October was a month of a lot of unexpected events– which I suppose is becoming the norm. Some of you may have seen on Instagram that I had a family emergency that took me home right in the middle of the Glam Night Out which very sadly meant withdrawing from the fashion show this year.
We continued cutting out final Founder’s Circle Blouses though we were forced to pause on the sewing of these final blouses. It seems that the sewing machine Gods decided it was time for us to learn how to use the Juki machines. The main home machine we were working on stopped working in October. We had the sense that we needed to use the Juki machines to maintain quality control for the final blouses – and now are finally being forced to take a pause to learn how to use them before continuing sewing the final blouses. Next Monday will be our first session learning from our sewing instructor – Lisa Lambert – how to use the Juki machines – tucked into the smaller space within the intended womenswear workshop space. We anticipate taking much of our hours in November to learn on these machines – practicing on a few more muslins samples that need to go out – a new one and a few remakes where the fit was not quite right.
Though progress felt interrupted – I did have the chance to step back and reflect on what the past year has looked like. In January we will have been working on the Founder’s Circle blouses and the 100 Blouses Project for 1 year. The big surprise has been how well the digital pattern adaptation has been working for a whole variety of shapes and sizes. I am learning tricks and improving how often I can get the blouse to fit the first time.
And I want to recap for a moment why it is important to us to tackle this made to measure sewing beast. Currently industrial sewers are making on average $10- 16 dollars an hour. Depending on where you live, that is not enough to live on. Around here you can get a $16/hr job from your home answering customer service phone calls for big companies. So what would motivate someone to spend the nearly 200 hours of time to be proficient for an industrial sewing job? How in the world do you bring sewing manufacturing back to the U.S. if it is a very low paying job in an industry with very low profit margins. Well – we are experimenting with the idea that if you can make more valuable clothing with less waste – made to fit out of nice materials with high quality sewing, and we can sell that product directly to customers – we can begin to increase the wages for sewers commiserate with their skilled, artisan level craft. So the good news is that we are beginning to see that yes – you can make a custom item for someone anywhere there is an internet connection and deliver a garment by mail that fits way better than anything they can get in the store.
This – I thought- fitting the blouses to people remotely – would be the hard part. I was wrong. So the good news is that we are on to something with this work. Yet the thing that has been WAY more difficult than expected was getting the wheels turning on training qualified sewers to sew up the garments. There is no established program in our area for training industrial sewers so we wrote a few requests for assistance and solicited your support to begin to train people – relying on the generous part -time sewing instruction from Lisa Lambert – who runs her own very busy full time tailoring business. But upon reflection, the part time – one evening a week sewing training has been VERY challenging. Indeed, looking back, it is not an effective way to train sewers. But while Lisa and the apprentices have other gigs to keep their lights on, and children and grandchildren to care for, that has been the best we can do. However, now we find ourselves in November with one trained sewer who continues to need support before she is ready to work independently out of the 3 apprentices we have worked with over the past year. This points to the fact that not only does sewing training take a lot of time – the fact is that not everyone will work out. Some for personal reasons, others because the insanely detail oriented work does not suit everyone.
Alongside this very challenging work of training sewers, we have been working on building a business model that will be profitable to sustain it all – and what I am concluding is that, at our current stage, we cannot be both responsible for training sewers and building a profitable business. It is just too resource intensive. So where does this leave us? The made to measure work is very promising for bringing these sewing jobs back and creating sewing businesses in small towns in America like Princeton. But we need to find another group to train the essential sewers for this work. So right now I am reaching out to all the different groups in our area who could get a formal, industrial sewing training together so that we have the sewers necessary to build these businesses.
What this has also meant is that we have spent so much of our money on training that we cannot currently afford the overhead on our Womenswear Workshop that we’ve intended to move into. (It turns out that it is more expensive to devote less hours to training per week as the training becomes less efficient and stretches out over many more weeks, which causes the training investment to go up while progress goes down.) I am working on three options for continuing forward in a space that will support this work 1) identify more resources to pay for the space, minor updates and equipment that would be necessary to move into the space, 2) find an alternative space where we can work for a while without having to pay rent, or 3) stay at Lisa’s and set it up so we can work more efficiently there with at least one of the industrial machines. Either way we will continue forward with the 100 Blouses Project. While it is painful to share all these challenges – the clarity of realizing that we can’t simultaneously train industrial sewers and create a profitable business is refreshing, and we are confident that we will find a group that can assist us here. In the meantime, Sarah, Lisa and I will be meeting to work on the 100 Blouses Project and keep moving where we can until we have a bit more support for the sewing and can increase our capacity.
Thank you very much for your patience and support. If you have any info to offer on sewing trainings, please get in touch!
Go, fight, win.