National Clothesline
How thousands of shirts are made
My home city, Fall River, MA, has been a textile city for about 150 years. How fitting it is that
shirts are made here.
I managed to get a tour of Fall River Shirt Company and I must say that this proved to be a
most interesting adventure. I
showed up at the factory, and
was treated to an extraordinarily
detailed tour by the plant
manager Emmanuel Moniz. I
wish to thank him publicly for his
time and commend him for his
ability at running what surely
must be one of the slickest
manufacturing facilities in the country.
In 1975, the company, then known as Shelburne Shirt, employed 800 workers and produced
1,100 dozen shirts per day. These shirts were lower quality shirts that retailed for $10 to $15 at
department stores such as K-Mart.
In 1987, Shelburne Shirt, which at one time competed with six other shirt plants in this city
alone, decided to close down the Fall River operation after 60 years.
A few of the management employees had other ideas. They got together and bought the
company and created Fall River Shirt Company. Their business plan called for making a much
higher quality shirt and seeking the high-end market.
The shirts made here retail for between $75 and $125. They are the exclusive shirt
manufacturer for Nordstrom’s. In fact, every shirt made here ends up at Nordstrom’s.
All of the shirts for the company’s other customers are made at their sister facility in
Pennsylvania. This Fall River plant is strictly high-end. That market, of course, is different. Now
they employ only 150 people to produce 125 dozen shirts per day. Mathematically, that is far
fewer “pieces per operator hour”.
There are now only 10 shirt manufacturing plants in the United States and they make a mere
5 percent of the shirts sold in this country. Asia and the Caribbean basin claim the balance.
While a Fall River worker, being paid a few nickels per shirt can make over $20,000 per year,
their foreign counterparts are perfectly content to make $100 per month.
I had to ask why Nordstrom’s patronized Fall River Shirt rather than a foreign company that
paid slave wages. I got an interesting answer: In spite of the fact that the foreign shirt makers
are paid an unconscionable 1/16 of what they’d make in this country, Fall River Shirt has to
match their price!
Nordstrom’s doesn’t go to the local manufacturer because of price. And it isn’t because of
quality either. Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger and countless other brands are all imported. The
foreigners apparently do a quality job. Nordstrom’s buys the U.S. product because of the service
that they can get — two to three week turn-around.
This is vital in order to replenish depleted stock. The foreign products are subject to port
charges, import taxes, transportation costs and perhaps other things, but that surely doesn’t
offset the slave labor wages. So, in spite of all that, the U.S. manufacturers must have a slick
operation and a very efficient one in order to be profitable with a comparatively high payroll.
My tour began in the area of the plant that Emmanuel called the “brains” of the operation —
the cutting room.
And what a room it is, occupying maybe a half an acre of floor space. All of the colossal tables,
there since 1927, have been retrofitted with air floatation. They function like an air-hockey table,
allowing the fabric to be moved along the tables very easily.
The yards goods are all cut by computer. Absolutely fascinating to watch, the computer
controlled blade can cut up to 95 thicknesses of material at once.
What I saw being cut were all of the components for about 50 white cotton shirts. It takes four
square meters of cloth to make two shirts.
When the material is plaid, striped or checked, the positioning of the individual parts is a key
difference between making a $100 shirt and a $10 shirt. The stripes, for instance, must be
consistent and regular, even though a pocket, a sleeve gusset or a button-hole band are
Consider that this pocket, for example is folded over and sewn before being attached to the
shirt itself. Regardless, the stripes (or plaid) must match perfectly. If one collar point has a small
bit of, say blue, from a check pattern, the other collar point must have the same bit of blue,
perfectly symmetrical. To think about this while watching a shirt being cut is mind-boggling.
Little wonder that the plotting is done by computer.
Once the material is cut, the individual components are tied together and labeled with a card
that not only includes a bar code, but also numerous details about the actual shirt which it will
eventually make up.
These components are tossed in a bin and sent to the sewing room. This room is divided into
three areas: small parts, large parts and assembly.
It is absolutely amazing how these 100-something people combine to make a stunningly
beautiful product out of what appears to be nothing more than stray scraps of cotton.
Emmanuel calls the sewing room the heart of the plant. There is a limited amount of
automation in this plant. Too much automation does not produce a top quality garment. It is
possible to automate 90 percent of the shirt manufacturing processes aside from assembly of the
components, which is always done by hand. This automation is associated with lower quality
The collar has three parts: front, back and interface. And they are sewn together in that order.
This part of the collar is sewn by hand, all piece work. Imperfects are rejected, not paid for and
The next stage is where the collars are inverted, pressed, the perimeter sewn, then trimmed
and sent to inspection. This part is semi-automatic. The machine that does all this is amazing
and it must be retrofitted for each different cut of shirt.
The blade onto which the collar is inverted and then pressed is machined to the precise cut of
the collar of this shirt. Maintenance needs to be summoned to change the blades when this
operator sees, on that bar-coded card, that the new batch has a different cut of collar. This is the
machine that I’d like to work with.
The sewing of the cuffs is also automated. They are assembled in a way that is similar to the
collars and the perimeter is also sewn automatically.
The cuffs are on a carousel, about two feet in diameter. The plates are adjusted to match the
size (and cut) of this particular shirt being made.
Cuffs are different sizes. They are, like some many other parts of a shirt, scaled proportional
to the neck size. During perimeter sewing of the cuffs, the sewing machine follows the plates to
which the cuffs are attached. These plates act as templates. The cuffs end up like a string of
sausages as the sewing machine never stops, moving from one cuff to the next.
