The Rise and Fall of the U.S. Denim Manufacturing Industry: 1960-2010
Denim Fabric has been produced in the United States since the 1830’s. The denim twill weave results in high strength and durability. For those reasons denim has been used for centuries in garments worn by sailors, farmers, cowboys and laborers of all types.
Denim Industry In US Till 1960s
The Indigo-dyed denim produced in the U.S until the 1960’s was possibly the least fashionable of apparel fabrics. Since denim was primarily found in garments for manual laborers, it was widely viewed as being “low-class”. When I was in my 4th year of public school, students were not allowed to wear denim at school. The quality of denim, other than its strength and comfort, was the worst among apparel fabrics. Interestingly, one of the most common defects were slubs, that resulted from poor cotton blending, but later became fashionable.
Denim production remained at relatively stable, but low levels until the 1970’s, when the demand reached explosive levels as a result of the potential for color fading of Indigo. Until the 1960’s this color loss after washing was not a characteristic of Indigo-dyed denim. Prior to that time, it was completely unacceptable to consumers to pay for garments that lost color after washing. Indigo dyeing machinery and procedures were quite different from those in use today. With the old procedures the basic Indigo color would remain unchanged for the life of the garment.
In an attempt to reduce the cost of Indigo used to dye denim, the dyeing procedure was altered in order to reduce the solubility of Indigo. This resulted in a heavy concentration of dye at the surface of the yarn, but not allowing the dye to penetrate into the interior of the yarn. This produced the so-called “ring-dyed” effect in which the cotton fibers in the interior of the yarn to remain white. With this method, a very dark shade of Indigo could be produced with 1.5% Indigo instead of the 3% required previously.
This manufacturing change, while reducing costs, was in the short-term a disaster for the denim business that many observers thought would lead to its extinction.
The astonishing reversal of circumstances that occurred in the 1970’s has generally been credited to the “youth rebellion”. In particular, an American film, ”Easy Rider”, portrayed young men wearing faded jeans, riding motorcycles and smoking marijuana. Faded jeans became associated with rebellion and independence.
Rise Of Denim In High Fashion
The rise of denim in high-fashion was completely unexpected and more difficult to comprehend.
There is a famous anecdote that has been often cited. The story is that in New York City, a high-fashion princess walked by a construction site where all the workers wore denim garments. She was fascinated by the faded, worn appearance of the garments and asked the workers about it.
The construction workers explained that they could not wash the garments at home because the sand and cement would damage the motors in their home washing machines. Therefore, in order to clean the garments, they put them into a cement mixer with water, detergent and rocks, which resulted in the faded, worn appearance. This is a logical explanation for the origin of stone-washing.
As a result of the new denim fashion, demand for denim increased far beyond capacities that were then available. Prices increased and existing denim companies (5 at the time) rushed to expand production and other textile companies moved quickly to enter the denim business. Several failed, largely as a result of an inability to master the challenge of denim weaving.
The rapid expansion of denim production was achieved. However, fabric quality was generally poor. Initially, this was not a problem since the demand for denim, even low-quality fabric, was so great that even the worst denim could be marketed at a profit.
Eventually by the early 1980’s, the important customers like Levi’s had made increasing demands for higher quality denim. The leading denim companies, Cone and Burlington, instituted quality assurance programs in all areas, most notably in dyeing and finishing, that dramatically improved their fabric quality. Burlington published an impressive manual for denim quality that reflected their determination not to ship any fabric to a customer unless it was “right”.
In a period of a few years the U.S. denim business went from near extinction, producing some tens of million of meters per year, to hundreds of millions. The U.S. was the center of the international denim business with a reputation for the highest quality denim produced under conditions of high efficiencies.
The Decline Of The US Denim Mfg. Industry
By around 1990, the U.S. denim industry was showing signs of decline. Some of the key reasons for that decline are listed below.
The U.S. government was until the 1980’s very supportive and protective of the U.S. textile business. Other U.S. industries were favored to export to some foreign countries in exchange for those countries being allowed to send more textiles to the U.S.
The World Bank, which receives its funds from American taxpayers, provided enormous funds to developing countries, much of which was used to improve their ability to compete with U.S. textile companies.
The emergence of China as an economic power is a result of a mobilization of that nation’s resources with the single-minded goal to eventually become a world power. No democracy could have directed a program that massive in order to rapidly become dominate in manufacturing and also in global finance. The U.S textile market was a primary target of the Chinese.
The denim manufacturers in the U.S. were slow to react to the Chinese threat. It has been suggested that if the U.S. denim companies had worked together as an industry-team the damage could have been limited.
Denim executives in the U.S. were shy about taking risks and avoided making the hard, strategic decisions for long-term survival. Instead of mounting a defense of their industry, they often looked to joint ventures outside the U.S. as away to economic salvation. While these joint-ventures provided short-term benefits, U.S. domestic manufacturing was weakened in the long-term.
U.S. denim companies in the 1980’s concentrated on expanding their production capacity to the point that they became too big to effectively control. Producing large volumes of denim became an end-in-itself, even when market-demand could not justify it. The overproduction resulted in larger inventories and lower prices.
The 1980’s witnessed a burst of corporate greed in the U.S. Textile companies were a favorite target of financial looters, both inside and outside the textile companies. Many textile executives sought to enrich themselves by arranging for compensation in the millions of dollars. There were cases of top managers in textile companies that, fearing a takeover of the company by outside investors, arranged for management buy-outs, in which the companies assumed massive debts so that the managers could become owners of the company.
Major purchasers of denim, the “Brands”, developed a strategy to increase the scale and profits of their business. This strategy was characterized by cunning and driven by ruthless greed. The objective was to expand garment volume and create garment price stability, but still increase their profits. This has been accomplished by forcing fabric suppliers to accept smaller margins, even though garment prices stayed the same. The reduced margins paid to the fabric suppliers are absorbed as profits by the big apparel companies.
There was a significant change in the attitudes of American consumers toward clothing. Americans had long appreciated quality in their garments and had been willing to pay for it.By the 1990’s, young people generally demonstrated what could be a clothing “fetish”. They typically own enough clothes so that they can wear something different every day for weeks.They have more disposable income than any previous American generation, but they prefer quantity over quality. They passion is for getting the cheap bargain and are generally indifferent to quality.
This is a guest post by Harry Mercer. Mr. Mercer has 30 years experience in the denim business including 3 prominent U.S. denim companies . He is an expert colorist for measurement and color matching as well as textile testing.