Holding a bundle of denim, Liz Havlin smiles like a teenage girl from a small town who’s just tried on her first pair of designer jeans.
“Isn’t it something? I love it because every time I pull it out, it reminds me that this was a factory that made 500,000 yards a week and 250,000 pairs of jeans a week,” she says. “This was no small factory.”
The factory is in Boeing and Amazon country – not in Seattle, but in South Carolina. The state where Boeing is expanding to produce the 787 Dreamliner, and where Amazon has a 1 million square foot fulfillment center, is home to Liberty Denim.
The small factory in northern South Carolina became woven into the fabric of Havlin’s life a couple of years ago.
Havlin, executive director of a non-profit called WearUSA, was looking for “Made in the USA” denim for a fashion show she was planning.
Though as American as baseball and apple pie, most denim isn’t manufactured in the U.S. anymore. Clothing companies get their denim fabric, and jeans, from China.
Havlin found Liberty Denim, built in the early 1900s, just as the factory was closing in December of 2011. The company filed for bankruptcy earlier that year.
“The factory closed, that’s it. Everybody (went) home just before Christmas,” Havlin says. “We fought for about six months, the workers and me, trying to stop it from closing. We lost.”
Strike two came for Havlin last year.
“We lost to the liquidators. They took the machinery out,” she says. “The building stood empty and all the people of Liberty have to drive by and see this poor empty factory.”
Why did she care so much? The building and jobs were 2,800 miles away from her work, home and family in Seattle.
She put the plant out of her mind until January of 2013 when she got a call that the Liberty Denim building was being torn down.
The bricks were going to be reused for patios. Some of the people who once worked in the factory were being hired to tear the building apart.
“That infuriated me,” Havlin says. “So I get angry, I fly to South Carolina and I call the demolition company and say, ‘Please, please, please, please, just give me a chance to buy what’s left of the factory. Give me a chance.'”
Think she’s a little bit crazy? You’re not alone.
“The people of South Carolina thought, ‘Hey, that crazy lady from Seattle is on the phone again,'” she laughs. “You could just hear them in the background, but then after a few phone calls they realized what I was talking about. Once a factory closes, most of them don’t open back up.”
On her third at-bat, Havlin hit it out of the park.
She’s been able to save 40,000 square feet of the original building along with a 1901 water tower and smoke stack.
The factory is being refurbished to begin manufacturing Liberty overalls. The worker-owned factory will get denim from one of the few other places in the U.S. still making the material. She then plans on making a modern version of work overalls.
“We’re going to add an iPhone pocket,” she says. “We’re getting all kinds of suggestions from the working man and they’re asking us not to put the giant bib in front because things fall out, so we’re redesigning that.”
She hopes to begin production at the factory in Liberty, South Carolina before the end of this year.
“I went out there looking for American denim and when I laid my eyes on this big sad building and these faces, I realized this wasn’t just a denim factory, this was the livelihood of a community,” Havlin says.
“I saw a need and thought I just have to try. You gotta try, right?
By LINDA THOMAS