A Laundry Lament

My wife Lillian is an Anglophile. For at least as long as I’ve known her, she’s been fascinated by anything involving England or Great Britain, especially royalty, especially female royalty. Also British history. Our library is full of books about England.

So a few summers ago, she took a dream trip, a 3-week tour of England and the British Isles, with her sister and her niece. They had a great time. They saw a lot, did a lot, ate and drank a lot. Three full weeks worth. The only time they slowed down was to sleep and pee, and I’m not even sure they did that.

It was the longest we had ever been apart. I got mighty lonely. One day, toward the end of the three weeks, I was folding laundry, and feeling really down in the dumps because it was only MY laundry, nothing feminine, and I was thinking back to a sad time in my life when every load of laundry was like that.

Then the phone rang, and it was Lillian, calling from Scotland, I think, just to check in, tell me about what she had been doing, and asking how I was doing. I half blubbered, “I’m folding laundry, and it’s just mine, nothing of yours, and I miss you, and if you’ll just hurry home, I promise I’ll fold your laundry for the rest of my life.”

Well, it wasn’t long until she was home again, and that was no idle promise. Since that day, I have striven mightily to be the first to the laundry basket when it comes upstairs. Lillian chips in when I’ve been gone for a while, or busy (read: fishing or golfing), but for the most part, I have kept my promise. It’s just one of the household tasks I enjoy doing, and I do remember my promise, with a wry smile, each time I do it.

And so, on one recent day I was tackling a full basket and grabbed a pair of Lillian’s yoga pants, and they were inside out, and as I turned them outside out, I glanced down at the tag, and saw that it said “Made in Vietnam.”

That caught me off guard, kind of took my breath away. I had never paid attention to a “Made in . . .” tag on clothing before, and I immediately flashed back to two years on an aircraft carrier, much of it floating around the Tonkin Gulf, sending planes off to bomb the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  

And now the children and grandchildren of the Vietnamese who survived that awful time are making yoga pants for our wives. Damn!

As I folded the rest of that load of laundry, I glanced at tags as they came by. To say I was shocked is an understatement. Everything in the basket had a tag stating where it was made. I guess we have a law that requires that. So I started looking at the tags on the other items in that load.

Dang! China. Pakistan. Dominican Republic. Bangladesh. Jordan. Mexico. Sri Lanka. I kept digging, looking for a “Made in USA” tag. Nope. Not on any of my clothes. Not on Lillian’s. And it wasn’t just the clothes. Napkins from the UK and India. Towels from Sweden. Dish rags from India. Dang! Who knew?

So I grabbed a pen and a piece of paper and made some notes. Here’s what I found in that laundry basket that day.

JIM’S THINGS

Handkerchiefs – China

Shirt – Pakistan

Mickey Mouse Winter Pajamas – China

Black Summer Pajamas – India

Sweatshirt – Nicaragua

2 Old Navy hoodies – Vietnam

Sweatpants – 1 China, 1 Pakistan

National Park tee shirt – Assembled in Guatemala with U.S. Products

White tee shirts – 1 Bangladesh, 1 Honduras

Wrangler Jeans – Mexico

LILLIAN’S THINGS

North Face yoga pants – Vietnam

2 blouses – Vietnam

Jeans – Bangladesh

Vanderbilt shirt – Vietnam

Tank Top – Jordan

Jacket – Designed in Vancouver, made in China

Folk Festival Tee shirt – China

Pajamas – Sri Lanka

Vanderbilt Hoodie – Dominican Republic

More yoga pants – Sri Lanka

HOUSEHOLD THNGS

Napkins – United Kingdom

Hand Towel – Sweden

Dish rags – India

Napkins – India

I sat down to catch my breath. Okay, I thought, from now on, I’m going to pay attention when I shop for new clothes, and look for a USA tag. Except at my age, I don’t really need much in the way of clothes. I’ve got a closet full of shirts and pants, many of which don’t fit any more, but I keep hoping someday . . .  

The nice folks up at the VA clinic in Bismarck, whose job it is to keep veterans, especially old, overweight veterans like me, healthy and alive, are working with me on a diet and exercise program designed to make me fit back into those clothes someday. If it works, I should be good for life.

I remember a while back I needed some new boxer shorts, so on a trip to Target, I spotted some three-packs of boxers on sale. I grabbed two and said to Lillian, “Well, I should be good for life now. I’ll never have to buy another pair of shorts.”  

“Don’t talk like that!” she shot back. “I hate it when you say that.”

Three years later, I’m doing just fine with my boxers. So I grabbed a pair out of the drawer to see what the tag said.

“Made in Vietnam.”

Nooooo.

50 years after I returned home from the war we lost, my most intimate garments are made in, of all places, VIETNAM!

With the laundry all folded and put away that day, I went to my closet to see what other kind of bad news I might find there. How many of those shirts and pants hanging there, some of which fit and some of which don’t, were made in the USA?

None.  

