off-shore.
     Louisville Bedding operates four such plants in the United States and one in Montreal. Interest in Made in the U.S.A. product really varies by customer, according to Eric Besner, vp of sales and marketing for the United States and Canada.
     "Certain retailers say they're answering the feedback they're getting from customers. But to be honest, I can talk to other retailers and it's not even on the radar."
     What is growing in some quarters, Besner said, is the idea of featuring the domestic angle in marketing, especially packaging.
     "Being able to say: ‘These products create 750 jobs.' This is where a lot of the softness and the heart come into play. People are concerned about jobs in America," said Besner.
     Hollander Home Fashions, which also operates several filling plans in the United States and one in Toronto, would like to see more production here, but the numbers don't add up, according to ceo Chris Baker.
     "The cost to fill product is very small relative to the selling price," he said. But that also gives U.S. suppliers some advantages. "We can turn orders around very quickly - instead of weeks, if not months in the pipeline."
     Allied Home's ceo and chief product officer Andy Schantz agrees. "If we didn't have to ship it over the water it would probably be done in China," he said.
     However, Allied is planning to do fuller production in the United States on some better down pillows and comforters. "Notice I said ‘better' - not opening price point," he added.
     Soft-Tex, which recently expanded its U.S. production from 80,000 square feet to 120,000 square feet doesn't emphasize the U.S. assembly of the product "because the product isn't 100% made here," said president Arthur Perry.
     He said most of the component development also takes place outside the United States.
     "The fiber tech is mostly offshore. There's some pretty good technology coming out of Germany, and that tech is taken to China for manufacturing," he said.
     Foam manufacturer Sinomax currently does all its production in China but is looking to add U.S. production for some items where a reduction in shipping costs could offset the domestic production cost.
     "This has been met with warm reception by most of our customers who do tend to favor Made in the U.S.A as a feelgood, but are still primarily price conscious," said Steven Romero, vp of marketing.
     Jonathan Alkin, president of iJon, has found a way to reopen his cut and sew operation in California by offering fast turnaround on market sampling and preproduction as well as full production for better goods that don't meet the volume minimum for off-shore manufacturing.
     "We're gong to warehouse a certain variety of different thread counts, sateen, and percales of quality goods in white and ivory. We've also got some ready, in-stock Italian wide-width in white and ivory at 600-count," he said.
     The company also offers warehousing and drop shipping.
     "We have so many people we can draw off [for production]," he added. "Every time we need to produce more than we did the week before, we need more people."
     Fashion home textiles company Veratex is also seeing growth for its cut-and-sew business.
     "Most of it because of minimums," said ceo Avi Cohen. However, many online operations like to show U.S.-produced product, he said.
     "We get letters from the customers saying: ‘Thank you for making this in the U.S.' It's nice," he said.
     For CDS Ensembles - which over the course of many years has provided cut and sew as well as filling and quilting for suppliers - business has been growing because the economy has forced players in every part of the supply chain to rethink their model.
     "There seems to be a willingness of people to try new things and share the supply chain," said David Krieger, ceo.
     In one upcoming project, an equipment manufacturer is going to locate some hardware on CDS's floor; CDS will produce product using the equipment on behalf of a supplier who has contracted with a retail account for the program.
     "It's so different than it was just two year ago," said Krieger. "People are starting to take some shared responsibility for one another's success. It may sound ‘woo-woo,' but it's good business."

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