American manufacturing has been one of the talking points in the presidential election, with Donald Trump proposing to dramatically hike import taxes in a bid to bring manufacturing jobs back stateside. While over 12 million Americans still work in manufacturing, the sector has lost more than 5 million jobs since 2000 due to outsourcing and automation.
But, there’s one small way that clothing companies have been able to keep their merchandise made in America: by making it cool. L.L. Bean makes its best-selling boots in Maine, and the San Francisco-startup American Giant is capitalizing on Silicon Valley’s fondness for hoodies by selling its U.S.-made high-end hoodies online. The company employs tradesmen in North Carolina to manufacture its premium basics clothing products.
Todd Whitley has worked in the cutting department of Eagle Sportswear, a manufacturing facility for American Giant based in Middlesex, North Carolina, for nearly 30 years. Whitley, who is not in a union, cuts fabrics for American Giant’s products. For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers, I spoke with him about how he got into manufacturing, why he’s still doing it now, and his hopes for young Americans. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Lam: What do you do and how did you get into it?
Whitley: I've been doing this since 1988, which is roughly 28 years. I got in the business early; no rhyme or reason about it. At that point, I needed a job. I made a few mistakes here and there along the way, but I started at the bottom and worked my way up to where I am now—which is a supervisor. There's not really much that I can't do in a cutting department; I've kind of done it all.
When I was hired, I unloaded trucks, moved cloth around, and organized the warehouse as needed. As time went by [my managers felt] like, “he's better than that, so let's move him up to a spreader.” I was spreading (laying cloth in piles properly to prepare for cutting) at the time, and spent eight years spreading. I was a really good at that, so my supervisor moved me up to cutting because he wanted to utilize my skills a little bit more. I was a terrible cutter to begin with, but, in my opinion, became very good.
I was promoted to an assistant supervisor, and once my supervisor retired I was able to take his place and became supervisor. Once American Giant came in and took over, we made changes and we trimmed fat where it needed to be trimmed, which was something that was overdue. We downsized, so not only am I the supervisor, I also do the work. It’s definitely hands-on every single day I’m here. We push hard and work on from start to finish.
Lam: What does your job of cutting involve?
Whitley: We cut fabric with a 10-inch Eastman knife [machine]. You might look at someone that cuts and think, "Oh, wow, that looks pretty easy. I can do that." I always feel like if somebody's job looks easy to me, that just means they're an expert at what they do.
I think a lot of people get the misconception that cutting is just pushing a knife through a line of material, but there’s more to it than that. The actual cutting part the knife does, but if you don’t think about your free hand you're just making a mess of your material. I use my free hand to hold things in place and everything and keep it right there close to the blade. We have these metal gloves that we wear for protection. The more you cut, the more tricks you learn, and the better you get. You get to cut different types of material, not just T-shirts. We cut Max-Dri fabric; we cut the meshes. Each different material is a different challenge in itself.
Lam: Did you see yourself doing this kind of work?
Whitley: Honestly, I didn't have any direction whatsoever. I got out of school and I needed to get a job. Back in 1985, you just got a job in our area, and went work. At 19 years old, you’re just having fun. This just happened to be something that I got into. I didn't realize it at the time, but time flies by so fast.
When I finally got my head on my shoulders and got to thinking whether this is what I really want to do, it turned out that I had progressed so far in the company that it was dumb for me to try to look for anything else. I'm almost 48 years old, and I've been doing this for 28 years. You get comfortable, you know what you're doing. At 48 years old it's hard to change jobs because most people look at you and think, “The body's probably used up or injured, and it can't do this or that.”
I made decent money moving up through the company, and money pays the bills. I'm a pretty simple person; I don't need a whole lot to make me happy. As long as everything is paid for, and my son is fine—I'm happy.
Lam: Do you feel like the times have changed in terms of how people think about work?
Whitley: If it hasn't, it should. It should because nowadays, kids have so much more in front of them. It's easier for them to go to college and to get a better education. Nowadays, I think when kids get out of high school they should pursue college and try to get a career and not do like me. When I got into the textile business back then, I was making $3.70 an hour. Back then, the thinking was just to get a job and work.
Nowadays, I think it should be more than that because people have so much more at their fingertips. They can go to college, get these good educations, and then go out and get these good jobs. They don't have to start off at $3.70 an hour.
Lam: The company you work for, American Giant, is really proud of is being made in the U.S. What do you think about that?
Whitley: I think things should be made in the U.S. I couldn't name all of the textile companies that are on the East Coast here, but there can't be many and there can't be many that are profitable. Of course, you know the story. Before American Giant came to Middlesex, we were headed down to the unemployment line. American Giant came in and took over, and figured out what we needed to do. Based on the work that I've seen in the last few years, you don't have this amount of work coming in if you’re broke. There's no way that can happen. I feel good about [the current situation] and it could continue to flood us with work, which is a good thing.
Lam: Are there any misconceptions about manufacturing or the textile garment industry that you've experienced?
Whitley: Over the years, when you meet people and you tell them where you work, they’ll say, “Oh, you don't make any money.” That's not true. Things have changed; we can make good money. You have some sewers out here who are making $15 an hour. Like anything else, if you work hard and you learn what you're supposed to learn, the people that are above you will pay attention to what's going on and compensate you.
I'm a year away from paying off a house from working in textiles for 28 years and starting from the bottom. Money is the only [misconception] I've ever encountered. People always think there's no money to be made on our end.
Lam: How does your work relate to your personal identity?
Whitley: My dad has always led by example, he's always been a hard worker and that's the way I started out: The more responsibility you place on my shoulders, then the more I'm going to try to do. That's just been me. I try to do things correct, and quickly.
As I've gotten older, I realize that now even more that my identity has always been somebody that works hard. I just want to feel good about myself when it's time to take a shower and be done with the day.
Lam: Has this job changed the way you view society?
Whitley: No, I can't say that it has. I've always been the type of person who’s not very outgoing. I've always kept close to home, kept close to myself, and just worry about my immediate family and me. When I come to work, I worry about my employees that work under me. I've not really changed my view on anything. I've always had the same outlook on everything since I can remember.
This interview is a part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with an ice cream maker, a butcher, and a janitor.