The Annals of Flannel

Three years ago, Bayard Winthrop, the chief executive and founder of the clothing brand American Giant, started thinking about a flannel shirt he wore as a kid in the 1970s. It was blue plaid and bought for him by his grandmother, probably at Caldor, a discount department store popular in the northeast back then. The flannel was one of the first pieces of clothing Mr. Winthrop owned that suggested a personality.

“I thought it looked great,” he said, “and I thought it said something about me. That I was cool and physical and capable and outdoorsy.”

Since 2011 American Giant, or AG, has mass-produced everyday sportswear for men and women, like the Lee jeans or Russell sweatshirts once sold in stores like Caldor — from the ginned cotton to the cutting and sewing — entirely in the U.S. Mr. Winthrop, 49, a former financier who had run a snowshoe firm, made it the company’s mission to, in his words, “bring back ingenuity and optimism to the towns that make things.” He’s been very successful, especially with a full-zip sweatshirt Slate called “the greatest hoodie ever made.” AG has introduced denim, leggings and socks, among other products.

But Mr. Winthrop’s madeleine of a garment proved elusive. “We kept asking around and hearing, ‘Not flannel. You can do all these other things here, maybe. Flannel is gone.’” he said.

L.L. Bean, Woolrich, Ralph Lauren and Pendleton all made their reputations on rugged, cozy flannel shirts, but not one of those brands make them domestically today. In fact, “flannel hasn’t been made in America for decades,” said Nate Herman, an executive for the American Apparel & Footwear Association, a Washington D.C.-based trade group. Some small family-run brands, like the Vermont Flannel Company and Gitman Bros., sew shirts in the U.S., but the fabric is woven overseas. Portugal and China are today the main producers of yarn-dyed flannel, Mr. Herman said.

Although it originated in Wales in the 17th century, flannel is a classic American garment, worn by Wyoming ranchers and California surfers, deer hunters and rock and hip-hop musicians. It was a key reference in Marc Jacobs’s then-notorious grunge collection for Perry Ellis in 1992, which was recently reissued. Like a pair of bluejeans, a flannel shirt conveys laid-back comfort and rugged durability.

Bringing its manufacture back to America, Mr. Winthrop thought, could be deeply symbolic. Both of the capability of U.S. manufacturing and of the need for big fashion brands to invest here again. It was a quixotic artisanal project, perhaps, but one with potentially high business stakes.

Flannel 101

“Forty years ago, we were able to make great shirts here, great jeans here, sold at a price that made sense to mainstream consumers,” Mr. Winthrop said at the outset of his project. “We’ve lost that capability in 40 years? We can’t make a flannel shirt in America? I’m not going to accept that answer.”

“Made in America” has become a marketing catchphrase espoused by both Brooklyn $400 selvage denim enthusiasts and Trump isolationists. And brands like American Apparel have led a renaissance of sorts in domestic manufacturing. But producing clothes in the U.S. today is exceedingly complicated. Over the last 30 years, the textile industry has been decimated by outsourcing and unfavorable trade deals, shedding 1.4 million jobs in the process, said Augustine Tantillo, president of the National Council of Textile Organizations.

Communities that produced clothes for generations, like Fort Payne, Ala., the former sock capital of the world, were mortally wounded when mills closed. Sometimes the expertise or work force have dissipated. Sometimes it’s the machinery, the looms, that have gone overseas.

Each time AG develops a new product, Mr. Winthrop must patch together its supply chain from what remains. To help him navigate the process, he relies on “old dogs in the industry,” he said, though AG is based in San Francisco and runs like a tech start-up, with sales almost entirely online.

For flannel, he called James McKinnon.

At 50, Mr. McKinnon is not that old (Mr. Winthrop is 49). But he is the third McKinnon to run Cotswold Industries, the textile manufacturer his grandfather started in 1954. Cotswold made the woven fabric for headliners inside Ford cars. Later, the firm manufactured pocket linings for Lee, Wrangler and Levi jeans. Cotswold still handles pocketing business for many U.S. brands, part of a diverse portfolio that includes making fabrics for culinary apparel. The fabrics are woven at its mill in Central, S.C.

Mr. Winthrop called Mr. McKinnon at his office in midtown Manhattan and ran through the list of questions. Why is flannel gone? What would it take to bring it back? How would you do it?

Mr. Winthrop specified that he wanted to make yarn-dyed flannel, not flannel in which the pattern is simply printed onto the fabric.

