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The Cadet Uniform Factory

Outfitting the Long Gray Line Since 1878

“U.S. Army in Action” DA Poster 21-39 “The Battle of Chippewa.”Thousands of West Pointers have passed through Army offices decorated with the “U.S. Army in Action” DA Poster 21-39 “The Battle of Chippewa.” The caption describing the vivid image of white-belted American soldiers charging abreast at Chippewa, Upper Canada on 5 July 1814 reads “The British commander watched the advancing American line contemptuously, for its men wore the rough gray coats issued those untrained levies he had easily whipped before. As the ranks advanced steadily through murderous grapeshot he realized his mistake: ‘Those are regulars, by God!’ It was Winfield Scott's brigade of infantry, drilled through the previous winter into a crack outfit. It drove the British from the battlefield; better still, after two years of seemingly endless failures, it renewed the American soldier's faith in himself." Gray surely became a color associated with American valor, but many historians cite the memoirs of Winfield Scott, Chief of Staff of the Army from 1841 to 1861, as the source of the “regulars” quote as well as the claim that West Point’s gray honors the Chippewa encounter. In some scholars’ view, pricey indigo blue simply lost out to cheaper gray.

But up north the tale is told just a bit differently. Canada’s Niagara Parks website affirms that the British were forced to withdraw and the Americans won the day. “Many historians cite Chippawa as the birthplace of the modern American Army. Due to a shortage of cloth, the American force wore grey uniforms instead of the usual blue. To this day, tradition says that West Point cadets wear grey uniforms to honour those who fought in this battle.” Note the British spelling of gray and honor, the Canadian spelling of Chippewa, and the confusing voices of tradition. Proceed!

On November 28, 1815, The Long Line of West Point Graduates was set on its way to permanently becoming ‘Gray’ as the Academy’s Inspector (and first graduate), Brigadier General J.G. Swift, Class of 1802, made the following request of W.H. Crawford, Secretary of War: “I have the honor to enclose a description of the Uniform and undress for the Cadets, which has been grey for the last fifteen months,—cloth of this colour looks military… As the price of this Uniform, $18 to $20, better suits the finances of Cadets then one of Blue would—I recommend that the uniform be confirmed.” Washington’s “approbation” was received on September 4, 1816, and the garb, designed during the superintendency of Alden Partridge, Class of 1806 (with “three rows of eight yellow gilt bullet buttons in front”), became the parent pattern for today’s USMA Full Dress uniform. The cadets’ monthly salary (currently $1,040) has been tapped for uniform costs since 1805. By graduation cadets will have paid out $5,903.77 for uniforms and equipment, $2,602.74 of which will go to the Cadet Uniform Factory.

Cadet Uniform Factory manager Joe WeikelWest Point’s Cadet Uniform Factory (CUF) is responsible for maintaining the traditional look of the Long Gray Line. The factory, brought formally into existence by an act of Congress in 1878, operates under regulation 10 USC 4340. CUF Manager Joe Weikel describes its mission: “to manufacture and supply uniforms and services to the Corps of Cadets at cost. The cadets purchase these uniforms. We cut, sew, alter, and repair these garments and provide those services to the cadets at cost. They are paying for the Full Dress Coat’s 44 gold-plated buttons, the 16-ounce wool used in all of the gray uniforms, the 32-ounce wool in the black parka, the zippers, shoulder pads, the sleeve heads, and all 300 or so other raw materials that go into our product lines: as well as my salary, and the salaries of the 45 employees, as well as the government’s share of the benefits paid to the employees of the uniform factory. All of that gets wrapped up into our garment pricing. Each year we calculate how many minutes we spent and whose minutes they were, because there are different salary rates on each garment, and allocate those minutes and dollars towards that garment, then add in the employee benefits and the amount of raw materials we used to make, for instance, the full dress coat. Divide that by the number that were produced, and you come out with the cost per unit made. Average that cost out after subtracting the remaining inventory, and you have the new price for a full dress coat—$676.01 this year.”

West Point Cadets getting fitted Over Plebe Parent Weekend in March, 1,200 visitors streamed through the CUF, originally built in 1934 to house mess hall employees. Joe Weikel shared a flood of facts in support of the facility’s reputation for versatility. Before coming to West Point in 1996, he managed a Hart, Shaffner and Marx coat manufacturing factory in Buffalo, New York—1,200 employees and two product lines: single-breasted and double-breasted men’s suit coats. In his former life “there were no overcoats, no trousers, no women’s wear, nothing but men’s coats. We put out 3,600 units a day. I had groups of people doing one operation. It might have been the underseam on the sleeve, and the next person would do the elbow seam. We had perhaps 80 operations to make those suitcoats. I’ve got 60 product lines here—counting men’s and women’s as the different products they are. And we also do the West Point Band’s uniforms. Here, we have 1,047 different sewing operations, utilizing 254 different raw material items. Last year we used 47.1 miles of fabric. And we have just 45 people to do all of that work. The best operators take 90 minutes to do the braiding on just one full dress coat—sleeves, collars, fronts and tails. Any one operator will know how to use a dozen of the 40 different classes of sewing machines in the factory. We have a full-time mechanic keeping all of them humming at up to 8,900 stitches a minute, compared to the 200-300 per minute on a home machine. Nowhere in the U.S. can one fi nd a house manufacturing 60 product lines as diverse as the output of our Cadet Uniform Factory: trousers to bathrobes to parkas to fitted full dress uniforms with 44 gold-plated brass buttons. Dry cleaning, uniform size adjustments, application of chevrons, service stripes and emblems, are all part of a monthly personal services fee paid out of the cadet’s salary. Over the four years here the cadets pay $2,602.74 to the CUF for uniforms and support.”

Tailor Paul Garnett adjusts Cadet Dress uniform collarAugmenting the CUF contribution, the Cadet Supply Division provides over 100 line items produced by off-post contractors. Their warehouses issue shirts, shoes, socks, underwear, Army Combat Uniforms and sleeping bags, sheets and blankets, trunk lockers and backpacks. The “etcetera” extends to head gear, from crushable patrol caps and stiff West Point service caps to “Full Dress Hats” (shakos with underclassmen’s wool pom-poms and fi rsties’ plumes— fashioned from 3 to 6 ounces of 4-7 inch long naturally black iridescent rooster feathers, the overall height of the gathered plumage measures 16 inches.)

To fill out your knowledge about the Cadet Uniform Factory, let's look at the modern Long Gray Wool Production Line set in motion by that 1815 request. Before the wool gets tailor-fitted to the Corps, it grows out for a year on the back of sheep grazing in the western U.S. After being shorn, it proceeds through a nearly year-long, 40-step preparation process—cleaning, combing, top dying (into the specified shade of gray at the top of the textile creation process), spinning into yarn, weaving into cloth, surface finishing and then sponging to prevent shrinkage after tailoring into a garment. It takes a Defense Logistics Agency’s request for proposal—i.e., bid for a three year supply —60,000 yards, 60 inches wide (price anticipated around $35 per yard) to get the wool off the sheep's back and onto cadets parading on The Plain.

Printed in West Point magazine, Spring 2016, all rights reserved. 
Author Ted Spiegel, a long-time contributing writer for various WPAOG publications and formerly worked for West Point Admissions.