Made in USA style series part 3: What’s with all the imported fabrics?

This is the third post in a five piece made in USA style series, featuring pictures of my beautiful friend Mary Beth.

This week, Mary Beth is modeling her Paige Denim Verdugo Ankle skinny jeans and a Splendid jacket, both made in USA of imported fabric. And with that, time has come to talk about labeling and imported materials.

Clothes made here of imported fabrics. (Picture by Shutterluv by Ashley)
Clothes made here of imported fabrics. (Picture by Shutterluv by Ashley)

The Made in USA tag means that the product is “all or virtually all” made in the United States. That is, the product should contain none or negligible foreign content. When we are talking about clothes; buttons, a zipper or a tag may be imported but the label will still read, and rightfully so according to the law, “Made in USA”.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) states that the label must indicate if a product contains imported materials (if non negligible). The label may identify the country of origin of the imported materials, but it doesn’t have to. Which means that it may say, “Made in USA of imported fabric” or “Knitted in USA of imported yarn” – two very common tags. This disclosure must appear as a single statement, without separating the “Made in USA” and “imported” references. Take note that this rule does not apply to online shops, which means that something can be listed as “Made in USA” on a webpage when in fact the actual tag of the garment reads “Made in USA of imported fabric”.

For certain fabric products like sheets, towels, comforters, handkerchiefs, scarves, napkins and other “flat” goods, the FTC requires identification of the country where the fabric was made. As you can see, clothes do not fall under that category of products, thus it is impossible for us consumers to find out where the fabrics of our clothes came from. With the current market my bets are on China and India.

label
Both brands following the guidelines set by the FTC for labeling, when it comes to imported fabrics.

It can be expensive for American companies to buy domestic materials because even though we make great quality fabrics and denim here, supply is limited. Organic materials, like organic cotton, even more so.  In order to make it “affordable” to buy American fabric, large bulk orders must be placed up front. Something large companies like Splendid, Paige and True Religion certainly are able to do, yet they import many of their fabrics. What’s their excuse?

A small business on the other hand, might not be able to afford US-made fabric. I imagine it must be a hard decision for someone who wants to go ‘all local’, but realizes it might break their small clothing line, especially in a start-up phase. If imported fabric allows someone to start a small business and employ locally, is it not worthy of support and encouragement?

The majority of large American brands outsource all the manufacturing of their clothes, shoes and bags to China and/or other Asian countries solely to make more profits, therefore if a company is at least committed to stitching it all together or manufacturing parts of their products here, surely that is better than nothing at all. Very often when committed to American manufacturing, the company will also have a sustainable sourcing agreement or guideline in place. Take a minute and check online and make sure the brand you’re eyeing at least has a policy in place for labor practices and environmental protection before you shop (not that that is a guarantee of any kind).

My personal goal is to not buy garments made of imported fabrics, just because I cannot trace how and where the fabrics were made. But it happens – this challenge of mine isn’t exactly easy. It is likely that the imported fabrics come from China, are made by someone working 14 hours a day for minimum pay, in a factory fueled by dirty energy, where leftover dyes and toxic chemicals pollute nearby lands. The very conditions I am against. If the material is 100% organic, fair-trade spun or made from hemp or bamboo, I’d make an exception! Organic cotton plantations, for example, bring good jobs, fair wages and healthy soils to the developing countries.

There’s no “correct” way to approach this, I feel. If I was considering our local economy and healthy manufacturing sector only, I’d lean towards accepting imported fabrics if the garment was sewn here. But in terms of planet sustainability and ethical manufacturing – what’s the point of shopping local and fair if most of the item acquired is imported and with that: UNTRACEBLE?

How do you feel about imported fabrics?

Next week, sustainability vs. jewelry is on the agenda, so check back in!

Read more about labeling at ftc.gov.

9 thoughts on “Made in USA style series part 3: What’s with all the imported fabrics?

