NPR logo

When 'Made In The USA' Doesn't Always Pay

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/105775088/105776622" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
When 'Made In The USA' Doesn't Always Pay

Around the Nation

When 'Made In The USA' Doesn't Always Pay

When 'Made In The USA' Doesn't Always Pay

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/105775088/105776622" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Shirley Williams knows how to sew. Six years ago, we introduced you to this rural North Carolina seamstress after she'd taken the unusual step of buying the apparel factory where she worked when it was going out of business. Her hope was to save the plant's 20 jobs. It hasn't been easy.

At the Strawberry Festival in Vanceboro, N.C., her table is stacked with baseball shirts and hospital scrubs.

"We have the white T-shirts — they come in white and black, and bright orange for high visibility — anything you want to have to buy the product made in the USA," Williams says.

Fending Off Closure

For Williams, "made in the USA" is not some platitude. It's what all her hopes depend on. Her company, Vanceboro Apparel, has just about shut down since she lost her one major customer last July. Now she's sewing and selling clothing on her own, trying to drum up enough business to put her people back to work. It's a tall order.

Williams has largely beaten the odds since she bought the plant. A year ago, the plant — located on Main Street — was running full tilt.

But today, Williams says the air conditioning is switched off to save money. Spools of thread rest on the tables; bolts of fabric lean along the walls.

"Work was piled everywhere. The machines were just clicking, clicking, clicking, clicking," she says. "And everybody was busy as bees. Now you look, the machines are just basically empty."

When business dropped, Williams borrowed money from her family, moonlighted at night to bring in more cash, and didn't pay herself for months.

But ultimately, she was forced to shed almost all of her 20 workers. "It was a hard decision, because I'm like, 'They've got families, too — and I did, too — but I just went without a paycheck until I couldn't any longer," she says. "And I'm like, 'Y'all, I'm going to have to lay you off.' That was the hardest decision I probably had to make, since I've owned the company, for eight years."

Devoted Employees

One worker, Barbara Barber, gets by on $93 a week in unemployment. She could become a Wal-Mart greeter or a waitress — there aren't many other options in this town of 900. But she says she's sticking out the slump with Williams: "Because she's always been there for us. She could be making her living doing a lot of different things. But we've been together for 30 years now and want to stay that way. That's what we're all hoping and pushing for, is that we're right back here together again," Barber says.

Williams is now down to five workers who come in as needed. They make specialty children's clothes and military badges. She'd like to go after a federal government contract but finds the bidding process pretty complex. So for now, "made in the USA" is her marketing mantra.

But Nancy Cassill, a professor at North Carolina State University's College of Textiles, says there's no guarantee it will work.

Rethinking A Patriotic Strategy

"The 'made in America' strategy can be one of many strategies. Used alone, it is not effective strategy given today's global competition as well as the global economic times," she says.

But Cassill says there is one opportunity someone like Williams could take advantage of — overseas exports. She says apparel consumption worldwide has risen, and clothes made in the U.S. carry cachet.

Back at the Vanceboro Strawberry Festival, Williams is keeping her sights closer to home as she shows off her shirts to passersby:

"They're made in the USA, so you know the price is going to be high because I cannot compete with China," she says. "They are $12.50 up to extra large ... and the quality is excellent."

By the end of the day, Williams has 30 orders. It may not be much by corporate standards, but it's enough to pay the light bill and the mortgage for a while.

We no longer support commenting on NPR.org stories, but you can find us every day on Facebook, Twitter, email, and many other platforms. Learn more or contact us.