Mr. McKinnon was familiar with the story of American Giant and the hoodie. In an industry that has been waging a 40-year global economic war of attrition, and mostly losing, it is heartening to see an apparel company committed to America.

You don’t survive as a U.S. textile manufacturer without being smart and nimble, and without being a little battle-scarred. Mr. McKinnon is all of these things. Lately, he had been thinking about more than just surviving.

“Do we want to develop products that we are proud of? That aren’t just, you know, what we’ve always done but trying to do it cheaper,” he said. “You get tired of always playing defense. Let’s play some offense.”

Besides, Mr. McKinnon had his own positive if hazy memories of flannel. “I spent four or five years touring with the Grateful Dead,” he said. “I think I wore one flannel shirt for two years.”

Here was a partner who could “quarterback” a project that would prove to be incredibly challenging.

Shirting in general is more complicated than a T-shirt or fleece because it’s woven rather than knit. Wovens typically require more needlework, which means higher labor costs, which means that they have been outsourced more aggressively than knits or denim. And a flannel is a very complicated woven shirt.

For a T-shirt, raw material is fed into a circular knitting machine and a roll of fabric is cranked out and dyed red or blue or purple. But flannel requires the dyeing of each individual yarn, which is what gives it the patterned look of, say, Buffalo plaid.

Those dyed yarns are put on a weaving machine, or loom. There are lengthwise, or warp, yarns and crosswise, or weft, yarns. To get the famous red and black squares even and blended, the warping must be done precisely right. And the more intricate the pattern or numerous the colors, the more complex the warping and the harder the weave.

As anyone who loves one knows, flannel shirts are soft, which is achieved through a finishing process called napping.

“Flannel, of all the things in your wardrobe, is the one thing that you know intuitively if you like or not,” Mr. Winthrop said. “It has to feel right in your hand.”

‘The Best People I Know’

He had to find suppliers who could dye the yarn; weave the flannel; finish and nap it; and finally, cut and sew the fabric into shirts. And those partners, if they still existed, would also have to tolerate risk, because American Giant would begin with small test runs. Would a mill gear up its machinery and work force for 8,000 yards, instead of 80,000 or 800,000?

Mr. McKinnon convened a meeting with his team, drawing up a chart of all the stages. “I said, ‘Guys, take a look. This can be done here. This can be done here. This can be done here.’” Claiming impossibility at first, “finally the team looked at me and said, ‘Huh.’”

What gave Mr. McKinnon confidence initially was that Cotswold held onto a tiny piece of the yarn-dyed shirting business that involved uniforms for the Metro-North and Long Island Railroads.

“The transit workers that take your ticket wear a yarn-dyed shirt,” Mr. McKinnon said. “They’ve got that little pinstriped shirt.”

The shirts weren’t sportswear, the pattern wasn’t complex, but it meant the manufacturing of flannel was theoretically possible.

It was the expertise, the artistry, that remained a concern. The dyeing process, the way color takes to yarn, is both a science and an art. So is the laying of a warp and a weft. So is napping. Was anyone left who knew how to do it for flannel?

In May, Mr. Winthrop and Mr. McKinnon met for coffee in New York. The mood between them was tentative but buoyant. Over the winter, the flannel project had inched forward, with early hurdles cleared.

In March, the designer at American Giant, Sharon Aris, submitted her patterns for approval. Ms. Aris collected vintage Pendleton flannels for inspiration, but those shirts had been made during the glory days, and she quickly faced modern realities.

She couldn’t design one of those hand-loomed, 10-color hippie flannels like Neil Young wore back in the “Harvest” days. She could use six yarn colors at most, to produce three patterns. These had to be commercial for American Giant and, as important, able to be woven by Cotswold.

For Ms. Aris, who had designed for the contemporary label Esprit, this was a different way of working. Usually she sent designs to China or Eastern Europe and got back samples three months later. It was soulless but cheap.

Now she was in close communication with the manufacturer, collaborating on the design. This was how Mr. Winthrop had made the famous hoodie, working with a finisher called Carolina Cotton Works, or CCW, to painstakingly recreate the napped feel of old Champion sweatshirts.

Ms. Aris and Mr. Winthrop waited nervously throughout March to learn if Cotswold’s technicians could weave their designs. Mr. Winthrop wanted the shirts to go on sale for Christmas 2018. Any delays or roadblocks might cause AG to scrap the winter season, or the entire project.

In early April, Mr. McKinnon had called to say the patterns could be woven at Cotswold’s mill.

Now, as Mr. Winthrop and Mr. McKinnon talked over coffee, they addressed another concern — the yarn dyeing.

