ADAMSTOWN, Pa. — As labor costs rise in places like China and U.S. energy prices drop, many manufacturers have been rethinking where to expand production, and in some cases returning factory work to the U.S. But even if "Made in USA" is a priority, creating domestic manufacturing jobs is far from easy.
This is especially true for textile manufacturers who have a tough time locating highly specialized machinery. So if you want to pursue American-made clothing and accessories — and can't find the equipment in the U.S. — then what?
For America's oldest hat maker, the Bollman Hat Company, a commitment to U.S. manufacturing has meant tracking down one-of-a-kind equipment in China and trying to buy and transport roughly 150 machines — including 60 knitting machines — on shipping containers from Asia to Adamstown.
Moving the machinery to the U.S. will initially create about 40 jobs. Bollman has been operating in Adamstown for nearly 150 years — its first hats were transported on horse and buggy to the train station.
Bollman President and CEO Don Rongione is working to secure and transport the special knitting machinery that makes Kangol hats — including the cool golf caps worn by actor Samuel L. Jackson. The special machines were custom made in England in the 1930s and 1940s but are no longer produced. (In 2001, Bollman acquired the rights to make and distribute Kangol headwear that has been embraced by celebrities.)
Can you imagine getting a phone call from a guy who says he wants to transport massive knitting machinery to the U.S. on shipping containers, and can you help? "People are a bit surprised and confused," Rongione said. "They're trying to understand why this makes sense."
The benefits of domestic hat production include saving time and money related to the overseas transport of finished goods. Local production also means Bollman can swiftly innovate on styles as fashion requires. "Speed to market is vital," Rongione said.
The project will cost roughly $650,000 to buy and transport the machinery to Adamstown, 60 miles northwest of Philadelphia, and electrical conversions of the equipment.
Bollman has invested $350,000 in the efforts and has already transported 20 of the special knitting machines to its factory.
Hoping to raise funds, the hat maker has launched a Kickstarter campaign — featuring Jackson — to help bring Kangol jobs to the U.S.
Wearing a T-shirt that says "Motherfunder," Jackson says on the video: "My grandfather wore Kangol and I wear Kangol. Let's help bring Kangol jobs to America. Let's do this motherfunders."
What exactly makes the Kangol equipment so special?
The knitting machines allow workers to craft hats with a unique shape, drape and tight weave that can't be duplicated. "The quality of what these old machines are capable of doing is unachievable with new knitting machine technology," Rongione said.
As with most apparel and textile production, the bulk of related machinery is overseas in Europe and Asia. "We don't make textile machinery in the U.S.," said David Trumbull, a consultant and expert in textiles and U.S. manufacturing.
Even if entrepreneurs want to revive textile production, the question becomes, "'Where am I going to get this equipment?'" Trumbull said. "It's highly specialized equipment."
But there are a few industrious U.S. textile mill operators, who are sourcing and reviving production in their communities. And they're finding creative ways to maintain decades-old gear.
For example, Minnesota wool maker Stephenie Anderson opened a wool mill in late 2013. Northern Woolen Mills is in Fosston, a remote northwestern Minnesota town of about 1,500. The mill produces bundles of finished wool yarn — something the region hasn't seen in half a century. Her business customers, stretching to the East Coast, turn her yarn into blankets, garments and upholstery — all "Made in the USA."
To make her wool production possible, Anderson found about a dozen old, wool-related machines, including one made in Spain — operating instructions not included. So the Northern Woolen Mills team turned to video tutorials on YouTube. "There is no manual for this old textile equipment anymore," she said.
When she needs help with her wool machinery, Anderson calls on local machinists, who also work on agricultural equipment. And if a part breaks, she said, "we have to have the parts made."
Back in Adamstown, Rongione remains focused on bringing over 60 more of the special knitting machines, sitting in a factory in China. A Chinese company has closed the factory, opening the door for the bulk of Kangol production to come to the U.S. Even with the shipment of the additional machines, some Kangol production will remain in China and Taiwan.
While there are many business variables, Rongione has done the math and estimates making most of the Kangol hats in America will cost only "slightly more" than if the goods were made in China — including savings associated with reducing overseas shipping costs. "That assumes we're getting to the same productivity level," he said.
Big picture, Bollman is committed to domestic manufacturing and keeping the specialized manufacturing skills alive. Hats have been continuously made in the Pennsylvania factory since 1868. Said Rongione: "It's part of who we are, and the culture we're trying to create in this company."