Thursday, January 28, 2016


When I was a girl, back in the buggy-whip days, things other than financial instruments, software, and medical discoveries were made in Massachusetts. Tangible things were - get this - manufacturered here.

Worcester produced fine wire, abrasives, shoes and boots, aircraft components, boilers, bras, M16s, space suits, cheesy plastic toys, pocket books and boxed pizza mix. There was a factory just over the Worcester border, in Cherry Valley, that made something called elfskin. (I never inquired.)

But a lot of what was made when companies were "making it in Massachustts" (the refrain of a state-boostering ad run in the 1980's) were textiles and apparel.

Boston had facories where they made jeans, raincoats, suits.

Each summer, my family drove out to Ware, Massachusetts, to buy tee-shirts at the outlet store for a knitting mill. Sometimes, on the way back from a day trip to Horseneck Beach, we stopped at a mill outlet in Fall River, again to buy tee-shirts.

Over time, most of the factories in shuttered. They moved to the south, from where they eventually migrated overseas.

To some extent, the (mostly) unskilled or semi-skilled jobs that these factories offered aren't missed in our overall economy. They were replaced by the production of financial instruments, software, and bio-tech whatevers. So we go around celebrating our brainy, high tech, high paid workforce.

But, of course, it's not as if it the people who were working in the clothing factories turned overnight into computer scientists or money managers. A lot of folks were left behind. Their steady paycheck, decent wage jobs were replaced by the hardscrabble of ill-paid service work, and/or multiple pickup jobs.

So I was delighted when, last month, I saw a Boston Globe article on a mini-resurgence - or at least a leveling out - of the textile industry in Massachusetts. While there are only half the number of textile manufacturing jobs that there were in 2005, those jobs are good and welcome.

In New Bedford, Joseph Abboud (a local boy made good) has a factory where 800 workers - look for the union label - are running off over a thousand pricey suits every day. Southwick produces high-end men's suits in Haverhill. In Fall River, John Matouk & Company produce luxe linen sold in places like Neiman Marcus and Bloomies.
Today's textile and apparel firms have adapted to lower-cost, overseas competition by catering to niche and luxury markets, and automating processes to lower labor costs. They have found ways to customize products at the quirkiest details - say, purple sneakers with green laces and an image of your dog on the tongue - and turn around orders in a matter of weeks, if not days...
Instead of using pencils and graph paper, designers [at Abboud] create patterns with a keyboard and a mouse, employing software that will send precise cutting instructions to machines. Many steps that used to require hand tailoring, such as making pockets, have been automated, too. (Source: Boston Globe)
When it comes to textiles and apparel, Massachusetts, as it happens, is on the "cutting edge" (haha) of innovative manufacturing techniques. Both MIT and UMass Lowell (a city that certainly has its roots and bona fides in the textile world) are doing research in this area.

High tech and academia, meet the good old-fashioned textile and apparel industry.

Now, go forth and make more tangible stuff in Massachusetts.

1 comment:

Frederick Wright said...

I love Joseph Abboud but didn't know about his manufacturing connection with New Bedford, that makes it even better. His stuff is designed in such a way that even beefier guys like myself somehow look sleek, trim. It never billows, you don't feel like you're swimming in fabric.