I still remember the sounds (and smells) of the old paper mill in my hometown. I grew up hearing that the town only exists because of that paper mill and how many parents of the kids I went to school with worked there or maintained its operation. But like many American manufacturing plants before it, it fell silent in 2021 after 157 years of operation, leaving an eerie quietness that echoed fears of impending economic devastation on the community.
It shares a similar story of the Mohnton Knitting Mills factory, several hours east of where I grew up, that also closed late last year.
Built in 1873, Mohnton Knitting Mills had been a stalwart of the Eastern Pennsylvania textile manufacturing scene since 1906. Founded by Aaron Hornberger in Mohnton, PA, the mill has had its fair share of highs and lows. From manufacturing hats, T-shirts, World War II uniforms, designer clothing lines, and thermal underwear, to getting a trendy following in Japan in the early 2000s for its custom knitwear, the mill had a storied run.
It seemed like things were looking up when Gary Pleam, Hornberger's great-grandson and company president, oversaw the sale to Stitch Fix in 2017 – but the personal stylist brand encountered its own set of problems and they closed the factory’s doors in 2022, leading to the loss of 56 jobs.
Buck Mason is an LA-based clothing brand with a rugged, minimalist style aesthetic that doesn't scream for attention but nails it in the details. I’ve become a fan of their self-described “Southern California style” over the last 10 years because it’s kind of like J.Crew but with less prep influences. I’ve shared outfits with their henleys, jackets, and chinos over the years, and they are included in our Best Clothing Brands for Men list.
Since its Venice Beach founding in 2013, Buck Mason has kept a portion of their manufacturing domestic, but they've just announced how they’ve taken it a step further: They've purchased the Mohnton Knitting Mill and nearby sewing factory, bringing back original employees. Now, several of their t-shirt lines are manufactured there, with plans to expand to more items.
Given the backdrop of the current American clothing manufacturing industry, the decision by Buck Mason to acquire the old Mohnton Knitting Mills and sewing factory isn't just another corporate venture— it's a conscious choice to diverge from the path that most American companies take as they grow.
Look at the numbers. According to Stephanie Vatz in 2013, the average American household in 1960 spent over 10% of its income on clothing and shoes, equivalent to roughly $4,000 at the time she reported it. Back then, people bought fewer than 25 garments per year, with a significant 95% of that apparel being produced in America.
Fast forward to today, where the average American household now spends less than 3.5% of its budget, under $1,800 per year, on clothing and shoes despite the fact that we're purchasing more clothing than ever before—almost 68 pieces per person each year. A staggering shift, considering only about 3% of these clothes are made in the United States.
The numbers reveal the significant transformation the American clothing industry underwent over the decades. In 2019 alone, the U.S. imported a staggering $127.7 billion worth of textiles and apparel.
This shift had its roots in the mid-1970s, when large textile mills and factories began emerging in China and other developing nations, offering cheaper labor and the ability to efficiently manage large-scale orders.
By 1980, major retail chains like Gap Inc. and JCPenney had begun outsourcing production to these overseas factories. American manufacturers, burdened by higher wages and operation costs, couldn't compete. By 2002, the iconic jeans brand Levi’s, synonymous with America, manufactured virtually all of their jeans overseas. At this point Mohnton Knitting Mills was one of the only surviving American factories still making custom knitwear.
My aim here isn't specifically about ‘revitalizing' American manufacturing. It's an acknowledgement of the complexity of the situation—economic, cultural, historical.
But let's not ignore the elephant in the room; this sort of business investment requires a parallel commitment from consumers who are willing to pay what is perceived as a premium price.
A Grown & Sewn t-shirt from Buck Mason, where both the cotton and shirt are made in the US, starts at $45. It can be a tough number to swallow when we’ve become accustomed to t-shirts costing $8 to $15.
And the unfortunate reality is that it would be an incredibly difficult, if not impossible, feat for the average person to try to wear only American-made clothing today. Factor in everyone’s different needs for sizing and fit, aesthetic preferences, the inability to easily find American-made items, the obvious significant price tag they have inherently and today’s typical consumer shouldn’t feel shamed for buying what works for their needs and their budget.
Given all these factors, Buck Mason's recent investment might seem quixotic. But co-founders Erik Allen Ford and Sasha Koehn aren't promising to bring back the golden age of American manufacturing, however, what they are doing is reminding us of the value and the cost of the things we wear. And while it will remain unlikely that many of us will be able to, say, buy clothes for the office that were made in the US due to price and availability, we can invest more for our enduring staples like a t-shirt with superior fabric and design details that is also made in a small American factory.
Buck Mason's investment in the Mohnton Knitting Mills isn't going to reverse the tide. It won't reopen all the shuttered factories or restore all the lost jobs or edit the average consumer’s expectation for cost. But it does represent the rare company of its size already making premium products sold at a premium price reinvesting that into American manufacturing.
It may not seem like much—a single company, one knitting mill, one T-shirt at a time. The closing of the old paper mill in my hometown wasn't just a chapter ending in our local industry. Until its closure, it remained the largest employer with countless ancillary businesses grown up around it to support its operation and its workers. So, when it fell silent last year after 157 years of operation, we didn't just lose jobs. We lost a significant piece of our identity, and were thrust into an uncertain future. And now the only proposal is to turn it into a high school football field – which will do little in replacing the economic ecosystem that the community lost.
Buck Mason's purchase of Mohnton isn't a nostalgic trip or a crusade against global manufacturing. It's an example of how a company can expand while investing in a community, injecting life into a local economy.
The takeaway isn't to champion an ‘America-only' stance, but to consider the impact of our choices, especially in terms of local economies and communities. Buck Mason's move is a reminder that each purchase we make, as consumers and businesses, can leave a lasting mark on the lives of real people, in real communities, much like the one I grew up in.