  1. A lot of times there just aren’t the type of fabrics a company is looking for a product design they want to make that are available Made in the USA. I have personal experiance with this, and will tell you that especially with fine men’s clothing most fabrics are not available Made in America. Super 120’s wools for suits, quality woven cotton shirtings etc. You can find basic suiting & shirting fabrics made here, but they are usually very basic in design because the producers of those fabrics don’t feel there is a sufficient market for investing in a lot of these types of fabrics that come mostly from established Italian, Swiss, English & Japanese mills. There is certainly some of what you are referring to on the lower end, but most of these premium type products are not using fabrics from China. The subject is very different in Furniture, Towels, Sheetings, Bedding etc. When it comes to knitted fabrics there are many suppliers for these in regular clothing, but also difficult to find in sweater type fabrics.

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    1. Good point John-Edward! I have also seen that for fine men’s clothing and suits, they tell you where the fabric is from. I guess that’s when they’ve got nothing to hide so to speak. Vs. the lower end denim brands, they will never share.
      I hope we will keep adding more and different styles US-made fabrics to the market. I hear it’s booming in the Carolinas :)
      Thanks for sharing!!

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      1. There definitely is progress. We have lost so much over the last 25 years it takes team work and time. There are companies that can do it if they have enough to justify the investments. To a large degree the equipment to make a lot of these fabrics just don’t exist in the US right now, at least with any scale. And in the end that is what is the real driver is, SCALE & VOLUME. The more companies making more end products here the more affordable fabrics will follow. There is a very cool company based in NYC helping move a lot of this forward called Maker’s Row. Check them out and you may want to publish something on them. And don’t forget the big “evil” Walmart, as they are investing big in this area on their own, coming from the opposite end of things from Maker’s Row.
        On really cool young company in sheets and bedding is Authenticity 50. They are making true premium sheets with 100% USA supply chain!

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  2. Imported Fabrics is a difficult subject. Sometimes a garment can say assembled in USA of Italian fabric – I think everybody agrees that this is pretty good. But what if the imported fabric comes from China? A lot of the fibers come from a combination of many places: North America, Eastern Europe, South America, Africa and Asia – and each fabric can have different percentages. Definitely a conundrum.
    To complicated things: is the fabric milled in another country or is the fabric fiber from US or imported? In regards to fabric made in the USA – I feel that it makes no difference if the cotton from the United States is used in the USA or exported, because American farmers/workers get work and pay either way. In regards to milling – it would be better if things were milled in the USA, however, there aren’t that many mills in the USA anymore.

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    1. It is very tricky! If a brand tells me where the fabric is from, in general I feel like they don’t have anything to hide, so Made in USA of Italian fabric – would be very good with me! It just seems silly if cotton grown here, gets exported to be milled, and then sent back here to be made into a garment… Just the transport of it all. I hope many of the fabrics made here are USA made all they way back to the field and farmers.

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  3. I used to have a small Etsy shop where I made household linens (towels, napkins, tablecloths, etc.) from sustainable fabrics and I quickly discovered (as my original intention was to use domestic fabrics) that they simply didn’t exist for sale to the small business owner. When I started there were some really cool domestic cottons available through some of the fabric wholesalers I worked with but the selection got smaller and smaller. Most of the organic cotton and hemp I was working with came from China. Fortunately the wholesaler I bought from had some standards around factory conditions in the mills they dealt with but who knows if that was all for real. I could never really tell.

    Now that I’m sewing all my clothes I have a similar problem. I had to give up any ideals around only using sustainable and fair trade fabrics because it was either get the garment fabrics I needed to make quality and flattering clothing (which hardly ever comes with origin info anyhow) or be forced to sew with very few options I didn’t like aesthetically. I do jump on it when I find Australian merinos or European milled hemp and the like. Not American made but at least not from countries where we know there is exploitation both of labor and the environment. Of course these fabrics are extremely expensive! Hard to justify financially when a newbie and making a lot of mistakes in my garments but getting easier as I have more and more successes. The $24 a yard Australian merino jersey is starting to looking very reasonable!

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    1. You have just confirmed what I was thinking, Annie! I would make my selection just like you are describing doing it. Good luck on mastering it!
      I have a couple of friends who make baby clothes and baby bibs and they both source organic fabrics or GOTS fabrics from Europe. I assume the cotton is Turkish, as that’s the biggest supplier of organic cotton, but who knows!
      Thanks again for a great comment!

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