BEHIND THAT ANTIQUED LEATHER BAG, the so-classic-they’re-cool work boots, the intricate hand-beaded dress, is a Minnesotan like Zabeida Osman. Five days a week, Osman deftly puts thread to leather on a Consew sewing machine on Seventh Street in St. Paul. She makes high-end bags that are sold in fine boutiques around the world. The “Made in the U.S.A.” label she stitches into each bag she sews is personal—it signifies that this former refugee from Ethiopia has not just a job, but a career.
Osman is a wife, a mother of four, a Cottage Grove homeowner, and a lead sewer at J.W. Hulme Co., the 107-year-old St. Paul bag manufacturer that has ridden the Made in the U.S.A. heritage movement back into the black—and beyond. Osman sits in a pod of workstations where she oversees production of small bags and pouches. Leather is hand-buffed. Corners are stitched. Zippers and brass hardware are affixed. Though she’s never been to Barneys New York, and she isn’t sure if there is a Brooks Brothers in the Twin Cities, she is proud that the bags she makes by hand get sold there, for $250 and more a pop.
So is her fashion-conscious 22-year-old daughter, who has been known to ask Osman to bring home samples of her work—such as an antiqued shoulder bag similar to the one actress Lena Dunham’s character will be seen wearing in January on HBO’s hit series Girls.
When Osman was around her daughter’s age, she worked as a maid for the Holiday Inn while her husband completed his engineering degree at the University of Minnesota. The pair fled a warring Ethiopia when Osman was 19, then spent a few years in the eastern African country Djibouti. Unable to find work and unhappy with the quality of life, they headed to America. It didn’t matter what state.
Once her husband was settled into a career with 3M, he urged Osman to find meaningful work. “Working at the hotel, that was surviving,” she says. “I wanted a real job.” She enrolled in a sewing course at Saint Paul College. Her first sewing job in the late 1980s—making lab coats and uniforms on the east side of town—paid $4.50 an hour, less than she made cleaning hotel rooms. But she looked forward to work every day. She felt like she had a purpose.
“We were all told America couldn’t be competitive
so we got lazy.”
— Jen Guarino, CEO of J.W. Hulme
“People just think about today. They take shortcuts,” Osman says. “They don’t look at tomorrow.”
Osman has been with J.W. Hulme for 11 years, longer than the new owners who turned the lagging company around. “They treat you well here—as a professional.” She blushes when asked how much she makes today. It’s more than three times her first sewing wages.
When Osman sees a “Made in the U.S.A.” label, she is willing to pay more for that product. “I know [my money] is going to the sort of people who gave me a chance in this country,” she says—and she wants others to enjoy similar opportunities.
Faribault Woolen Mills
J.W. Hulme needs more skilled workers like Osman. So does Faribault Woolen Mill Co., the 146-year-old wool blanket maker. The heritage trend has been a tremendous boon to many longstanding Minnesota companies, from Red Wing Shoes to Duluth Pack. But after the fashion buzz comes the reality—and challenge—of making products in the United States. One big problem: An entire generation of Americans never learned how to sew.
“We were all told America couldn’t be competitive in manufacturing, so we got lazy,” says Jen Guarino, CEO of J.W. Hulme, which currently employs 39 people, five of whom were hired in late September. The current cool factor of U.S.-made merchandise isn’t the only reason Hulme bags and leather accessories are appealing to a major retailer such as Brooks Brothers. There’s also the ease of working with an American company. Overseas shipping requires huge orders to fill hulking containers. Rising fuel costs have made it increasingly expensive to ship overseas, and the process can be a headache, with unpredictable and lengthy holdups in customs and less control over the product itself. In contrast, Guarino says J.W. Hulme can deliver bags from St. Paul direct to Brooks Brothers stores nationwide with just 90 days’ lead-time.
Beyond keeping up with growing demand for J.W. Hulme, Guarino has been getting calls from bigger companies, such as Tumi, that want to bring at least a portion of manufacturing back to the United States but can’t find the facilities or workforce to do it.
MORE MINNESOTA-BASED BRANDS
RED WING SHOES:
Setting the standard for work boots since 1905 DULUTH PACK:
Canvas bags and outdoor gear since 1882PIERREPONT HICKS
: American-made menswear from a newer Minneapolis-based company with a timeless aesthetic
This is more than a fashion trend. A social and economic shift is underway. A recent report from Boston Consulting Group predicts 5 million manufacturing jobs could be created in the United States by the end of the decade. In the sewing industry, there are two significant factors contributing to that demand, says Richard Beardsley, who runs CLG Enterprises, a contract sewing operation in south Minneapolis. “The standard of living in countries like China is rising so dramatically that it is driving prices up to compare with what can be done in the U.S., and the quality that has been standard in the U.S. is being recognized—finally—as important enough to pay money for it.”
Veteran Wisconsin shoe manufacturer Allen Edmonds feels the shift.
“Right now, it’s all about authenticity. People are taking a lot of pride in buying American goods,” says Jim Kass, vice president of manufacturing for Allen Edmonds. “We’ve got a base of operation. It’s our heritage; it’s what we do. A lot of companies are trying to figure out how to get back here, and it’s hard.”
Allen Edmonds employs about 500 people in Wisconsin, and more than half of them work on the manufacturing line. “Welt shoemaking is a craft-type manufacturing process. Cutting and sewing leather is not a talent that young people are really seeking to get into,” Kass says. As a result, Allen Edmonds spends four to six months training employees. Some jobs, such as fancy double-needle stitching, require even more extensive training, a cost that ultimately is added to the price of shoes.
