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Business and Economy

Portland Company Makes All-American Clothing, Employing New Americans

Patty Wight
Maine Public
American Roots top stitcher Duaa Khalifa

Maine’s textile industry had its heyday a century ago, but one company in Portland sees a bright future in textile manufacturing and is producing garments stitched from 100 percent American-made materials. As they did a 100 years ago, immigrants are the workforce that’s helping to fuel this new textile industry into the future.

Fleece jackets are so ubiquitous these days, you’d think it would be easy to find the materials needed to make them. But not if you are committed to using only materials that are made here in the U.S.

“It took us six months to find pocket fabric made in the U.S. for jackets and vests,” says Ben Waxman, co-founder of American Roots, which specializes in company apparel — fleece jackets, vests and pullovers that can be customized with a business’s logo.

In fact, it took a good year of sleuthing to find all American-made material, he says. Those pockets are made in Colorado, most of the fleece is made in Massachusetts, the zippers are manufactured in California and the labels are made right here in Lewiston.

They’re all stitched together at American Roots’ bright, daylight-filled warehouse just a few blocks from downtown Portland. Eight sewing machines hum along to the sounds of Bruce Springsteen.

Once the search for U.S.-made products was complete, American Roots co-founder Whitney Reynolds says she had to embark on another difficult search.

“We needed to find a workforce, and we found it really wasn’t out there, so we needed to train them,” she says.

American Roots partnered with Portland Adult Education, Goodwill and Coastal Enterprises to offer a 7-week training program. Reynolds says 30 people responded to the ad.

“Out of that 30 that we vetted, two of them were native Mainers, and I was shocked to see that,” she says. “Two of those people‚ and then one didn’t show up for interview. So clearly the majority was new Americans.”

Duaa Khalifa of Portland, originally from Iraq, is a top-stitcher. She glides a fleece sleeve through her sewing machine to add finishing details.

“When I first came, it just like confusing, a little bit scared, because I never work before,” she says. “But Whitney, Ben — they are very kind people, and I feel like they care about us.”

Credit Patty Wight / Maine Public
Maine Public
Co-founders Ben Waxman (from left) and Whitney Reynolds preparing to cut fleece.

Khalifa is one of eight stitchers American Roots employs. All are women and they’re all new Americans.

“Our first training program had a sign up on the wall, where we’d write ‘thread’ in English, and then write it in Arabic, and French, and Spanish,” she says.

The women had to learn stitch-specific English and convert their metric system math skills to the U.S. system. The women also had to learn something else: how to unionize. In fact, that was Waxman’s idea.

“We believe every worker should have a voice, no matter how small we are, or how big we become,” he says.

Before starting American Roots, Waxman spent more than a decade working for the national AFL-CIO. In that time, he met workers who had felt firsthand the effects of the decline in domestic manufacturing, and he dreamed of starting a business that produced something 100 percent U.S.-made.

When Waxman and Reynolds launched American Roots a year ago, they prided themselves on offering a good place to work, with a starting pay of $12.50 an hour and benefits. Still, they wanted employees to unionize.

“Someday it’s not going to be Whit and I on the floor every day. It’s going to be a different manager. Those workers need to have a voice,” he says.

American Roots employees chose the Steelworkers Union to represent them. Khalifa says she likes having the extra support.

“As a woman coming from Iraq, it’s good for me. It make me feel strong woman. I have somebody to reach with what I supposed to be do, because this is first job for me,” she says.

But how can American Roots pull this all off financially? They pay workers above minimum wage, they use more expensive, American-made components and they have to sell their apparel at a competitive price.

Waxman admits that it’s tough. He and Reynolds scraped by for a year without taking paychecks.

“We would be lying if Whitney and I said one day we don’t want a lake house. That’s the truth. I mean, we’re not doing this for our health, we’re doing this to make a living,” he says. “There’s a choice to be made on profit over greed in our minds. And making a 100 percent profit versus a 50 percent profit or versus making an 800 percent profit.”

Waxman says they choose to take a profit on the lower end of the scale, and he thinks sales will make up for that. American Roots has already exceeded its first-year production goal of 8,000 garments by more than twofold, sending some 20,000 garments to market.

Soon, they’ll expand into other apparel and fabrics. And there’s an upcoming training aimed at recruiting and hiring more employees.

Though Waxman didn’t expect that the company’s workforce would be completely made up of new Americans, Waxman says it’s actually pretty fitting.

“This is a 100 percent American company, we opened the door to anyone who wanted to work, and the first people to walk in were people who just walked into this country, so that’s about as American as it gets,” he says.