As we look forward to winding down the Founder’s Circle in the first part of this year – I thought I’d provide a recap of 2023. It was a year of big awakenings and transitions. As 2023 began I had to face the fact that we could not at this point produce the blouses in West Virginia through the local sewing apprenticeship program. With too little resources available for training and too few hours available from the sewers outside their other commitments we didn’t have what it took to make high quality blouses. So Sew Co. in Asheville, North Carolina, offered to help us with the sewing of the final blouses.
Moving to a new manufacturing facility was not to be underestimated. Several weeks of time went into the back and forth to get everyone on the same page with the patterns and an atypical process of assembling custom garments for the team at Sew Co. We successfully shipped the first 5 blouses last Fall, which the Sew Co. team did a beautiful job on, and which included the lovely embroidery for each client’s name from Princeton, West Virginia’s WearHouse Clothing Co.
With those five blouses also came the news of the prohibitively high cost of production for the Sew Co. team and so we were (again) forced to transition to a home sewer who is currently completing a sample for us to review. Meanwhile, back in Princeton I was sewing up, shipping out and fitting the remaining muslin samples. As I write this, there is only one fitting that remains for the muslin blouse samples before I am able to finalize the patterns to send them to be turned into final blouses.
Yes, there were many times when I wanted to just give up and say that it didn’t work, we couldn’t complete it, even if the remote fitting was proving to be a success. But I am just not someone who gives up. And that dogged part of myself has been rewarded with valuable information about the very challenging business of sewing manufacturing and textiles in the U.S. I believe strongly in the power of textiles to bring jobs and opportunity back to our communities. But it is so clear that business as usual is not working for factories that seek to support small textile companies and textile artists. There are too many pressures from the flood of cheap textiles into our markets from overseas, to the rising cost of living in the U.S., to the worker’s awakening during Covid about what they are and are not willing to get paid for different jobs.
And so, last May, I got to take all the things I’ve learned, and all the interesting groups I’ve met in textiles and assist a courageous, no nonsense economic development organization – Coalfield Development – that specializes in workforce development for populations that have experienced extreme social and economic deprivations – with the development of a strategy for working in textiles. For those reading this outside of West Virginia, Coalfield Development leads the exciting Act Now Coalition for a $65 million dollar Build Back Better grant. It was an honor to help them develop a strategy for this work. I got to learn more about the overall impact, promise and barriers to reshoring the textile industry in the U.S. I got to learn what a massive creator of jobs the textile industry is – employing 40k people in Los Angeles County, CA alone in the garment industry.
I also got to learn so much about the cottage industries for textiles in West Virginia – that is largely overlooked or taken for granted around quilting and other small scale textile arts. So many people quilt in West Virginia – that it is viewed like knowing how to cook – special when someone knows how to do it well, but so ubiquitous that it is not worth commenting on. Except if you are an outsider moving from California via North Carolina and the sheer number of people in communities throughout West Virginia quilting strikes you as remarkable.
In December, Coalfield Development decided to pursue the textile strategy, which will focus on support for advanced, green cut and sewing training and a statewide natural dye pilot. I mention the work and successes with Coalfield Development, because the major takeaway from 2023 was that any big work worth doing is best done by joining hands with others. While I had collaborators to some extent on the blouse project – most notably you! – it was mostly a solo effort to drive it forward. Whether it was working with Coalfield Development or in the recent few months sharing a studio space with the talented local quilter Jessica Sansom, all my best work done last year was done with others, even if it was through quietly supporting me in the room next door as I finished the trickiest parts of a custom blouse for my great aunt.
So as I think forward to 2024, I think about the power of coming together in community to overcome the obstacles it takes to build valuable, enduring things for our communities. I wonder what our small textile studio space would look like as a larger facility dedicated to providing space, classes, and opportunities to collaborate for quilters and other textile artists. I think about how to continue to plant seeds for cut and sew and natural dyeing in West Virginia in a way that creates job and business opportunities for our communities here.
When we finish the Founder’s Circle project, I do intend to continue designing custom blouses and other professional basics for women. I intend to continue my learning with the custom pattern making software and to keep my eye out for the partnerships that will one day allow me to provide custom blouses as a paid service for people. But for now – I consider it an opportunity to keep learning about what it means to be an artist working in textiles, what it takes to make a living off of it, and what types of community support can nourish these businesses, help them blossom, so that they can accelerate the demand for the textile services that create jobs.
I will continue to write these updates until we get to the end of the Founder’s Circle project. If you would like to keep following my textile adventures in West Virginia, you will have the opportunity to follow on Substack in the coming weeks. Please keep your eye out for more information there.
Thank you for all your support. I could not do this without you.
Go, fight, win and happy 2024.