Textile manufacturing is not dead in the U.S. It's just very small.
"Sustainable" is a big buzzword these days, especially in fashion.
The textile industry is one of the world’s biggest polluters, leaning heavily on synthetic dyes and plastic fibers that linger in the environment for decades. And it’s centralized in China and Southeast Asia.
Only two percent of Americans’ clothes are made in the United States. The pandemic has revealed how vulnerable we are when the things we need must be shipped to us from half a world away.
So, what would it take to create a “farm-to-closet-to-compost” Slow Fashion movement? Well, for one thing, it’s going to take more people willing to do the work.
Last June, I went to a sheep shearing. I visited Laurel Shouvlin, co-owner with her husband Tim, of Bluebird Hills Farm, an alpaca and sheep farm in Springfield, near Dayton.
The shearer was late.
“Ooh, he said he’s going to be in a traffic jam for another thirty minutes,” Shouvlin said, looking at her cell phone. “Bummerrrr.” She drew out the sound of the word, deflated.
“Laurel, how do I pronounce your last name?” I asked.
She mimed jamming a shovel into the ground, and tossing a load of dirt over her shoulder. Shouvlin sounds like shovelin'.
“My vocation is poop! I used to be an X-Ray tech and I did barium enemas. Then I had four kids. And now I have alpacas. So, poop is my vocation. And sheep, the sheep, too.”
Laurel Shouvlin has been raising alpacas for 22 years. She’s an expert in alpaca fiber. But on this day, the focus was on her sheep, which she raises for their wool, not their meat. That means the fleece has to be taken off in one piece.
“You say your sheep are hot,” I said.
“They should have been shorn two months ago,” Shouvlin said. “There are only three guys in, like, the Tri-State area…”
“Tri-state as in, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky?”
“Yeah, yeah, that I’ve been able to find that are willing. So, their schedules are packed.”
Shouvlin said she normally relies on a man who organizes a team of shearers from New Zealand.
“He comes here, shears for about a month and then goes over to Europe and Great Britain and shears there. But with COVID, he couldn’t come,” she said.
Finally, the shearer arrived, in a huge, black Ford F150 pickup truck. Wyatt Hilty’s grandfather taught him how to shear the family’s meat sheep. He started doing the work for hire five years ago, when he was sixteen.
“When I first started, I had about six hundred head of sheep to do," Hilty said. "Now I’m up to five thousand a year. Probably this year, I probably gained fifteen hundred to two thousand head. Yes, it’s a dying trade.”
He set up his portable engine, plugged in his shearing tool, and got to work.
The next step in the sheep-to-shawl chain is the mill, where raw fiber gets processed into yarn.
Shouvlin sends her raw fleece 65 miles southwest, to America’s Natural Fiberworks, a small mill in Somerville.
Here, too, she can expect significant delays.
Carrie Davis and her husband Robbie own and operate the mill themselves, and it hummed with activity. Robbie was in a back room, running the spinning machine. Carrie was in the receiving area, accepting a delivery from the UPS man. A ceiling fan clicked overhead.
“Right there is perfect. Wonderful. Thank you,” she said.
“What are you getting?” I asked.
“So, people mail it?”
“Oh, yeah. This whole big box stash here, there’s eleven boxes here, this is from Colorado.” She gestured to another stack of boxes. “This is from Arkansas. The boxes behind you there are from…”
The UPS man had crept in behind Carrie Davis with another box and he set it down with a heavy thud.
“Here you are,” he said.
“Wow! Thank you!” She looked at the return address. “Missouri!”
“Holy cow, Carrie. How much work is it? Is this a year’s worth?” I asked.
“At least, yeah. At least,” she said. “I don’t know, COVID? We never got caught up."
Backlogs of six to eight months are not unusual for mini-mills. They’re designed to process small batches of fiber, often from a wide variety of animals, which can slow things down.
“We have sheep, Angora. We’re doing a lot of bunny. We’re getting yak.” Carrie Davis laughed. “We just spun some Persian cat! So, that was fun!”
Actually, work at the mill is hard. The spinning that Robbie Davis does requires patience, precision and a high tolerance for noise.
“It’s kinda loud, so I’ll let you see it and then I’ll shut it off,” he said, standing in front of a low, long, spinning machine. He programmed the machine for a two-ply, sport-weight yarn.
“The thinner the draw, the more twists per inch to hold it together," he said "This one, I’m drawing it twelve times and then I’m gonna put six twists per inch.”
He flipped a switch and the machine roared loudly to life. He let it run for a minute before turning it off.
“Ultimately, we want to put the least amount of twist in it so it’s a soft, fluffy yarn. But you want to put enough in it so that it’s not shedding and that it holds together proper,” he told me, shouting over the machine as its spinning mechanisms slowed to a halt.
The Davises have tried hiring help. They had as many as three employees once. One year, they processed eight thousand pounds, pushing their equipment to the limit. They couldn’t sustain that pace.
“The big commercial mills, they’ve got everything sorted and graded. Their equipment is not as tedious and one off,” Robbie Davis said. “As you seen, we’ve got all these blends. Everybody’s dirt comes in different. Everyone’s fiber is different. There comes a time when I have to give up quality for quantity, and we’re just not willing to do that.”
“Why aren’t more people doing this?” I asked.
“It is a huge learning curve. And it is, my personal opinion? This is a factory job. You’re on your feet on concrete ten, twelve hours a day, sometimes more, until you’re getting it,” said Carrie Davis.
There are at least 140 mini-mills in the U.S. That’s my best guess, based on data from a mini-mill maker in Canada and a Facebook group of small mill operators.
The backlogs at mini-mills suggest there is room for more.
But a leading advocate for the Slow Fashion movement, Rebecca Burgess, says mini-mills are too small to jump start local textile economies, like the one her group, Fibershed, is creating with farmers, mill owners and textile makers in northern and central California. An affiliate, Rust Belt Fibershed, is trying to do something similar in Ohio.
“In our community, if you just based it off supply, we need huge, we need millions and millions of pounds to be processed each year,” she said. “And we’re processing tens of thousands of pounds each year.”
Burgess said larger, more efficient mills are needed all across the country serving local farmers and ranchers, so they don’t have to ship their fiber hundreds of miles away. She believes there’s a growing number of young people eager to do this work, especially if it’s strengthening a place-based, sustainable fiber community. She said three mills have opened in her Fibershed, and most of the workers are under 40.
But here’s the catch, and it’s one that haunts manufacturing in the United States.
Burgess said mills have to be big enough to process a lot of fiber, yet small enough to profitably allow for skilled workers who make a living wage. And that’s a difficult ratio to achieve, especially when Americans are used to inexpensive clothing.
“It’s very possible to do, but we have to be willing to have deep conversations about how much we need, how much we’re willing to pay, what kind of lifestyle do we want to support for our families and for others. And we need kind of a revolution in values,” she said.
People will need to value cheap plastic clothes less, and durable, natural-fiber garments more.
They will need to think beyond fashion, beyond bargains, and see the clothes they buy as an opportunity to invest in their communities.
Maybe now, with a climate in crisis and a global supply chain in pieces, that revolution in values will begin.