Maine clothing makers wear hearts on their sleeves

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PORTLAND — Two area businesses are out to strengthen the fabric of “Made in the USA.”

On Westfield Street in Libbytown, American Roots Wear is entering its third year of making fleece and cotton apparel, hats, and blankets, using union labor comprised largely of new Mainers.

“You never buy something from American Roots that isn’t U.S.-based,” co-owner Ben Waxman said Nov. 3.

In Standish, Wells Lyons launched Resistance Enterprises in March, selling T-shirts with decidedly pithy criticism of the Trump administration.

“I wanted to essentially find a way to be politically active every day and encourage others to speak out and be politically active,” Lyons said Nov. 3, while sporting an “In Mueller We Trust” T-shirt.

Now a Standish resident, Lyons twice ran unsuccessfully for Portland City Council, most recently in 2015 for the seat now held by Councilor Spencer Thibodeau.

His T-shirt imagery includes Frederick Douglass, Alexander Hamilton and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lyons said new images are created and tested every few weeks. Screen printing for the shirts is done by Jeff Lauzier of Lisbon Falls, Lyons said, and he has sold shirts in 44 states.

“I hope we are doing it in a fun and rebellious way, not taking ourselves too seriously,” he said.

The rebellion may include a fight with the Washington, D.C.,-based Metis Group, which sent Lyons a cease-and-desist request over the use of Smokey Bear. The Metis Group holds the license on Smokey, an image created by the federal government.

“The Smokey Bear name, character and slogan are property of the United States government,” a Metis Group email to Lyons said, citing a 1974 law that could lead to fines and imprisonment for use of the image without permission.

Lyons said he feels Smokey’s image should be in the public domain, so resistance is in order.

Making the shirts is as important as making the statement. They are hand-stitched in Georgia or New York, Lyons said, and are at least 80 percent organic cotton; polyester that may be blended in comes from recycled plastic water bottles.

Five percent of sales are donated to the Against Malaria Foundation. The Foundation was selected for its efficient use of contributions, with 100 percent of public donations funding the purchase of mosquito nets to prevent the spread of malaria. Lyons said 100 nets have been bought so far.

Rooted in Libbytown

American Roots took hold on Danforth Street in 2015, using fleece made at Massachusetts-based Polartec.

The company soon moved to Westfield Street, and Waxman said the company is still growing.

“As we grew, the issue was not, could we sell; it was, could we keep up?” he said. The first year brought $400,000 in sales; this year could triple that.

Duaa Khalifa, who arrived from Iraq via Jordan six years ago, was one of the first stitchers trained and is now a floor leader.

“It is very busy and stressful,” she said, “I believe we can do anything.”

Stitchers were trained in classes coordinated by Dory Richards Waxman, a former city councilor who also led the unsuccessful effort to pass a $32 million school bond on Nov. 7. Richards also owns Old Port Wool and works with CEI, Goodwill and Portland Adult Education for training courses.

Ben Waxman and Whitney Reynolds are partners in business and life, and Waxman said Reynolds provides tempering leadership with a strong eye on the future.

“It would be very easy for us to go 100 mph and send out product that is less than the quality we want it to be,” Reynolds said. “To be sustainable, you have to send out product you believe in.”

Beginning this year, American Roots added cotton products, with the cotton organic and sustainably sourced from Spiritex of Asheville, North Carolina. All components for the products, including zippers and labels, are American made, Waxman said.

American Roots products are not yet offered wholesale to retailers; the company sells to union locals and businesses, including DeMillo’s Restaurant, Foundation Brewing and Sappi.

Direct retail sales may come after five years; Reynolds said long-term planning is critical.

“We want to be a household name 10 years from now,” she said. “In order to do that, we have to keep a little control over what we are doing.”

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

From left, Duaa Khalifa, Ragad Aboaljaaz and Ben Waxman have seen sales triple at American Roots Wear in Portland. Khailifah and Aboaljaaz were trained for their union jobs in a program coordinated by Waxman’s mother, Dory Richards Waxman.

Wells Lyons shows off a product from his Resistance Enterprises line in Portland on Nov. 3, The former city council candidate and current Standish resident donates 5 percent of sales to help supply mosquito nets to fight malaria.

Whitney Reynolds cuts fabric at American Roots Wear, the union apparel shop in Portland she and partner Ben Waxman opened in 2015. Waxman holds their son, Arlo.

Smokey says “resist” at Resistance Enterprises, but the company holding the image license for the federal government has “desist” selling the shirt.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.