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Supply chain woes present opportunity for domestic sewing production in largely outsourced industry

Supply chain woes present opportunity for domestic sewing production in largely outsourced industry
Posted at 5:56 PM, Feb 10, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-10 17:56:32-05

From jeans to parachutes and baseballs, many things involve some amount of sewing. It’s an industry that's primarily gone overseas in recent decades, but pandemic supply chain problems have companies reconsidering.

At DDI, a design incubator, students learn the basics of sewing.

“These guys are learning the techniques. It's not project-based; it’s knowledge-based,” Peg Koerselman-Kohl, one of the instructors for the sewing classes, said. “These are skills that up until the generation past mine, we just took for granted.”

She’s been teaching classes here since 2016 and has spent more than 40 years of her life in the industry.

“It’s not taught in public schools anymore. Mommy's don't teach it to their daughters anymore,” she said on the skill of sewing.

Yet, it’s a skill used to make many things you use daily.

“Everything in the world is sewn. People don't realize it. They all think oh it’s a pair of pants or a shirt. I say no, everything. You sit in your car. That seat is sewn,” Jack Makovsky, the executive vice president at Ralph’s Industrial Sewing, said.

Makovsky is also the board chairman for DDI, the design incubator where Koerselman-Kohl teaches.

“When I got into this business 60 years ago plus, there was a little sewing factory in every city,” he said. Over the past few decades, that’s changed.

“I grew up in an America where we made everything. Where we could do everything, and I've just watched as jobs went overseas,” Makovsky said.

Right now, about 97% of all clothing is imported, according to the American Apparel and Footwear Association, an industry trade group that represents clothing, footwear, and sewn product companies.

In the 1960s, less than 10% was outsourced.

But experts say pandemic supply chain disruption caused many businesses to reconsider and pivot.

“At every step of the way, you've got some hiccups in the supply chain. And I’m just going, to be frank, this is not a one-off. This will not be fixed this year,” Shawn Grain Carter, a fashion business management professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology, said. “I think that what you have is different parts of the fashion supply chain saying listen, we want to bring production back, but we also want to ensure that it’s not just something that will be in this pandemic. That there is longevity in terms of the business model to set it up in a way that we can pay a fair, competitive wage, but we also aren't going to shoot ourselves in the foot by pricing it too high for customers to purchase.”

Once a textile hub, she says the southern part of the U.S. could see some new life. “There are opportunities, particularly in the rural south, which used to be the king of the textile economy,” Shawn Grain Carter said.

With this awakening from fashion businesses and others who require sewing, Makovsky sees an opportunity to help train people here in the U.S. for job openings.

“If we can get people trained, what it is you need, why you need it and how you need it, and we can get them educated in this, that will help them out and get that going,” he said.

The craft is still drawing young people in, like Kellen Quadhamer.

“For the path, I'm taking, or if you want to become a young designer, it’s very important for you to start at the basics and learn the trade. It’s not for everybody, but if you are looking to get involved in the making of clothing, you need to start with the basics,” Quadhamer said.

The interest gives Koerselman-Kohl hope for the industry that we might see more domestic production in the future.

“We have this knowledge, and if we don't pass it down to the next generation, it's going to be gone,” she said.