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.