A 'brief' foray into a threadbare US manufacturing sector
Jake Bronstein wanted to see if he could produce high-quality textiles—specifically high-thread-count bedsheets—in the United States.
"I found out it's impossible," he said. "The machinery doesn't exist here, and neither do people with the skills to run it. I found that depressing."
But that disappointment didn't deter Bronstein from pursuing the idea of made-in-America threads.
He now believes that he has discovered a largely untapped vein of demand for premium, American-made underwear for men.
His company, Flint & Tinder, is on track to produce 2.5 million pairs this year, and for every 1,000 additional pairs he sells each month, another American job is created in one of 11 factories in California, Massachusetts, New York and South Carolina, Bronstein said. (Flint & Tinder itself employs nine.)
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Still, getting those factories on board wasn't easy, as he initially faced the same kind of resistance from them with the briefs—they were mostly making T-shirts—as he had with his sheets.
"They told me, 'We don't make underwear in this country,' " Bronstein said. And it's true, he added, noting that virtually all the brands on department store shelves are produced abroad and under license by only a couple of companies.
He managed to persuade them by arguing, "It's the same number of holes as a T-shirt. I just need an elastic waistband."
But manufacturing in America means starting with a baseline cost that is five times that of competitors, whose factories are largely in India, Thailand, Indonesia and China. That's why some 800,000 apparel-making jobs have moved overseas since 1990.
Still, Bronstein said, Flint & Tinder's products are priced competitively.
"The end consumer doesn't pay a dollar more" than he would for a luxury brand such as Ralph Lauren, Bronstein told CNBC's "Squawk Box." "As a company, we take a reduced margin, but we can make up for it through online sales."
The price for a pair of Flint & Tinder's boxer shorts is $25; the Ralph Lauren equivalent with its iconic polo player print goes for $28 on Amazon.com.
Bronstein launched the company in April 2012 with a Kickstarter campaign. He knew he was onto something when he exceeded his goal by 10 times, raising $300,000 by pledging to put American-made skivvies on store shelves.
Another Kickstarter campaign to launch Flint & Tinder's 10-Year Hoodie (free mending for a decade included) has raised more than $1 million—the crowdfunding site's top-funded fashion campaign to date.
The promotion for the zip-up declares, "It's more than a sweatshirt. It's a battle cry: Not everything should be disposable."
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Besides that nod toward more sustainable lifestyles, the blog and product line project an aesthetic of masculinity and old-fashioned self-reliance—perhaps to a kitschy fault. The website's "men's shop" features an esoteric selection ranging from "Field Archery Wall Art" to a notebook rebranded a "Captain's Log" to the kind of old-fashioned shaving brush you last saw deployed on "M*A*S*H."
"A real man does it with a straight razor," the blog admonishes.
Coming soon are $80 jeans similar to an item that would sell for double that in a J. Crew store, Bronstein said.
But Flint & Tinder has company. Another Kickstarter alum, San Francisco-based Gustin, has raised $450,000 for its handcrafted jeans at the same price point.
Before Flint & Tinder, "you didn't hear much about made-in-America products on Kickstarter, but now it's a growing trend," Bronstein said. "People are starting to see the value proposition."
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His immersion in the apparel business has also led him to some deeper thinking on fast versus slow fashion.
"The incident at the Bangladesh apparel factory that claimed 1,000 lives is less an issue of domestic versus foreign manufacturing than it is about fast fashion and the hidden costs of disposable retail," he wrote in his blog on the company website.
"When companies make disposable products, business relationships become disposable as well—and ultimately, the labor pool they draw from winds up being disposable. That's how fast fashion has to be. It's cheap, but it comes at a cost, even if it's hidden from view."
—By CNBC's Matt Twomey. Follow him on Twitter