One of the last U.S. apparel manufacturers of its kind is losing its shirt.
FesslerUSA had survived war and depression, free trade and foreign imports, producing millions of knitted garments from its base in eastern Pennsylvania. Five years ago, third-generation owner Walter Meck and his family were feeling so good about the company's prospects they doubled capacity, moving into a former pencil factory outside the small town of Orwigsburg.
They were still setting up shop in the new place when the Great Recession hit.
Sales plummeted. Financing dried up. And, after a long struggle to keep the manufacturer afloat, Meck has finally run out of time and money, still awaiting the strong economic rebound that never came. Production will shut down in early November, tossing 130 employees out of work and ending a run of nearly 113 years.
"We're not even on life support any more," the downcast CEO said in an interview on the floor of his cavernous factory, ominously quiet on a recent workday.
Meck blames the historic mill's demise on weak consumer spending, fresh competition from Asia, tighter credit standards that he said prevented Fessler from getting a desperately needed loan, and a lack of interest from private investors and potential buyers.
In Schuylkill County, an economically distressed region where good-paying jobs can be hard to come by, Fessler's workers are jittery.
Cutting room manager Gloria Bambrick, 57, has worked in the garment industry for 32 years. Her previous two employers also shut their doors. With Fessler set to join them, she's not sure what she will do.
"It's going to be tough for me to get a job because of my age," said Bambrick, who became the sole breadwinner for her stepdaughter and elderly mother after the recent death of her husband. "I am very strapped. I will need a good job."
Bemoaning the disappearance of so many textile jobs, she said: "I am an American girl and I wish more people would think like me and would have left the industry here and not send it overseas."
Indeed, it's a minor miracle that Fessler held on this long.
Though domestic production has ticked up recently, more than 97 percent of the 19 billion pieces of apparel sold in the United States last year were made somewhere else, primarily in China and other Asian nations, according to Labor Department data compiled by the American Apparel & Footwear Association. Employment has declined 75 percent since the late 1990s, from 621,000 jobs in 1998 to 151,800 today.
Fessler had been a rare breed among apparel manufacturers not only for its longevity, but also because it controlled all aspects of production. The company weaves its own fabric, cuts it and sews it into private-label garments shipped to stores around the nation.
"There aren't very many vertical, made-in-the-USA apparel companies left," Meck said. "It is an incredible feeling to watch those garments go out the door."
FesslerUSA began life in 1900 as Meck & Co., producing cotton underwear at a factory in Schuylkill Haven, a river town about 90 miles northwest of Philadelphia. Meck's father sold it to the Fessler family in 1960. Meck joined other family members to buy the company back in 1994 — just as the North American Free Trade Agreement was claiming its three biggest customers.