“I will keep the tag as a charm
against all future irregulars
which may have been inspected
and sent away
without love . . . “
--John Stone, ‘Poem in Praise of Perfect Pants’
Roughly 1,800 times on this typical day, Debbie Slade will check the seams, the snaps, the fabric and the measurements of baby pajamas before sticking on her signature: “Inspected by No. 6.”
But then, life is full of inspections.
She’s got exams to think about in her night classes. She’s got to keep the pounds off, working out on the exercise bike her husband bought her. And in a year or two, she hopes to have the first granddaughter in her family.
“Everybody’s pushing us to have that granddaughter. It’s all boys,” Inspector No. 6 says amid the clatter of sewing, cutting and fastening machines in the Gerber Childrenswear plant. A box of three dozen completed outfits has just been added to the never-finished pile next to her 4-by-6-foot work table.
This time, they’re hot-pink affairs, tiny “fashion sleepers.” She’ll get to that box next, visualizing the wearer. “You can just picture the little girl, with the little bows and everything,” she says.
Inspector No. 6 laughs, but she doesn’t pause. Hands tugging seams and probing terry-cloth toes, she works at what seems a double-time pace, like nearly everyone at the plant, where pay is usually by the piece.
The infant clothes are created by dozens of seamstresses arrayed in rows in a room the size of a football field. Some wear stereo earphones to drown the sewing machines’ whir and the snare-drum-like cracks as “gripper girls” pound metal snaps into place. Some talk over the noise.
“Peggy, you feeling good today?”
“I’m feeling all right.”
Some spend all day making nothing but collars, others nothing but sleeves or cuffs, to be passed along to the next seamstress, who with a quick arc of stitches attaches that part to the evolving garment.
By the time all the pattern pieces finally come together as pajamas, they’ve reached 28-year-old Debbie Slade and the other “100% inspectors.”
Inside-out and unsnapped, the outfits quickly are reversed, snapped, checked and sent by the inspectors on their way, in one of three directions.
Most go toward the packagers, to be placed in boxes marked “Crafted With Pride in the U.S.A.” Others go back to sewing machines to have minor irregularities mended. Some, with faded fabric or a leg that’s too wide, go to the seconds box.
First, however, the outfits that pass inspection go to Frances Martin, the plant’s quality assurance manager. Years ago, she was Inspector No. 10 at another plant.
All day, she roves among the seamstresses, checking, occasionally turning a garment back to be resewn. “But Frances,” Sandra Brake jokingly protests from behind her machine, “I crafted it with pride.”
Occasionally, there is some friction when a garment is rejected, acknowledges quality control executive David Sanders. That’s because the piecework seamstress loses production time. “You can’t make money doing repairs,” he says.
Martin also inspects the inspectors, sending reports on to Sanders. She pulls a set percentage of outfits from the dozens they examine and gets out her ruler “to make sure they’re meeting specifications.”
Sleeve: 10 1/4 inches long. Neck: 5 inches across. Another inspection for Inspector No. 6. On this day, her sheet in Martin’s log shows a perfect score.
“Most people, when they ask me, ‘What do you do?’ and I say, ‘I’m an inspector,’ they say, ‘Do you inspect Hanes?'--you know, the underwear inspector,” No. 6 says, laughing again, recalling the television commercial of a few years ago.
In it, a no-nonsense Inspector No. 12 tugs the elastic of briefs before growling into the camera: “They don’t say Hanes until I say they say Hanes.”
Inspector No. 6 feels similarly proprietary.
With sharp nippers that have left scars on her fingertips in five years at this job, she cuts extraneous threads while telling a story.
A new mother wrote a letter complaining about an uncut string, an inconsequential matter until it gets wrapped around a baby’s toe. The infant wasn’t hurt, but Slade says the message registered. “It was a dangerous thing,” she says.
Plant managers pass such problems back to those assigned to catch them. Whose inspector label turned up isn’t mentioned. “They just talk to all of us about it,” No. 6 says, and she’s not smiling now.
“Tell me if it’s mine,” she says. “I know I put labels in mine because I want to know.”