Seven separate times during the manufacturing process, components are sent to an inspector
who specializes in the evaluation of this particular component. Each fabricated part has a “pass”
or “fail” standard. It’s fairly basic: perfection passes, all else fails.
The more complex the design is on the fabric, the more likely an error is. For this reason,
checked and plaid shirts cost more than striped shirts for all involved. It cost more to
manufacture, therefore, it cost the store more and ultimately, more money for the consumer.
Plain fabric shirts are the easiest and least expensive. The “small parts” area employs many
people, each with a specialty. Most of the sewing is done by using gauges, guides and skill.
Meanwhile the “large parts” area works on parts like fronts, backs and sleeves, but they also sew
small parts that are components of the large parts. The large parts workers will sew on the
pockets, for instance. They also affix the care labels and the brand labels and the size labels.
Before I go on, I have to share a secret with you, but you must promise to simply keep it in
your memory bank and not use this artillery over and over. It will ruin your credibility if you do.
Knowledge is power.
I have taken the time to learn about how shirts are made with the hopes that I will understand
something about shirts a bit better and be better armed to answer a client’s question. It is for
this same reason that I present this to you — to get a better view of the world of shirts (how
geeky is that?) so that perhaps you are better armed to deal with customers.
What am I getting at? Well, maybe I’m making more of this than I should, but when I watched
a sewing machine operator attaching labels — size labels, brand-name labels and yes, care
labels — I asked if this was inspected for accuracy.
It isn’t. Hmmm. I urge you not to run with this. It might be tempting to whip out this column
to show a customer as a way of explaining why a shirt doesn’t fit properly. (The maker “often”
attaches the wrong label.) Or as support for your theory that the care label is wrong. (The
factory employs immigrants that can’t read English so they often attach the wrong care label.)
Don’t do this. It will affect your credibility. But it is good to know. It just seems to support
some of the suspicions that we’ve had from time to time.
Have you ever noticed that the size label on some garments is clearly wrong? All of your pants
are size 34 waist except one. It’s a size 36. An inch is an inch, isn’t it? Well, I have learned that
it is possible for a machine operator to attach the wrong label and even the best shop will not be
But remember that this is an unusual circumstance, not one that you will run into every couple
of days, weeks or even years.
We have all run into care labels that are suspect. Perhaps this is a stab at a reason why.
Keeping in mind that Fall River Shirt is a slick shop — better than perhaps any other — it is
probably the place that is least likely to have a label error happen. But remember that this plant
makes a small percentage of the five percent of the shirts that are made in the USA. And if they
don’t inspect for label errors, I feel completely comfortable with the assumption that nobody
checks for this possible gaffe.
OK, back to the sewing room. When the subcomponents are completed, they are naturally
assembled into complete garments. This is not automated. It is skilled labor. The finished
products are carefully inspected and fewer than one percent are rejected.
It is amazing how eagle-eyed the inspectors are. What looks like pure perfection to you or I is
obscene to the skilled shirt manufacturer.
I looked at one rejected shirt that was flagged as defective in the sleeve gusset area. It was a
checked shirt that, when buttoned at the cuff, would have stripes that did not line up perfectly.
Totally unacceptable. I have since looked at shirts in stores and really appreciated the finished
product. I look at printed fabric and marvel at the symmetry of the stripes, colors and checks.
The completed shirts are then pressed and folded. These areas do not resemble our pressing
and folding areas but are certainly worth an honorable mention.
When it comes to pressing shirts, the manufacturers cheat. First of all, the collars are not
repressed. They are pressed during manufacture. That’s it. As you know from unwrapping any
new shirt, there isn’t too much concern for the actual press quality. Or, said in a better way,
there isn’t a desire to make the garment “ready-to-wear” as in our industry.
The cuffs are pressed folded and flat, a cardinal sin in the drycleaning and laundry business.
So are the sleeves.
The fabric is pressed dry — no steam, no water, no moisture. Adding moisture is considered
The presses are similar looking, to an extent. They look like a conventional double-buck shirt
unit, but the brand is unfamiliar, made in Germany.
These particular presses don’t use steam to heat the heads, but rather hot oil that is circulated
through them. I have always known that this can be done, but had never seen it firsthand.
The shirts are dressed in the way that you’d expect, but they don’t appear to be in need of
pressing. Once off the press, they are folded and pinned. This is done by hand.
I think that we imagine that the manufacturers have fabulously complicated folding machines
that are capable of folding a shirt perfectly, in a flash, whenever we have a bunch of shirts that
need folding at 4 p.m. on a Friday.
Not so. It is done entirely by hand and the finished product is gorgeous. Someone then affixes
the price tag and packaging. Their goal is to make a shirt ready to buy. They succeed.
Perhaps we can’t learn real lessons from this rather obscure part of the shirt world, but there
is some comfort in seeing the similarities between the business of maintaining shirts and the
business of making them.
Notice that, in spite of the price, it is quality and service combined that generates customers
for Fall River Shirt Co. Sure, the buyer won’t pay too much, but then who would? If it weren’t for
service they’d just as soon go to Asia. Just like our customers.
When something cost more to process, more is charged. This is important to remember. We
need to do the same always. And as automated as some things have become during our
lifetimes, certain things require the skills of dedicated employees.
Sure, we can dream about a giant machine that folds shirts, washes clothes and removes
stains, but when we wake up we realize that the success of our business lies in the hands of our
Don Desrosiers has been in the drycleaning and shirt laundering