HAVE SEWING SKILLS, GET HIRED
Who: Faribault Woolen Mills
What: Maker of wool blankets and accessories since 1865
Employment: Currently 10 sewers; expects to double
What: Bridal and ready-to-wear women’s fashion by Joy Teiken
Employment: Currently two sewers; anticipates growing to seven
Who: Irely Intimates
What: Women’s lingerie
Where: St. Paul
Employment: Currently three sewers; needs more. Has been looking overseas because it can’t find them locally
Who: CLG Enterprises
What: Contract sewing for medical- product companies and manufacturer of Rodeo Gear, protective vests, gear bags, and leather straps for cowboys
Employment: Currently 20 sewers; will need six to 10 more
Guarino estimates that training a new generation of inexperienced workers could cost J.W. Hulme $100,000 in the next few years. And she knows she’s not alone. Entrepreneur Monica Nassif recently launched luxury sleepwear line Sophia Graydon in Minneapolis with the goal of “bringing back a lost industry.” Little did she know how challenging it would be to find Twin Cities sewers with experience working on fine fabrics and detailed construction. Minneapolis-based fashion designer Joy Teiken currently employs two sewers but says she has enough interest in her Joynoëlle brand to hire five more. “As an independent designer, production has been the issue I’ve run into from the very beginning,” Teiken says. “I’ve seen the need for years and believe now is the time to make something happen.”
Guarino took it upon herself to do just that. Tatjana Hutnyak is business services manager for Lifetrack Resources, a St. Paul–based organization that provides job training and placement, particularly for immigrants and individuals with employment barriers. When Guarino met Hutnyak at a networking event, the light went on. After some discussion, the two hatched a plan. Hutnyak reached out to Dunwoody College of Technology. Guarino rallied more than a dozen local companies. The Makers Coalition was born.
In January, Dunwoody will welcome its first class of 18 students to the new Sewing & Production Specialist Program. Designed with input from business leaders, the accelerated 20- to 24-week program is non-credit to keep costs down and get students into the workforce faster. Training will happen onsite at some of the manufacturers participating in the Makers Coalition, including two in Minneapolis: Airtex Design Group, which manufactures private-label home fashions, and Kelle Company, maker of dance costumes. This way, students learn on the equipment they will be expected to operate. Tuition for the Dunwoody program will run about $3,600, but Lifetrack received a $75,000 United Way grant to pay for curriculum development and scholarships for the first class.
This is not a sewing course for the fashion-design student who dreams of appearing on Project Runway. Rather, it’s an industry-oriented training program for folks like Osman who want to develop a skill and land a respectable job that can pay anywhere from $12 to $16 an hour.
“There are a lot of diverse groups—immigrants who come to this country with skills, high-school kids who don’t know what they want to do yet,” says Dunwoody director of program development Debra Kerrigan. “As a society we’ve been pushing people into four-year degree programs and ignoring those skills.”
Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, who is working on legislation to strengthen workforce-training programs like this new one at Dunwoody, believes America needs to reevaluate what is considered a “good” job.
“Sometimes it’s not just the students but the parents that need to understand it pays well to be a welder—that is actually a viable career option,” Klobuchar says. “Of course we need four-year degrees, but we also need people who go into the workforce after two years, or even a few months, without student loans. There are lots of jobs available. We’re just in need of some workforce training.”
Dunwoody’s job placement rate is 95 percent—100 percent in manufacturing.
The sewing program will help local companies fill some immediate hiring needs, but there is a bigger picture to consider. Guarino believes programs such as this are the next step in turning Minnesota, already home to several keystone heritage brands, into a national hub for sewing production. Klobuchar agrees. “We have a history of making things in our state, from the pacemaker to the Post-it note. It makes me think we have this opportunity.”
Now it’s up to industry and educators to convince others like Osman, when they are just starting out, that sewing can become a fruitful career.
Not Made in the U.S.A.
Why one Minnesota company isn’t manufacturing at home.
Minneapolis-based Urban Junket, maker of eco-friendly bags, does not currently do any manufacturing in the United States. Owner Tracy Dyer joined the Makers Coalition—a new group of manufacturers working to create jobs in Minnesota—because she’d love to bring production home. But the barriers go beyond a shortage of skilled sewers.
For one, it’s difficult to find green materials in the United States. The recycled-bottle fabric that goes into Urban Junket bags is made only in Taiwan. The bags are then coated in an eco-friendly way, which is standard in Europe, but Dyer says most U.S. plants still use PVC.
In Hong Kong, Dyer has one person who can source any material Urban Junket needs, from zippers to buckles. Not so at home. “As a country, we haven’t brought that stuff online very well—there’s no amazon.com of sourcing in America,” says Dyer, who travels to at least four different trade shows across the states every year in search of materials she can buy domestically.
While gas and labor costs are narrowing the divide of overseas manufacturing, and the logistics of international shipping can be a headache, Dyer estimates it would still cost her 40 to 50 percent more overall to produce bags in the United States.
Nevertheless, she says, she’d do it if she could—particularly for new bags, where the added costs could be factored into retail prices from the start. “I think people are still very price-sensitive,” she says.
Dyer joined the Makers Coalition to be part of the conversation. A Detroit native, she’s inspired by the thought of turning defunct automotive plants into sewing factories.
“It isn’t going to go fast,” Dyer warns. “It’s not just sewing we need to bring back; there has to be a central fashion district where we can find all the materials. I think it could happen at some point, but not next year.”
She’s not giving up—but she’s not holding her breath, either.