Saturday, January 22, 2011

Archival Manufacturing Field Trip - Columbiaknit


Lynn and I, guided by our friend Jordan, took a tour of the Columbiaknit facility in southeast Portland a few weeks ago.

Mothballed sewing machines

Industrial fabric washer

The 1920s era circular knitting machine used to knit our hats

A massive cotton knitting machine

It was a pretty amazing factory. Absolutely massive, since they used to have hundreds of workers making fabric and garments for major American sportswear brands who have since universally gone overseas. Listen, I know we flog the idea of domestic manufacturing enough on our site, but just seeing the difference of fabric and construction quality between Columbiaknit shirts and the overseas stuff... well, it's no shocker that Land's End hasn't maintained its reputation.

Deadstock evidence of US manufacture

There's an absolutely disturbing quantity of back stock in the factory. Unfortunately, most of it is in seriously spacious early 1990s sizes, built for an extra stocky rugby player. I'm 6'2", 180 pounds, but a woman's Medium was the nearest fit for me (very short sleeves and too-wide shoulders, though).


Bins full of giant rugby shirts

The factory is down to a half-dozen sewers, one knitting machine operator, and operating just a few days a week. We can't tell you how excited we are to start more work with Columbiaknit - simply going through old fabrics to begin with, and working alongside Jordan to build on the simply detailed and well-fitting line that he began a year ago.


Our first project, aside from re-stocking our popular T-shirts and sweatshirts, is going to be a simple band-collar rugby shirt. The Columbiaknit rugby fabric has to be felt to be believed, and we're all big fans of the classic rugby. Given the skyrocketing price of cotton and the vanishing numbers of skilled sewers, it won't be easy - but we're thrilled to begin work! In the meantime, if you're a burly gent, there are roomy rugby shirts available directly from Columbiaknit for only $36. At 6'2" and 180, a man's Small is as good as it'll get for now.


Like so many of my clothing obsessions, I learned about the durability of the rugby shirt through rock climbing, as it was popularized by Chouinard/GPIW in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Speaking of Chouinard, I'd love to see a progressive company like Patagonia move their cotton knits production to a place like Columbiaknit. Patagonia would be well-served to bring the responsibility that led them to use only organic cottons to lead them towards domestic knitting, cutting, and sewing. Like organic cotton, it costs more and it's well worth it. The facilities are all in place - let's make it in the States!

16 comments:

janet said...

nice piece thank

bright lights, big cities said...

i've been reading your blog a couple weeks now and this post is awesome!

i actually thought patagonia right when i saw 'rock climbing with rugby shirts'.

from a person who is trying to find the place where i fit in the fashion industry, reading things like this, make me feel that i should loose hope!

-jacquie

bright lights, big cities said...

*shouldn't

Anonymous said...

So on their sizing, are you saying their posted fit guide is simply wrong?

Tom Bonamici said...

@Anon 11:49 - Nope, it's that their fit guide refers to *body* measurements rather than garment measurements. Most of Columbiaknit's rugby shirts are simply cut to be baggy. Call them for actual measurements of a specific model. FWIW, the two man's size Small rugbys that I have measure 20" pit-to-pit.

My Affair with Michael Bastian said...

Hot...

corkgrips said...

oh man.. i've been looking for some rugby's, thank's for the heads up!

Amy K. of the Boom Club said...

Nice piece. Thanks for sharing

angelo said...

I picked up a ColumbiaKnit beanie at The Woodlands last time I was in town and it has been a mainstay atop my dome ever since. Great stuff.

Anonymous said...

I used to wear those rugby shirts back in the day-- I'll definitely be buying some from them. Re: your idea about Patagonia: spot on!

Scott said...

A woman's medium, that's crazy! Maybe they can market the men's XL as slipcovers for your favourite chair.

Irwin said...

A nice profile of a great manufacturer. I size down when I buy their deadstock. I've got a 47" chest am 5' 10" and weigh 210... I take a men's large from them instead of my usual XL or XXL. I love the crewnecks in the first photo... it'd be great to be able to obtain those.

Wm. J. MIlls and Co. said...

The endless mothballed sewing machines were a sight. I learned to spread and cut on a huge cutting table 45 years ago from a holocaust survivor that never let his cigar go out. Those people are all gone now. The bright spot for me are all the young start-ups I see. Young and full of energy and completely focused on quality. American made has a great rebirth and audience, albeit many customers are overseas many times, but domestically more and more people seem to understand what "made in USA" means. As always, thanks for your thoughful and thorough post.

Liz Galvin said...

I have owned rugby shirts from a wide variety of makers. Regardless of the maker, they always end up too short, and/or have problems with bleeding.

Thanks for the post.

Fermelife.blogspot.com

Barbour Jackets said...

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Atif said...
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