Thursday, March 4, 2010

Old Man: On “Made In America”

Let me preface this post by admitting that I am guilty of what I’ll be lambasting here. I won’t pretend to be above it or that I haven’t done it. So don’t hunt the blog looking for examples. I already know they’re there.

I will also preface this by saying that this post was inspired and informed by these posts:

This post is about the cult (fetish might be a better description) of “Made in America” clothing that is trendy for “Americana” right now, and has always and probably always will be important to the trad guys. It is so trendy and so important, that many people will refuse to buy an article of clothing if it isn’t made in America. I am particularly reminded of an AAAT thread about the new Bean Signature line, where most posters expressed outrage at the idea of that line being made somewhere other than America. Another thread about the new Ranger mocs was filled with disappointment at their being made in El Salvador.

Some objections were more legitimate than others. For example, a few posters said that it makes no sense to exploit “Americana” and then make things elsewhere than America. But that excludes most Americana clothing (particularly the Japan-made pieces, though Japan seems to get a pass for some reason). And a piece of clothing doesn’t have to be made in America to look American. Aesthetics aren’t nationally exclusive.

But there were an outrageous number of posters who tried to use the argument that something that isn’t made in America necessarily has to be lower quality. And most didn’t (and don’t) make any kind of distinction in that accusation. What do they mean? Lower quality materials? Lower quality craftsmanship (quality of sewing, etc.)? Less skilled workers?

Lets take these one at a time.

Lower quality materials. How does the country of construction say anything about the materials? Most materials are obtained from different countries than the place they are assembled in. For instance, my RRL jeans were sewn in America, but the denim is from Japan. The thread is from somewhere else and the buttons are probably from somewhere else entirely. Materials have nothing to do with the country something is made in. LLBean would probably use the same materials if the Ranger mocs were made in America. Would that make them somehow magically better? Probably not.

Lower quality craftsmanship. As was pointed out in the SuFu post above, a sewing machine is a sewing machine, and thread is thread. Every country has access to the same sewing machines (to some extent). America doesn’t have inherently superior sewing machine to China, and most of the higher quality sewing machines are made in countries other than America.

Less skilled workers. This is really what it all boils down to. I won’t go so far as in the FNB post above, where the posters equate it to “subtle racism” (though I do think they have a point), but there is a logical fallacy in assuming that only workers in America are skilled enough to make your Americana or Trad clothes.

First of all, if you are basing your argument on nationality, you are not only displaying that subtle racism, but you are not thinking clearly. What if a Chinese person makes your clothes in America? Does that automatically mean that they are up to standards? What about an American making your clothes in China? Would that mean your MIC clothes are or aren’t good enough? They were made by an American, but they were made in another country. So which is the most important point? Nationality of the worker or geography of the factory? Do you see how this is a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation? Either answer to this question makes your point fall apart.

Secondly, does the nationality of a worker automatically equal skill? Is an American inherently better at sewing than a Chinese person or a person from El Salvador? How do you know the Bean shoe factory in Maine is filled with workers who know more about shoe making than the factory in El Salvador? Actually, I would venture to say that since many of the workers in factories in other countries were probably former sweat-shop workers, they probably have more skill and experience than the average American.

Like I and others said, a sewing machine is a sewing machine, raw materials are raw materials, and a talented seamster/ress is a talented seamster/ress. It doesn’t matter where any of these are or where any of them are from. Sure, they all add up to make a garment good or bad quality, but country of origin has nothing to do with it. America can make some pretty low quality clothing, just like other countries can, and other countries can make some fantastic quality clothing just like America can.

So, what is your reason for only wanting/buying clothing that is made in America? I suspect that it has nothing to do with quality (whether you think it does or not). I think it’s that we are a bunch of sentimental SOB’s who like looking at a tag that says “Made in America.” Let’s face it, we like looking at the past in our clothing choices, and Made in America points to that past that we enjoy looking to. Like I said, I am guilty of it to. But let’s not pretend that it has anything to do with quality. Because that is offensive to the merchants who sell these clothes and to those men and women who have made a living out of skillfully making this stuff.
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