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Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and the advent of mass manufacturing, the production of apparel and textiles has been an integral part of the political and commercial evolution of society.
In the last 100 years or so, the making of fabric and clothing has been embroiled in the organized labor movement, has followed the low-cost path around the country and the world, and has been used as a tool and a pawn in national and world politics.
In the U.S., textile and apparel factories were caught in the industrial boom at the turn of the 20th century, but also quickly got entangled with the problems of the nascent commercial culture. Mills that sprung up in places like Lawrence, Mass., and clothing factories that took hold in Lower Manhattan encountered problems such as child labor, unsafe working conditions and unscrupulous employers that plagued much mass manufacturing in the early days of industrialization and led to Progressive Era reforms and the call for unionized collective bargaining.
The most powerful of the new labor unions was the American Federation of Labor, led by Samuel Gompers. Representing skilled craft workers, the AFL focused on wage and hour issues, but did not embrace women or minorities in its ranks. Women responded by forming the Women’s Trade Union League, which organized workers in industries such as garment manufacturing where women dominated the workforce, while also garnering support from social reformers like Jane Addams, Anne Morgan and Alva Belmont.
On July 13, 1910, the first day WWD became a daily, it was reported on page one that a “Mass Meeting of manufacturers” was being held that day to discuss a strike by unions demanding a 25 percent increase in wages and a 48-hour work week. The strike was settled by the famous “Protocols of Peace,” created at conferences presided over by Boston lawyer and future Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis.
A seminal moment occurred on March 25, 1911, when a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. factory in New York’s Greenwich Village. With fire exits locked and bolts of fabric strewn across the floor as the fire broke out, many of these women factory workers were trapped on floors higher then the fire ladders at the time could reach. In the end 146 died, many jumping out of windows to escape the blaze. The result at the time and in years to come were laws protecting workers setting workplace safety standards.
The laissez-faire fiscal and political policies of Republican Presidents Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover during the Roaring Twenties swung the pendulum back from the Progressive Era, rejecting free trade and favoring protection of domestic industry. Those political philosophies would see a complete turnaround by the end of the century, with Democrats generally protectionist and Republicans usually free traders.
The punitive Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930, which sharply increased import duties, helped spread the Great Depression to debt-laden Europe and deepened the financial crisis in the U.S.
While part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal included labor reforms, the Great Depression also brought high unemployment and labor unrest. In 1934, a series of violent strikes, led by radical socialists, shook the country. On Labor Day, textile workers began the country’s largest strike ever. From the silk mills of Paterson, N.J., to weaving mills in Rhode Island, a strike of 400,000 textile workers shut factories in 20 states, demanding recognition for the United Textile Workers Union, which failed. But much of the textile and apparel industry would later be organized by unions such as the Amalgamated Clothing & Textile Workers Union and the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.
Under the New Deal, the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, also known as the Wagner Act, made it easier for labor unions to organize and put the labor vote in the Democratic column for a generation. During World War II, organized labor entered a three-sided arrangement with government and business that allowed union membership to soar. In order to secure industrial peace and stabilize war production, the Roosevelt administration forced reluctant employers to recognize unions, while winning the pledge of union leaders not to strike during wartime, which they didn’t.
During the next few decades, Manhattan’s Garment Center built its image of rolling racks carrying goods from factories to showrooms and delivery trucks, executives and salesmen kibitzing on the streets of Seventh Avenue, and the rise of the neighborhood as the center of apparel manufacturing and the nucleus of the fashion industry. At its peak in 1973, there were some 400,000 apparel production jobs in New York.
It was around this time, however, that intense retail consolidation and socioeconomic changes abroad began the era of imports that has steadily grown to the point that more than 90 percent of all clothing now sold at retail in America is imported. Following the continued mobility of the industry and the quest for lower-priced manufacturing, production has traveled from America’s Northeast to its Southeast, from Los Angeles to Mexico and Latin America, to China and the rest of Asia.
As its ranks dwindled, organized labor lost its power and influence in Washington. During the Reagan administration in the Eighties, pro-business appointments to the National Labor Relations Board stripped striking workers of legal protection and support for stronger foreign trade cut U.S. jobs and increased the trade deficit.
Even Democrats came on board to some extent. President Bill Clinton, turning toward the middle politically after Congressional losses in the 1994 midterm elections, signed the North American Free Trade Agreement into law, siding with many Republicans to gain approval. This saw a move to more Mexican manufacturing, particularly in the denim market, but the lure of Asia quickly stunted that growth, as the 10-year phaseout of global quotas that had resulted from the GATT agreement began in 1995.
By the time all global quotas had been removed on apparel and textile imports, China had become the world’s powerhouse of production. Safeguard quotas, allowed under China’s entry agreement into the World Trade Organization and imposed in 2005, resulted in a U.S.-China pact to limit imports on a range of categories, but that has now expired. China is still the focal point of apparel and textile production, but countries such as Vietnam, India and Bangladesh have made inroads in the sourcing strategies of many companies.
As the industry has evolved from the sweatshops of Lower Manhattan to the massive manufacturing facilities of China, apparel and textile production continues to look for greener pastures.