I did find two things in my clothes closet with “Made in the USA” labels: My two best suits. Thank you, Strauss and KG Men’s Store. Pretty much all of my neckties were made in China. I found one that said, “Made in the USA with imported products.” Yeah, we don’t produce much silk here.

I went downstairs to look at my hunting clothes. Mostly Bangladesh. One pair of coveralls, endorsed by Jim “Catfish” Hunter, made in the USA.

Well, shoot. What’s going on here?

I went looking for answers. I found the best ones in stories at public radio affiliates. Somebody’s been studying. Here’s what they learned.

 In 1960, an average American household spent over 10 percent of its income on clothing and shoes. The average person bought 20-25 garments each year, and about 95 percent of our clothes were made in the United States.

Today, the average American household spends less than 3.5 percent of its budget on clothing and shoes. Yet, we buy more clothing than ever before: nearly 20 billion garments a year, close to 70 pieces of clothing per person, or more than one clothing purchase per week.

In today’s dollars, in 1960 we were spending about $4,000 a year on clothing. Now we spend about $1,800. How can that be? Because today, only two per cent of our clothing is made in the U.S. You read that right. 98 per cent of the clothing we buy today is made somewhere else.

A Bureau of Labor Statistics report says that between 1990 and 2011, about 750,000 apparel manufacturing jobs in the U.S. disappeared. About 150,000 remain. What happened during that time period? Remember NAFTA?

Today, the average U.S. garment worker (what few are left) makes about 38 times the wage of his or her counterpart in Bangladesh.

And that once-most famous of all labor unions, the Ladies Garment Workers Union, no longer exists.

Shame on us.

But that’s the state of things. There’s nothing we can do about it, that I can see. We can’t just decide to only buy clothes made here. We can try I guess, but it‘s gonna be pretty hard.

As for me, well, dear Lillian, I’m almost 75, and if the folks at the VA and I succeed, I’ll have plenty of clothes to last me the rest of my life. But I am going to go shopping for some boxers made in Bangladesh or Nicaragua or Sri Lanka. I’ll report back.

And I’ll keep on folding laundry. It just won’t be nearly as much fun as it has been the last few years.

Laundry folded. Nothing in this photo was made in the USA.

My closet: On the left, my shirts and pants made somewhere outside the U.S. On the right, all my shirts and pants made in the U.S. Uh huh.
Two suits and two sportcoats made in the U.S. Thank you Strauss and KG.
A pair of coveralls made in the U.S. Thank you, Catfish Hunter. I remember that great weekend we spent hunting shaprtails in the North Dakota Bad Lands.
My boxers. Made in Vietnam. By the time you’re reading this, I’m off shopping for some new ones.

5 thoughts on “A Laundry Lament

  1. It took that long to realize clothes were made over there. + your wife’s nail lady. I was on carrier in SEAsia 1968-70.
    Jm⚓️

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  2. I father ( WW2 vet in the Philippians) refused to by anything Japanese for many years. Eventually he gave in, he found no way to avoid it. Like you I spent time in the Tonkin Gulf (destroyer, gunfire support), and struggle mightily to buy Made in USA . It can be exhausting.

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  3. Jim-I remember when I first started in the retail business with Straus in Fargo in 1971, all the clothing we sold was made either in the US, in England (Byford socks and Alan Paine sweaters), in Italy (some knit shirts), or Spain (Cortefiel Leather jackets). All our suits, underwear, pants, wool coats, raincoats, hats, gloves, shoes, sport shirts, belts, even handkerchiefs, were made here. Minnesota had a thriving clothing manufacturing business. Munsingwear was made in Little Falls, MN. Gordon Fergusson jackets in Minneapolis, Cohen Feldman coats in Minneapolis, Sweet Neckwear in Minneapolis. All gone. We resisted the move to imported clothing, way longer than we should have. We always looked for products that were made in the USA. But our customers, it turned out, really didn’t care where it was made. They just wanted it to look good, to fit, and to not cost so much. As my dad used to say, “We lost that war.” Our customers, just like you have recently realized, didn’t pay any attention to where their clothing was made. There was a time when Sam Walton of Walmart fame made a concerted effort to buy American-made products. He even advertised it. But it didn’t last very long. At the end of our run, there were just a handful of brands that we sold that were truly Made in America. Hart Schaffner Marx, Hardwick, and St. Croix. But when you looked at it deeper, even those products weren’t entirely US made. Take St. Croix, for example. They were knit in Winona MN, on machines from Germany and Switzerland, made from wool grown in New Zeeland, of merino yarns spun and dyed in Japan. I remember going to a clothing market in Las Vegas about 15 years ago,and walking around the area where the imported suits were being shown. There was a suit on a form with a sign on it saying it could be purchased for $25 wholesale. I took a picture of it, and posted it on our facebook page with the comment that Straus would never sell you a $25 suit! That got quite a bit of attention, but as it turned out, perhaps we’d still be in business if we’d gone that route…the cheap suit route. Because that is the vast majority of what is being sold today. Retail has changed so much in the world, and I am glad I don’t have to fight that war anymore!
    John Stern
    Straus Clothing

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