Atlantic Cities

Bringing U.S. Manufacturing Back, One T-Shirt at a Time

Courtesy Headline Shirts

Is there anything more ubiquitous than the t-shirt? I’d challenge you to find one person in the country who doesn’t own one. So you know what’s weird? There are almost no companies in the U.S. that make them—American Apparel being the most well-known exception. This most common of consumer products, worn by individuals at every stop along the economic spectrum, is for the most part an import.

Except in San Francisco. Already home to dozens of enterprising screen printers, the recent emergence of a local t-shirt manufacturer here seems obvious in hindsight. But it took people like Kate Sofis, Executive Director of SFMade, to help make it happen.

A non-profit formed in 2010 as a sort of alt version of the Chamber of Commerce, SF Made brings an expanding number of local manufacturers, from jewelers to brewers to custom corset-makers together as a community. The organization, which charges no fees, provides its membership of nearly 200 individuals and companies, with resources and assistance on everything from supply chain analysis to lease negotiations. SF Made’s success over the last year has demonstrated that the future of manufacturing may lie less with reviving monolithic industries (i.e., auto, steel), and more in stepping back to see what other things we can—and should—be making domestically, creating jobs and eliminating import costs in the process. “We’re not going to bring every low cost item back,” Sofis explains. “A disposable bubble blowing toy that sells at 10 for $1, we won’t be making that here anytime soon. But there’s a lot more room for commonplace items to be manufactured. Somewhere between $10/lb. coffee and $10 for a dozen bubble blowers, there’s a lot. People are getting really excited about that. “

There’s no shortage of naysayers who see “cottage industry” and not “economic engine.” But, as Sofis explains, “This is not about coffee, chocolate and beer. I do think that often you find the sector starts with some of that stuff because it’s easier to figure out. But what’s trying to happen is that once people realize they can make things here they start to explore where the niches are, where’s there’s a demand for a basic product.”

By embracing incremental shifts in the manufacturing paradigm, SF Made has not only more than doubled the number of its member companies since its founding in 2010, it has inspired cities nationwide to take another look at their own manufacturing potential. And San Francisco is now seen as the model for major urban centers across the U.S. In July, SF Made and its New York partner launched the Urban Manufacturing Alliance in partnership with the Clinton Initiative. The goal is to take their model to other cities interested in re-stimulating their local manufacturing sectors.

It wasn’t hard to convince anyone, as Sofis explains. “Cities have been thinking about it and now see that SF Made has the right model.” Beginning with New York, San Francisco, and three other cities, the UMA is seeking funding partners for research on best practices, and plans to partner with Salesforce.com on the creation of a supply chain database. The efforts of SF Made and its regional equivalents have turned into something that stands a real chance to affect economic growth. And in the process, we’re seeing a reinvention of conventional ideas about what manufacturing is and what jobs come with it.

Allison Arieff is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities. She writes a column about design and architecture for The New York Times and is editorial director of SPUR. All posts »

Join the Discussion