Jessica Montoya is the literal boots on the ground of the ‘Made in the USA’ movement. Experienced designer, skilled sewer, project manager, entrepreneur and mother, she owns COsewn, an apparel production facility in Colorado.
She has grown from freelancing in her home to opening a full production space in just a few years, while paying all of her employees above minimum wage.
Jessica’s name has come up in various conversations with other skilled professionals in the industry, and I was thrilled when she agreed to do an interview for us. People like Jessica are pivotal to increasing the re-shoring of domestic manufacturing, and we can all learn a lot from her about what it will take.
Tell us about yourself and COsewn – how did you get started in apparel production?
I started sewing seriously in high school, which led to dual Bachelor’s Degrees in Costume Technology and Arts Management. After working in the opera world for a few years, I transitioned into freelance work, mainly custom tailoring and small run production sewing. This led to product development and production pattern making, all of which I did out of my home for a number of years.
In 2014, I moved the business into a commercial warehouse space in order to set up large production cutting tables and additional industrial machines. I’ve also hired several sewing / production assistants and have been focused on expanding our factory’s capabilities.
What types of services does COsewn offer?
We offer customized product development packages that include technical design, patterns, and sample making for apparel and accessories. Our experience spans women’s, men’s, children’s, and decor categories.
We offer low minimum cut and sew production, tagging, and packaging of lightweight knits and wovens to clients who are able to provide a production ready pattern and sample; pattern audits are required to ensure the sewing will be accurate and cost effective in a production environment.
Describe your ideal client. What kind of designer do you love working with?
The ideal client is detail oriented and prepared through each stage of the process, and demonstrates willingness and ability to follow the checklists we provide. We work with designers to outline what must be ready for each step in order to effectively manage time and meet deadlines. This process requires designers to be very involved and sufficiently plan ahead.
COsewn is a great fit for sustainable businesses that want their products to be ‘Made in the USA.’ Our clients often use a direct to consumer approach for selling, which helps offset the costs associated with retail mark-ups and the higher per unit rates of small runs.
What are some of the biggest challenges you tackle in your work?
I am committed to paying my staff a living wage vs. minimum wage, and believe in creating local jobs for our communities. Also, Made in the USA is becoming more of a buzz word, and as larger companies are shifting production back to the States, the more established sewing factories are becoming very busy and turning away smaller runs from emerging designers, as they are more difficult to turn a profit on.
Since most of our domestic industry shifted overseas 20 years ago, there is a very small pool of American garment workers remaining with production experience, as many have either retired or moved on to other fields. Now, there is momentum building for small cut & sew shops like COsewn, but most of us are still working very hard to build up our capabilities and get workers trained and up to speed.
It is also unfortunate, but I regularly hear first hand about other domestic factories and home production sewing gigs that rely heavily on undocumented and/or immigrant workers who struggle on piece rates to barely hit minimum wage. We cannot compete with the piece rates that these factories offer, but we can guarantee that our workers at COsewn are American citizens and are treated fairly.
I am passionate about creating an environment that makes factory sewing appealing to young Americans, in order to attract young blood to a work force and skill set that is on the verge of disappearing. This effort requires significant training and investment, and comes with the pressure of keeping workers busy with tasks that are suited to their varying skill levels.
Eventually, I envision having a staff that is fully cross-trained on different machines and jobs throughout the development and production cycles.
Why do you feel U.S. manufacturing is a positive step for the fashion industry as a whole?
There has been tremendous growth in the independent designer category, and consumers are beginning to support a movement to buy locally-made apparel just as they consume locally grown food and microbrews.
By manufacturing in the US, factories are more accessible to designers, who are able to supervise their production first hand; this ensures a higher level of transparency combined with better oversight and communication.
Also, designers have the option of lower minimums than typically offered overseas, coupled with faster turnaround times. As designers establish solid relationship with local factories, we’ll see more brands be able to respond quickly to trends and mid-season reorders at a reasonable cost.
The demand for ‘Made in the USA’ is increasing, but we are currently dealing with a shortage of skilled labor. Hopefully, this interest will create a new draw for people to once again be inspired by the value of learning the sewing trade. This resurgence in the handmade goods sector is bringing back interest and value for quality made products, which hopefully will encourage American solidarity. Thus, the handcrafted skills we possess and desire to sustain are becoming invaluable and should not be taken for granted.
You can read more made-in-the-USA startup success stories here.