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Respect gaining for cut-and-sew industry

As COVID-19 spread across Colorado in the spring, sewing skills were suddenly in high demand.

Outdoor manufacturers like Melanzana in Leadville, Phunkshun Wear in Denver, and Osprey’s pack repair team in Cortez pivoted from their usual catalog to face masks, as did numerous home-based sewers.

It was a shot in the arm for Colorado’s cut-and-sew industry, which has withered as manufacturing largely migrated overseas over the last 40 years. But can the mask boom sustain a broader comeback for the sector?

Carol Engel-Enright, professor and researcher in Colorado State University’s Design and Merchandising Department, says the pivot to mask-making helped highlight the lack of domestic manufacturing capacity and led to some big questions. “Wouldn’t it be great if this kind of manufacturing could continue, and what’s the next step?” she muses.

There are no easy answers, however, as she reels off several impediments to a cut-and-sew comeback in Colorado and the country at large, including labor costs, consumers’ reluctance to spend more for domestic goods, and the dearth of a skilled sewing workforce in the state.

“The issue’s always been the sewing line itself, and the person handling the material,” Engel-Enright says. “Automation is not yet possible, but there may be some opportunities in the future where it can be a different construction process that might leapfrog the technology. That’s what we’ve all been looking for.”

The supply chain is yet another hurdle, she adds. Most fabric suppliers are focused on Asia for obvious reasons. In most cases, domestic manufacturers are sourcing their fabric from China, but with suppliers geared around mass production, it is difficult for small manufacturers to hit minimums.

While some offshoring is inevitable, domestic apparel manufacturers have some competitive advantages, namely flexibility and speed, Engel-Enright says. “You have to think beyond the stitch.”

That aligns with Abbey Samuelson’s approach. The Winter Park-based fashion designer opened Rocky Mountain Design House in Winter Park in mid-2020 after a year of construction. “The whole goal is to bring the sewing trade skills more respect,” Samuelson says. “It’s pretty much a dying art.”

In response, she bought nine industrial sewing machines for her new facility, a combination manufacturing facility/retail shop/event and education venue, with cut-and-sew capacity for her own clothing brands (Lavender Elephant and Troublesome Threads, among others), as well as gear repair and consulting work.

Before the grand opening, Samuelson started making masks in March, and sold out six times in the first four days. A peak of six employees sewed a total of more than 4,000 masks. “I actually gained employees, because they left the bars,” she says. “They left food and beverage when the pandemic happened, and they wanted to find something more fulfilling.”

Adds Samuelson: “I was seven months pregnant, my brother died in a tragic car accident, and I was just sewing masks until three in the morning. It was the only thing I could do to get through the pandemic environment, being pregnant, and grieving. I found such a calling: I could make these masks and I could teach others how to make these masks.”

Now down to four employees, Samuelson is appreciative of the spotlight on sewing during the pandemic, but awareness isn’t enough to sustain the industry. “There’s a lot that needs to happen,” she says. “People need to be able to do the work, and people need to be willing to pay for it. It has to be back in the schools.”

A pro snowboarder turned fashion designer and consultant, J.J. Collier of Collier Brands in Boulder describes another wrinkle. “It’s super hard,” he says. “Sewing will drive you to drink. I’ve been at it for years and I can finally set a fly properly.”

As clothing and outerwear leaders moved to increasingly complex designs, a “me too” mindset pushed the competition down the same path. To spur cut-and-sew manufacturing in Colorado, it’s time to get back to basics, Collier argues. “What happened to beautifully considered stuff that does what you need it to do?”