Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

American-Made and the Nature of Community

A writer visits the real Tennessee shirt factory at the heart of her new historical novel

The American consumer is demanding American-made. The only hitch: manufacturers are struggling to find men and women to do the making, even against the backdrop of historically high unemployment rates. “Because the industries were decimated over the last two decades—77 percent of the American work force has been lost since 1990 as companies moved jobs abroad—manufacturers are now scrambling to find workers,” reported The New York Times last month.

Wages for skilled cut-and-sew workers have risen faster than those of the average private sector job, but a young American workforce does not appear interested in this type of work. “I think it’s just the idea of ‘Oh, I’m a sewer,’ that doesn’t thrill the average young individual today,” one dean at a technology college told the Times. The work is just not glamorous enough to attract their attention.

I surely would have thought so, too, when I was eighteen and looking for a first job. But recently I spent an afternoon in an old shirt factory in Dunlap, Tennessee, about twenty miles northwest of Chattanooga. Spartan Industries manufactured collared shirts, simple dresses, and housecoats, and at one time employed more than a thousand men and women from Sequatchie County. The factory closed its doors in the mid-1970s, though even former Spartan Industries manager Jim Jones can’t recall the exact date. The factory sits empty most days now, except when the local roller-derby team practices there.

Two weeks ago, a committee of women from the Sequatchie County Library invited former Spartan employees back to the factory so that they could be honored for their years of dedicated service and their contribution to this community located at the Southernmost tip of the Appalachian chain. Library volunteers talked of collecting oral histories and asked everyone to sign a register if they would be willing to tell their story. Sewing machines, pressers, spools of thread, patterns, and bundles of collars had all been found in a nearby town and hauled back to the one-story building that sits a couple of blocks from the county courthouse.

More than two hundred women and men came to the factory, and I watched as white-haired women with deeply lined faces leaned over sewing machines and fingered spools of thread and paper patterns. When I complained about the day’s heat on that balmy September afternoon, they laughed. “Oh, honey, this ain’t nothing. Imagine working in here with all those sewing machines running at one time.” In the factory’s heyday, nearly three hundred seamstresses worked side by side during an eight-hour shift. Some worked as bottom hemmers, sleeve setters, collar makers. Men set the patterns. Women did the sewing.

But it was the women who spoke of the impact of the factory on this small East Tennessee community. They described families who had gone too long without enough food to eat and children who had no shoes. Then Spartan came to town, and everything changed. Children went to school well-fed, in clean clothes, with new shoes. And it wasn’t long before their report cards improved. Two women told me of the young expectant mother who walked down Fredonia Mountain every day to work in the factory. One morning, she squatted on the side of the road and birthed her baby alone. Then she climbed back up the mountain, handed her newborn off to family, and walked back to the factory to finish her shift. She was the family’s only wage earner.

Spartan was the first large employer of women in Sequatchie County, and it’s hard to spend any time in Dunlap and not meet a woman who worked at the factory and whose mother or grandmother did, too. Karen Fletcher’s great-grandmother also worked at Spartan, but it was her grandmother who taught her to quilt from scraps she brought home from the factory. And her mother taught her to sew her own clothes, something Fletcher still does. “When I sew it reminds me of my mother and my grand- and great-grandmothers and how hard they worked at home and outside the home. Times were hard but they made it look so easy,” she told me.

When I asked several of the former seamstresses about the monotony of the task, they just stared at me. When I asked again, they spoke only of friendships, of community, of families needing to be fed. Sewing may indeed sound old-school to today’s tech-savvy generation. But I was awed by these women’s ability to see opportunity instead of drudgery, to find camaraderie instead of boredom.

The American public is demanding American-made products, wanting jobs and paychecks to stay here in the U.S. But in our increasingly disconnected and globally focused society, perhaps the greatest value of American-made is less obvious. An American manufacturing industry, whether it’s in small-town Dunlap or big-city Detroit, shifts our focus toward one another. After all, it’s not just the community that makes the product: it’s the very making of the product that creates community.