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Sew Shop Talk: Introducing Southwest Creations

“We believe when a woman is given an opportunity to earn income, she will invest in her children first – a strategy shared by organizations around the world. We also understand that women from low-income communities face major barriers to economic success for themselves and their children.”

This is the philosophy behind Southwest Creations, a cut and sew facility in Albuquerque, NM that proves a sustainable business can be driven by a social vision. I spoke with executive director Susan Matteucci on the phone a few weeks ago about how Southwest Creations was started, how it has grown and where the opportunities lie in U.S. manufacturing.

Susan was also gracious enough to offer her own advice to designers looking for a domestic production partner. Read her interview below:

F45: Tell us about Southwest Creations. How did you get started? How long have you been in business? What was the catalyst for opening a manufacturing facility?

Southwest Creations is a women-driven factory that provides contract cut-and-sew handwork and kitting production services. Our clients range from West Elm to a dog collar company for sewing, and multinational to local businesses for kitting and assembly.

Southwest Creations was founded in 1994 and we just celebrated our 20th anniversary.

We operate a successful social enterprise that was founded to create economic opportunities across generations.

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F45: What advice do you have for new designers who are looking for a sewing contractor in the U.S.?

  • Know your product inside and out – know all of your suppliers, components, materials, etc.
  • Have your pre-production samples and patterns 100% to your satisfaction before going to a production contractor.
  • The designer should be the expert on his/her product. twitter-bird-light-bgs1
  • As a production contractor, our minimums are 250 per style and that can include three colors and sizes.

F45: What are some of the things that a designer should look for and ask about when reaching out to a sewing contractor?  

I would ask for references from companies that are similar. I would make sure the company is large enough to handle the agreed upon deadline. I would ask for production samples. It’s best to be within a days drive so you can see the facility and get to know the staff.

F45: What are the red flags or things a designer shouldn’t do or say when looking for a production partner?

  • “I have a dress I want you to copy for me.”
  • “I don’t know where to get my material.”
  • “Can you make five?”
  • Asking for a price for something over the phone that the production partner has never seen.

F45: What sets Southwest Creations apart?

We have an excellent reputation and receive highest ratings for quality, communication, customer service and delivery with competitive pricing. The icing on the cake is that we provide many opportunities for our employees from onsite daycare for $.25/hour to a path to education program for employees’ kids, plus an additional 300 families in our community. By working with us, you get more than just great service, you are part of a movement to alleviate poverty.

For more information on Southwest Creations, you can visit the website here.

Photos courtesy of Southwest Creations and The Albuquerque Journal.

Making It: Startup Advice from the Founder of Seamly.co

Truth be told, I know more about Kristin Glenn than any of the other designers I’ve interviewed for this series. And that’s not a huge surprise, considering she was my first (and only) business partner when I meandered my way into this crazy world of entrepreneurship.

Kristin and I ran {r}evolution apparel together from 2010 to 2013, co-created the highest-funded fashion project in Kickstarter history (at the time), spent 2.5 months in a van together (yes, really), and simultaneously went through intense entrepreneurial burnout.

But when we made the decision to part ways at the end of 2012 it made space for more opportunity, more purpose, and the freedom that had enticed us to start a business in the first place. One of those opportunities that came about was Seamly.co, a sustainable clothing brand that Kristin launched solo in 2013. Kristin and I are proof that sometimes you have to crash and burn, even when everything seems like it’s going great, so that you can come out better for it.

Having launched two sustainable apparel brands, Kristin knows a little something about running a successful business in this industry. Today she’s sharing some of her best startup advice for new and aspiring designer entrepreneurs.

Thanks to Kristin for taking the time for us — cheers to friendship and knowing when to let go so you can make room for what’s to come.

F45: What are the values and ethics behind Seamly?

KG: I’m a big believer in sharing the process; honesty, transparency, understanding. That’s first and foremost. I strive to create a brand that celebrates the process, and creates excitement about made-in-the-USA, from fabric to sewn product.

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F45: Tell us about setting up your supply chain. Was it difficult sourcing fabric? How did you find the sew shop you work with? Did you run into any bumps in the process?

