Where were the clothes that you’re wearing made – and what do the circumstances of their manufacture say about the bigger economic picture? In 2024, the answer to the first part of that question could range from union-made apparel from the United States to cheaply made fast fashion made overseas and sold by retailers like H&M and Shein. Exploring the state of apparel manufacturing in the United States might not sound like the most engaging of subjects, but Rachel Slade’s new book eludes easy expectations.

“Making It In America: The Almost Impossible Quest To Manufacture In The U.S.A. (And How It Got That Way)” focuses on the Westbrook-based clothing company American Roots and its founders, Ben and Whitney Waxman. The story of American Roots – a company that vowed to create high-quality, affordable garments made entirely in the United States – would be compelling enough on its own, but Slade also uses the company’s story to explore much larger questions about the current state of labor, class and corporate America.

On first look, Slade’s new book seems to have little in common with her previous work of nonfiction, “Into the Raging Sea,” which focused on the 2015 sinking of the container ship El Faro in which all 33 crew members died. Yet each one uses a relatively tight focus to explore larger ethical questions with big political ramifications. Slade’s books explore the governmental and industry policies that led to avoidable tragedies, whether it’s the death of workers or the implosion of entire domestic industries. If “Making It in America” has villains, it’s a combination of executives obsessed with shareholder value to the exclusion of everything else and the policies of the World Trade Organization.

Throughout “Making It in America,” Slade chronicles companies that were once part of a thriving domestic supply chain and eventually either shuttered or moved some or all of their operations overseas. Ben Waxman’s background in organized labor alerted him to some of the broader issues at play here, and periodically Slade alludes to the changing fortunes of workers who witnessed the skilled jobs that they had done for years vanishing, leaving them with only much lower-paid opportunities.

Slade also has a secondary mission here: to make the case that rebuilding the nation’s manufacturing sector is both more feasible than some of her readers might think – and vitally important to the country’s future.

“Americans don’t make things. It’s too messy. It’s too expensive. It’s too complicated,” Slade writes. “Americans are good at justifying things that turn out to be bad for them. We have a bad habit of thinking that the twists and turns of history are inevitable or irreversible.”


It doesn’t hurt that the married couple at the center of “Making It in America” are attractive subjects, with the joint challenges they face running a business and having a family accentuating one another. Slade’s book takes on urgency as the timeline reaches 2020; when the Waxmans predict good things ahead for their company on the eve of the pandemic, it’s not hard to feel a shudder of trepidation. Slade’s focus on American Roots also helps show the different ways that global crises like the pandemic and the temporary blockage of the Suez Canal can upend the best-laid plans of businesses large and small.

It’s worth mentioning that Slade isn’t the only nonfiction writer exploring these questions with a recent book. Steven Kurutz’s “American Flannel: How a Band of Entrepreneurs are Bringing the Art and Business of Making Clothes Back Home” covers similar ground, but at points in very different ways. The two books complement one another: Slade goes deeply into some operational questions for the apparel industry, while Kurutz offers an incredibly detailed look at supply chains.

As Slade makes eminently clear in “Making It in America,” a supply chain that crosses international borders and spans oceans is especially vulnerable at moments of crisis. Hers is a compelling story of a couple trying, against all odds, to make a thriving small business work — but it’s also an impassioned argument for why more entrepreneurs should take a cue from the Waxmans’ work with American Roots, which survived the pandemic and remains a going concern. A running theme in Slade’s book (as well as Kurutz’s) is the scarcity of American manufacturing relative to 40 or 50 years ago. What might a resurgent manufacturing industry in the U.S. look like? Slade offers an enticing vision of that – while also reminding readers that it’ll require plenty of hard work.

New York City resident Tobias Carroll is the author of four books, most recently the novel “Ex-Members.” He has reviewed books for The New York Times, Bookforum, the Star Tribune and elsewhere.

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