Most of the items we feature on this blog are the product of significant research. We peruse other blogs for recommendations. We scour websites to find items that fill voids in our wardrobes. And we trawl thrift stores to unearth American-made castoffs from years past.
Occasionally, however, a bit of American-made goodness insinuates itself into our day, not by intention but by serendipity.
A few weeks ago, outside the Whole Foods in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Frannie and I happened upon a small shop. Outside, in a sales bin, were packs of merino wool hiking socks, marked “Made in USA.” At $12 for a three-pack, they were too good a deal to pass up.
They’re a mid-weight sock, ideal for hiking and backpacking in all but the coldest of conditions. Once prime hiking season kicks into gear in these parts (after the Southeast Texas heat relents), they’ll get a full workout.
The parka is one of the most quintessentially American of all garments–in the broader sense of the Americas, with its hemispheric reach from the top of Greenland to Cape Horn. In its sealskin and caribou incarnations, it protected the Inuit people from the often brutal cold in some of North America’s most extreme latitudes.
Earlier this year, I traveled to Tanzania to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. Despite the mountain’s proximity to the equator, its elevation demands gear that will stand up to cold, wind and snow. My existing parka, with only modest warmth, was not up to the task.
Enter Goosefeet Gear, an American cottage maker of outdoor clothing. You won’t find parkas on the company’s website. But Ben will be more than happy to make you one on a custom basis, crafting a piece based upon your measurements, the amount of fill you need and want and your fabric preferences. And he’ll do all that at a price that’s competitive with ready-to-wear, American-made down parkas from Western Mountaineering and Feathered Friends.
It’s a streamlined garment, with nary an unnecessary touch. Just a couple of outside pockets, drawstrings along the hood and waist, elasticized cuffs and a full front zipper.
Coming in at one pound on the dot, the parka boasts a full nine ounces of 850 fill power goose down (the new water resistant variety)–a remarkable ratio of warmth to weight. It is, in the parlance of our time, crazy warm.
So how did the parka stand up to the challenge of one of the world’s great mountains? Splendidly, I’m happy to report. I had call twice to use it: the first time for dinner at Barafu Camp when everyone seemed to be struggling to stay warm; the second on the way from Stella Point to Uhuru Peak on a snowy February summit morning.
We’ve tended to use the blog as a forum to celebrate rather than castigate. To highlight those companies who commit to American manufacturing rather than heap scorn upon those who relocate production to foreign shores.
But a recent experience demands our opprobrium.
Yesterday’s mail brought the new catalog from Brooks Brothers featuring its Red Fleece collection.
While there has been much to bemoan from Brooks Brothers over the past generation, there were a few bright spots in the catalog: made-in-the-USA partnerships with Red Wing, Kiel James Patrick and Filson; ties still manufactured domestically.
But these are the exception.
The bulk of the collection is still produced overseas, in what I have to suppose are less than savory locales. Items made in the USA, the United Kingdom and Italy are carefully marked as such. Other items hide behind the craven descriptor, “imported.”
I’m sure Brooks Brothers would claim that it’s perfectly satisfied with the working conditions in its overseas factories. Why then, I wonder, does it feel the need to obfuscate behind that Orwellian label?
Still, this is standard-level outrage. Brooks Brothers is hardly alone in this practice.
Page 10 is where things really went south. A young couple are standing on a snow covered landscape. He is holding a pair of skis. She is holding a large American flag. Had Brooks Brothers finally begun to manufacture at least some of its women’s clothing in the USA?
Not on your life. Every stitch of clothing on that page was “imported.” So the flag belied the origins of the clothing and became nothing more than a meaningless prop.
To use the American flag to sell goods not produced in the U.S. is more than a little deceptive. Whether it meets the legal definition of fraud I cannot say. But I do know it represents a serious ethical breach, an example of chicanery that a company like Brooks Brothers should have no part of. It misrepresents the clothes in a serious–and morally indefensible–way.
And, in a manner I’m certain the company did not intend, it symbolizes just how far Brooks Brothers has fallen. It stands as an ironic symbol of a faded past, an emblem of a company that has almost completely betrayed its American roots.
On our way to drop Frannie off at school, we stopped at High Cotton’s storefront in downtown Raleigh. Our previous High Cotton purchases were online purchases. So it was a genuine treat to have the chance to see the company’s wares in the flesh.
Modest in dimensions, but elegant in presentation, the High Cotton store is a mecca of American-made elegance. Rows of cotton bow ties, stacks of polo shirts and drawers full of pocket squares and headbands await.
While there, I purchased another polo shirt (pure North Carolina cotton) and a bow tie. Frannie got another head band, in cornflower blue with pink paisleys.
Every young lady needs a pair of navy flats. They’re the Swiss Army Knife of women’s shoes: functional yet stylish, versatile enough to be put into service in almost any non-athletic situation.
