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by Claire Whitcomb

In 1965, 95% of US clothes were domestically made. Today 97% of clothing sold in the United States is manufactured elsewhere—in China, Southeast Asia, India and Mexico in particular.

We’re trying to shift that statistic and increase local production. But what does a label really mean in a global marketplace?

Consider our garment-dyed organic cotton jeans. They’re manufactured in Los Angeles. The organic cotton is grown in Turkey, where the fabric is woven. The dyes are European. And the little black tag that says "made in USA"? It’s made in China.

“We used to source tags from an American manufacturer,” says import production manager, Jennifer Drapala, “but it went out of business. Every product we knit or sew in the US is actually a global commodity.”

Another little-known fact: Many of the entrepreneurs behind US garment factories—along with the vast majority of the workers—are newly minted Americans, immigrants following in the footsteps of the garment workers of generations past.

Fortunately, the US garment industry has changed considerably since the days of tenements and child labor. But even with regulations on wages and safe working conditions, domestic production is not necessarily a cause for flag waving.

“People tend to think made in USA is always a good thing. In many cases it is,” says Marsha Ann Dickson, chair of the Fashion and Apparel Studies department at the University of Delaware. “But I’ve been to lots of factories all over the world and the worst I’ve ever seen were in Los Angeles.”

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, 26% of textile and garment workers in the US are undocumented. The Department of Labor estimates that more than half of the 22,000 sewing shops in the US violate minimum wage and overtime laws.

“Brands still have to do due diligence and find reputable factories to work with,” says Marsha. 

When EILEEN FISHER started looking for a Los Angeles jeans factory to expand our local production, we visited eight different factories and chose New Fashion Products because we thought we could forge a lasting relationship based on shared environmental and social values. New Fashion Products is extensively audited for safety and working conditions by the brands it partners with; our own audits started when our production began in 2013. 

As our manufacturing in the US increases, we are expanding our idea of what “due diligence” involves, according to Luna Lee, Human Rights Leader. “In China, we go beyond simply auditing a factory to make sure it is safe. We do worker training to help people understand their rights,” she says. “In the US, workers are often immigrants and they have a unique set of struggles. A cousin or an aunt may be undocumented. What can we do to help them understand the legal system and help create a better future for their families?” 

Close-Up on Our US Factories

  • Since 1984, we have had a steady and significant US manufacturing presence. Today we make approximately 20% of our products domestically. In Los Angeles we work with two factories to produce jeans and sweaters. In New York we partner with five factories, including two in Manhattan’s garment district. 
  • One way that we sustain local manufacturing is by committing to import core fabrics to cut and sew in the US. We are able to guarantee a reliable flow of business for our local partners because we know that fabrics such as Organic Cotton Stretch Jersey, Washable Stretch Crepe and Viscose Jersey will be important year after year.
  • Our commitment to domestic manufacturing sets us apart in the industry. Erica Wolf, Executive Director of Save the Garment Center, told us, “I’m really glad to know that EILEEN FISHER still has a manufacturing footprint here.” That kind of commitment is necessary, she says, to keep skilled labor jobs in the US and provide resources for “emerging designers of the future” to join the fashion industry.
  • Our efforts to increase domestic production are a subset of a goal: to evaluate our entire supply chain and find ways to reduce our environmental footprint. When looked at from a global perspective, US production is not always the best option. For instance, we deliberately created a local supply chain in Peru,manufacturing close to our sources for prized organic cotton and alpaca.
  • Many languages are spoken in US factories as the garment manufacturing sector continues to be an employment entry point for new immigrants. All the local factories we work with are owned by first generation Americans.