Mr. McKinnon had introduced Mr. Winthrop to “the best people I know,” in the domestic yarn-dyeing business, a North Carolina company called Burlington Manufacturing Services, or BMS. Cotswold used BMS to dye the blue Oxford fabric it made for Catholic-school shirts, another niche business.

When Ron Farris, sales representative for BMS, was contacted by the men, he couldn’t believe he was talking about flannel in 2018. BMS, Mr. Farris wrote them, was onboard. “It tickles me to no end,” is how he put it.

“The last 20, 25 years have been very, very frustrating,” Mr. McKinnon said at the coffee shop. “It’s been rolling rocks uphill trying to figure out how to be competitive. Now, because of this collaboration, you get up in the morning and you’ve got a hop to your step. Let’s go make something awesome.”

A Couple of Snags

In June, Mr. Winthrop flew from San Francisco to North Carolina to visit the facilities working on the flannel project. Traveling regularly between the booming, energetic coasts and struggling mill towns had deepened his commitments. In 2013, AG bought a sewing facility in tiny Middlesex, N.C., that was scheduled to shut down, saving the jobs of 120 workers there.

Like an idealistic politician, Mr. Winthrop repeats the same stump speech wherever he goes. The speech scolds clothing brands who have gone overseas to save nickels. The speech highlights the benefits in efficiency and product quality of doing business here. But the speech also warns of a stark division happening in U.S. textiles, between companies who have “the vision, courage and capital to stay ahead of the curve,” as Mr. Winthrop likes to say, and those who don’t.

Mr. Winthrop had been speechifying on the morning he pulled up to the Pioneer Plant in Burlington, N.C., where BMS, the yarn dyer, was headquartered.

Inside, he was met by the brain trust: Al Blalock, the president; Bill Singleton, the director of sales; and Mr. Farris, the sales representative. Mr. Farris started in the industry in 1979. That made him the young guy in the group.

“Welcome to BMS, a division of Decorative Fabrics of America,” Mr. Blalock said as everyone gathered around a table in a drab, outdated conference room.

The company’s long, difficult history was narrated for Mr. Winthrop. BMS was formerly part of Burlington Industries, once the largest textile manufacturer in the world, weaving 1.8 million yards of fabric each week at one mill alone. Then came a hostile takeover attempt from a private-equity vulture. Then outsourcing and downsizing. Then splintering of divisions.

“When was Burlington the largest in the world?” Mr. Winthrop asked.

“Seventies. Into the eighties,” said Mr. Farris, who had a salesman’s chatty ebullience. “Eighty-eight is when the crap kind of hit the fan.”

BMS, the yarn dyeing business, was bought from Burlington Industries by private investors in 2007.

Mr. Blalock ran through the firm’s clients, an assorted group. BMS dyed yarn for apparel, hosiery, upholstery, mattress fabrics, braids and ropes, health care and industrial products. It dyed the propelling rope the military used on helicopters.

“You ever see the movie ‘Black Hawk Down?’” Mr. Singleton said. “That’s the ropes they used.”

Mr. Blalock said: “You can’t be a one-trick pony in today’s markets, because you’re competing with the world.”

These men had lived through an economic tsunami. When the needle fled overseas, the upstream suppliers that service the mills, like cotton farmers, dye houses and finishers, also saw their business disappear. This is how they had survived, by finding every little niche market they could.

Mr. Blalock, Mr. Singleton and Mr. Farris were warriors of a sort. They were real old dogs; their collective age was around 200. And the facility they worked in, the Pioneer Plant, dated to 1923.

Touring the vast mill with its older machinery and silver-haired executives and rooms largely empty of workers, Mr. Winthrop began to look panicked. He needed good yarn-dyed fabric to make his shirts. Without it, he was sunk.

When was the last time yarn for flannel was dyed here? the men were asked.

“There was another company we dyed yarn for. Pendleton shirts,” Mr. Singleton said. He searched his memory. “Probably 30 years ago.”

Mr. Farris, the salesman, portrayed confidence to his client. “We dye yarn for shirting every day. Just a different type,” he said.

“There’s probably 120 years of experience right here,” Mr. Singleton said, looking to his colleagues.

But driving away, Mr. Winthrop was shaken.

Later that day, he addressed his concerns during a scheduled meeting with Mr. McKinnon at Cotswold’s sister facility, Central Textiles, in Central, S.C.

“Talk me off the ledge,” Mr. Winthrop said. “Have you been to that facility?”

