April 20, 2013

A Return to American Made

PorkPie Hatters in Williamsburg is part hat store and part workshop. Beyond the cabinet stocked full of bowlers, fedoras, and panama hats is a clear view of craftsmen at work turning limp felt into the clean structured shapes we are familiar with. It is a little bit like magic. The billowing steam and measured pulls against the hat block make it seem like they are doing something supernatural and, to our modern society that disconnects makers and consumers, they are. The magic that happens isn't just that the shop makes hats by hand using a combination of old and new technology, but what that means on a larger scale for the American economy. Porkpie is one of many small companies on the forefront of a movement that is bringing competitive advantages back to the manufacturing process in the USA.


Steam!

It's hard not to notice the growing prevalence of “Made in the USA” tags. Even in the visual overload of subway advertising, the “Made in NY” logo jumps out more and more. It's not just me, manufacturing in the US has been a consistent talking point in media lately from Time magazine to the Economist to President Obama's State of the Union address. According to Time Magazine “The U.S. Has seen its manufacturing growth outpace that of other advanced nations, with some 500,000 jobs created in the past three years. [...] Every $1 of manufacturing activity returns $1.48 to the economy.” It's being called the manufacturing renaissance and it is steadily raising the status of “Made in the USA” labels. 


A row of hat blocks and steamed hat drying on a block at Pork Pie Hatters

What is worth noting is that it is the small manufacturers and designers that are creating the bulk of this momentum. Realizing they cannot compete with large companies mass producing goods overseas, the focus of many of these small companies is on quality and innovation. All these factors have been creating greater demand for US made products. Willy Shih, co-author of Producing Prosperity: Why America Needs a Manufacturing Renaissance wrote “The ability to make things is fundamental to the ability to innovate things over the long term […] When you give up making products you lose a lot of the added value”. I'll go deeper into technological innovations with Porkpie in a later post (so watch for that), but what is important to take away from this quote is that the strength our economy gains from innovation can only be acquired through a history of domestic manufacturing. In Porkpie Hatters case, though it first opened its doors in 2011, owner Sean O'Toole comes from a long line of haberdashers and is no stranger to the process. 


Made in the USA

The hat you get from Porkpie has an element of the traditional, of old techniques and hand craftsmanship that sets it apart. The value of that end product is readily apparent. But to our changing economy the value of manufacturing in the US translates to a brighter future of growth overall. Having a shop that can produce traditional quality goods, customize instantly, and evolve its methods and technology with the demands of customers gives Porkpie a leading edge in this manufacturing renaissance.