KG: Fabric is tough. I started out only using surplus fabric (excess from mills and factories). The problem with this is continuity — I had to test shrinkage on every single fabric for every single style. Sometimes we had to cut the fabric in batches, instead of all at once, because of shrinkage and different fabric widths. Using surplus is great from a social responsibility standpoint, but from an efficiency and financial perspective, it is a TOUGH way to manufacture. I certainly wouldn’t have made it this far if I’d continued to use surplus fabric from so many different (and unpredictable) sources. Plus, it takes a LOT of time to source it.

Now, I’m using fabric that’s made in the USA and Canada only. We use surplus when we can, but I always know how it’s going to react and what quality it is. I’ve found trade shows to be the best place to meet people for fabric sources, and creating relationships with them has been a huge benefit.

As for sewers, it’s all been word of mouth. I’ve been lucky to work with two small factories that are totally, completely on-point. Anytime a mistake happens, it’s because of me or my lack of clarity. They simply crush it.

A big thing that’s helped is setting expectations. I know that sewing will always take a bit longer than expected, and I have a very “that’s OK” attitude about it. I trust the people I work with completely, and know that they’re looking out for me, so it’s better to just be flexible and have a positive attitude about our deadlines than push, get upset, or stress out. I didn’t set firm deadlines for finished products for the first year in business – things just launched when they were ready – and that helped me form relationships with my suppliers without all of that pressure. Now, we can work together to set deadlines, which has been working really well so far.

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F45: What has worked for you in terms of marketing? How do customers find out about you?

KG: Here’s my marketing strategy: e-mail, e-mail, e-mail. E-mail is the best way for me to authentically communicate with my customers (and potential customers!) with their permission — and that’s important. Social media is great, and I’ve seen results from guest posting or asking a blogger to post an outfit with my pieces — but it all comes back to the e-mail list.

I’m working on growing that community by a) optimizing my website to encourage people to sign up and b) create content that drives people to the website. Much harder done than said! It’s tough to find time to create new content and get data and analytics on the Seamly.co website. It’s something I struggle with every single week. But I know that’s the way to organically build community.

Everything else I do – PR, guest posts, etc. – is ideally all a funnel into the e-mail list. Because that’s where real interaction (for me) really happens.

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F45: Tell us about your biggest “cringe” moment – a mistake or glitch that you look back on and say “oops.” How did you navigate through it?

KG: Where do I begin? All of my big mistakes are centered around production. Grading patterns before I test for shrinkage. Ordering the wrong kind of zippers. Luckily, most of these problems can be fixed before the final product is shipped to the customer, but once, I had a major oversight and only realized it AFTER shipping.

This was in the early days. I’d ordered new toggles for the 5-ways Maxi Dress (the toggle goes into the hem so the dress can be shortened or lengthened). I didn’t test them before shipping (DUH, Kristin!) because I had so many things to do, and “assumed” it would be OK. After the dresses launched and shipped, I realized that these toggles were going to be really annoying for customers, hitting the floor when they walked. So, I e-mailed them immediately, offering an exchange for a new toggle or a free return, and a discount code for future use, just to apologize for my mistake.

All of my customers were 100% cool and understanding. Most of them didn’t mind the toggle, and a few of them exchanged theirs. It’s INEVITABLE that mistakes big and small will happen, but being upfront and honest about where you went wrong is one of my biggest values and something I believe customers respect and appreciate.

What I’ve learned, and am constantly re-learning, is that testing every single thing is CRUCIAL, and assumptions are too big of a risk to take.twitter-bird-light-bgs1 For me, these are annoying steps in the process, but oh-so-critical to success.

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 F45: What has been the best thing about running your own company? The thing that gets you up in the morning.

KG: In the beginning, I was really excited about creating something new. And then I started to doubt myself and the financial feasibility, and I started working a lot more. Like, crazy hours that were totally unsustainable. The business became less fun, I was out of touch with my creativity, and wondered if I should continue at all.