Mr. McKinnon said he had, two years earlier.

“Maybe you should take another swing through,” Mr. Winthrop said. “It just felt like a cavernous space where not much was happening.”

Mr. McKinnon replied, “That’s the state of the U.S. textile industry.”

Cotswold’s Central plant was once owned by Cannon Mills, another big producer (of towels and sheets) long gone. In a welcome sight, the old brick buildings bustled with workers and delivery trucks on this afternoon. Bales of cotton and polyester come in one end and go out the other as woven fabric.

What was being woven on this day was flannel for American Giant.

Mr. McKinnon led Mr. Winthrop into a fluorescent-lit room the size of a football field with looms spaced every few feet. The machines were new but noisy. The men had to shout to speak, though the big smiles said everything.

One of Ms. Aris’ three patterns — a black plaid — was coming off the section beam in stiff sheets. Mr. Winthrop got his face right down to the sewing needles, to examine the warping for flaws. He found none. The yarn color was rich and beautiful. The old dogs at BMS had delivered as promised.

“You are looking at the first weaving of flannel in America since probably the mid-90s,” said Mr. McKinnon, who himself was seeing it for the first time.

Mr. McKinnon asked Mr. Winthrop, “What do you think?”

Mr. Winthrop was unusually reticent, seemingly in shock. He had pulled it off. “All the detail … Actually seeing the pattern come together…,” he said, trailing off.

“This is the hardest technical engineering aspect of this entire adventure,” Mr. McKinnon said, satisfied. “Bayard has been asking me every week on a scale of 1 to 100 what my confidence level is. Right now, it’s 95.”

Months passed. Spirits remained high. Mr. Winthrop, who is built low and squat like a wrestler, had “put his shoulder into it,” as he likes to say, and pushed through. Mr. McKinnon, along with every worker up and down the supply chain, proved that the technical capability had never left, only the appetite to do business here. They were nearing champagne-popping time.

‘Tickle It a Little Bit’

Then came another snag.

It involved what was supposed to be the easy part — the napping and finishing. Mr. McKinnon had recommended a finisher that returned to American Giant flannel with all the softness of an outdoor carpet.

The fabric was sent back. Five times. Additional rounds yielded little improvement, and weeks flew by. All of August into September, wasted.

Mr. McKinnon called Mr. Winthrop one day. They discussed the Christmas deadline and its unlikelihood now. They discussed chalking up the whole thing to a noble failure. Mr. McKinnon apologized and took the blame.

In September, in a last-ditch effort, Mr. McKinnon and Mr. Winthrop sent a few rolls of fabric to Carolina Cotton Works and its president, Page Ashby. CCW had not been hired for the flannel project, because it couldn’t do every finishing process under one roof. Still, it was Mr. Ashby who had collaborated on the famous hoodie, and now he and his workers “huddled up” with the fabric.

Over the phone, Mr. Ashby explained how flannel becomes soft. “You have to raise those fibers out of the yarn. Get it to be a little bit fuzzy, if you will. Not like a blanket. We just wanted to tickle it a little bit.”

CCW did the right amount of tickling. The fabric finally felt like the flannel shirt Mr. Winthrop had worn as a kid, the one that made him feel cool and capable.

Another finisher, Yates Bleachery Company, in Flintstone, Ga., would handle the crucial step of preshrinking. Then onto Jade Apparel in Philadelphia for the cutting and sewing of shirts.

Now that they’d fully reassembled the supply chain, a new, modified plan was hatched: American Giant would do a limited run, 2,000 yards, or enough fabric to make about 1,200 shirts, priced at around $100 apiece. BMS, Cotswold, CCW, Yates, Jade — all would have to rush production. But American flannel would be available for winter, with more to come in the new year.

Was it worth all the trouble, for a shirt?

Mr. Winthrop did not have to think about his answer. “We wanted to start an American-made business and build it to scale,” he said, over lunch at a restaurant in Lower Manhattan earlier this month. “The consistent narrative was, ‘You can’t do that, it’s all gone overseas.’ We heard that with the fleece, with premium tees. This was the next chapter.”

Mr. Winthrop leaned across the table, as if putting his shoulder into his reply. “Set the business part of it aside,” he said. “The thing I continue to be so struck by in the supply chain is this latent undercurrent of, ‘Give us a shot.’ It’s worth it for that alone — to prove the ability to do it.”

Steven Kurutz joined The Times in 2011 and wrote for the City and Home sections before joining Style. He was previously a reporter at The Wall Street Journal and Details. @skurutz

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