When Frannie’s navy flats finally gave up the ghost after two years of nearly weekly wear, we knew where to turn: Eliza B.
A Connecticut-based company specializing in ladies footwear, Eliza B is one of the few options out there for quality women’s shoes with made-in-the-USA bonafides.
Eliza B offers an almost limitless range of possibilities to customize its flats. Fabrics in solids, tartans, checks, stripes and prints. Leathers in patent and calf. A panoply of colors, both subdued and vibrant.
Given the vast landscape of options, it was almost a little disheartening to order what Randall Jarrell once called “dull null navy.”
However, when Frannie opened the box, it was obvious that they were the very antithesis of dull. Made with a bright navy fabric and patent detailing, they are a lovely pair of shoes.
I was particularly taken by Eliza B’s “mission” statement. Never mind that the company deliberately eschews calling it a mission. It’s as eloquent a statement of corporate values as I’ve come across. And it’s a reminder of why we seek out products made on these shores, to ensure that the good people whose hard work crafts the things we wear are afforded the opportunity for a decent livelihood.
After returning from sailing camp, Frannie had a package from Just Madras waiting for her. Here’s her take on one of the items, an American made, nautical themed cosmetic bag:
This bag was quite a wondrous sight to behold after a week of intensive sailing. When I got home from camp, It was a pleasant surprise to see the makeup bag I ordered on the pass-through. The bag had even more space than I had expected, and the red embroidered anchor was a nice touch to the navy and white striped fabric.
Inside, the bag was more spacious than it appeared. The gingham lining was a great addition to an already wonderful bag. Thank you again, Just Madras, for all of your preppy, American made goodness!
Our third post about L.L. Bean? Forgive us. We’re a sentimental lot. We remember Bean as a purveyor of products that, while not exclusively American, were mostly made on these shores and made to a high standard.
So the few American made legacy items that remain–boots and tote bags, for example–have a soft spot in our hearts. On my more optimistic days, I imagine those items will serve as a beachhead for a renaissance of American manufacturing in Freeport, Maine. When I’m feeling less optimistically inclined, I suppose that these are the last gasp of American production in a company that has all but abandoned its American roots. The latter is probably true. Once the genie of foreign production is out of the bottle, it’s nigh on impossible for companies to put it back.
Among the few L.L. Bean products still crafted in the USA, the canvas Boat and Tote bags have been a mainstay of home life for generations of Americans. Originally designed to haul ice–back in the day when your sole source of cooling was the ice blocks you bought from the ice man–their durability bespeaks that original purpose.
Many of the firms we’ve featured are some of the most venerable in all of American manufacturing, some tracing their roots into the 19th century. Faribault Woolen Mill is no exception.
As Faribault itself explains:
Founded on the banks of the Cannon River in Faribault, MN, the Faribault Woolen Mill is a living testament to American craftsmanship. Founded in 1865, the year Lincoln died and the Civil War ended, Faribault woolens are renowned for their comfort and quality. From providing woolen blankets for pioneers heading west to comforting our troops through two world wars, our woolens are woven into American history.
While Faribault is known primarily for its blankets, it also offers an impressive range of scarves. I recently had occasion to pick one up–in a gray micro herringbone. It won’t be deployed, for reasons of climate and comfort, until winter insinuates itself in these parts. But I’m already looking forward to including it in my cold weather scarf rotation.
You step into Melanzana’s Leadville, Colorado storefront and the first thing you see are rows of fleece jackets and hoodies for sale. But, peering beyond the product shelves, you notice something out of the ordinary: workers at sewing machines making the company’s products. For it is here where all the company’s offerings are crafted.
In addition to being a clothing hobbyist, I’m also an outdoor enthusiast: hiker, backpacker and occasional mountaineer. So a good fleece–soft, warm, fast drying, able to insulate even when wet–is a vital part of my kit.
Yet fleece, in its various incarnations, has even infiltrated the world of classic clothing. No less an authority than True Prep, the sequel to the Original Preppy Handbook, noted the embrace of fleece in traditional circles.
Last week, my family and I were on vacation in Colorado, and early in the week, we made a day trip to Leadville, the highest incorporated city in the United States. Near the end of downtown, we came upon Melanzana. Noting that all the company’s products are made, as they have been for 20 years, in Leadville, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to purchase one of their tops.
Unadorned with pockets, velcro closures or other unnecessary ephemera, Melanzana’s products are the epitome of streamlined function. My Micro Grid Zip Top in a large weighs a scant 9.1 ounces, making it the perfect mid-layer for a cool-to-cold thru hike.
It’s already been a worthy companion on three hikes: one on the trails outside of Salida, Colorado, one on the Colorado Trail and one on a climb of Mt. Elbert, the highest peak in the state.