I slowly started to realize that I couldn’t possibly have successful business if I didn’t take care of myself first. And I started to relax. On a normal day, I work from 10-4, then I go to yoga, then I put in another hour or so after. I don’t set an alarm and if I feel like going for a walk or calling my mom in the middle of the day, I do it.

The journey of caring for myself is, of course, lifelong, but with this shift in thinking, I’ve been able to actually enjoy building a business. Like, in a real way. Mondays do not suck. I still worry about a lot of things, but I REALLY love being able to set my own schedule and create. And as I delegate more, I get even more time to do the parts that I love – marketing, content, communication. I am creating something totally unique that exists in the world, as a representation of what I believe in and who I am. That’s the best thing. I get to be me, every day.

To shop Seamly or check out what else Kristin has going on as she transitions from a home-base in Denver to NYC, visit her online store here. (Bonus: there’s a moving sale on select styles right now.)

Photos courtesy of Seamly.co.

Sew Shop Talk: Introducing the Carolina Textile District

This weekend I flew to Charlotte, North Carolina to visit designers, sewers, project managers, and other industry professionals I’ve only before had a chance to speak with by phone or email.
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It never fails to amaze me how much goes into making our clothes, and I’m always grateful to get an inside look at the process. After a weekend exploring downtown Asheville, I started Monday morning bright and early in Burnsville, NC to meet designer Kristin Alexandra Tidwell of Be Well Designed.

Three Factory45’ers are working with Kristin on concept designs, samples and patterns, so it was a long overdue treat to meet in her studio. Kristin has an extensive background in design, patterning and samplemaking, and it was awesome to see where all of the magic happens.

carolina-3 copyFrom Burnsville, I headed to Morganton to visit Opportunity Threads, a worker-owned cut and sew facility that has been able to successfully change the traditional business model to one that is as empowering for the sewers as it is for the project managers.
carolina-4 copyMolly Hemstreet, who oversees Opportunity Threads, has been an amazing resource and connection for me throughout the past year, and it already felt like I knew her when I walked inside. She gave me a tour of the facility, shared their plans for expansion, and showed me some of the products they’re working on. OT has been able to steadily grow since they opened their doors in 2008 and are nearly busting at the seams six years later.
carolina-5 copyThere is a prominent Mayan population in Morganton and several of the skilled sewers have come into OT with factory experience from Guatemala. Through the Opportunity Threads model, they have autonomy to track their own output and have a direct stake in profit and losses. From an outsider’s perspective, this balance of independence, leadership and collaboration was something I hadn’t seen in similar facilities before and it was incredibly refreshing.
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Both Be Well Designed and Opportunity Threads are members of the Carolina Textile District, a network of textile manufacturers, sewers, printers and professionals that help entrepreneurs start made in the USA businesses when they’re ready to go into production. I was able to also meet with Tanya Wade and Dan St. Louis who are two of the key players in making The District a long-term solution.

At the Manufacturing Solutions Center in Conover, NC, Tanya gave me a tour of the facility where they test everything from furniture to fibers to baby products, and house two 3-D printers. MSC is a non-profit that also serves as an incubator to product-based entrepreneurs in both the textile and tech spaces.
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Both Tanya and Dan are collaborating with community leaders in NC, like Kristin and Molly, to “reshore” jobs back to the States and further grow the Made in the USA movement. They are the incredibly hardworking people behind the scenes, moving forward everyday to bring jobs back home.

So where does Factory45 fit into all of this? Based on conversations with Molly and Tanya, The District gets 5-8 emails a week from entrepreneurs looking for fabric suppliers and production partners. About 30-50 percent of those inquiries are from people who do not yet have a solid business plan, marketing strategy or brand vision.

If you’ve ever wondered, “Does a manufacturer really care if I have my marketing plan together?” the answer is is a resounding “YES.” Every project they take on is a personal investment, and The District does not take on entrepreneurs who do not have an initial business strategy in place.

With Factory45, I’m offering a solution for entrepreneurs to become “production-ready,” preparing them to work with resources like The District.

To learn more about the incredible people working in the Carolina Textile District, you can check out Be Well Designed, Opportunity Threads, Manufacturing Solutions Center & The District.