Sometimes, innovation looks like reinventing the wheel.
When American Giant, a young San Francisco-based clothing company, decided to add flannel to its completely-made-in-America clothing line it faced a daunting reality: It would first need to reboot a supply chain that left the U.S. decades earlier.
In a recent feature in the New York Times, we get some great insight into the logistical challenges of bringing a supply chain back to the States.
The back story
In the late 1990s, a mill in North Carolina stopped weaving flannel and a textile company in Texas shut down shortly after. American companies still sewing shirts turned to Portugal and China for yarn-dyed flannel.
Last year, Bayard Winthrop, who founded American Giant in 2011, began the process of bringing flannel manufacturing back to the U.S. Winthrop is no stranger to creating supply chains for Made In America denim, leggings and fleece pullovers, but flannel came with a unique set of challenges.
Step 1: Dying the yarn
When mills went overseas, other suppliers, like dyers, went with them or died out. But in Burlington, N.C. a dye house still existed. Burlington Manufacturing Services dyed ropes used on military helicopters, yarn for mattress fabrics and upholstery. But it hadn't dyed yarn for flannel in three decades. BMS wasn’t completely out of the clothing business though, it also dyed fabric used to make Catholic-school uniforms.
Enter Cotswold Industries
Cotswold was still in the yarn-dyed clothing business, making pinstriped shirts for Metro-North Railroad and Long Island Rail Road.
Cotswold’s James McKinnon was actually the first person Winthrop called. McKinnon, the purchaser of blue-dyed fabric for the school uniforms, put Winthrop in touch with BMS.
Cotswold’s Central plant then used yarn dyed by BMS to weave a black plaid flannel.
Flannels’ softness comes from a process called napping, where fibers are raised out of the yarn. It’s an art that the first finisher didn’t get quite right. But Carolina Cotton Works was able to lift to just the right amount of fiber, though CCW couldn’t complete the entire finishing process.
Preshrinking was completed by Yates Bleachery Company in Flinstone, Ga. and then sent to Jade Apparel in Philadelphia for cutting and sewing.
“The thing I continue to be so struck by in the supply chain is the latent undercurrent of, “Give us a shot,’” Winthrop said in that Nov. 29 New York Times article. “It’s worth it for that alone — to prove the ability to do it.”
On Saturday, Dec. 8, about one year after the process to restore the flannel supply chain began, the first run of American made shirts sold out in just a few hours.