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Sewing success: Nonprofit's classes bolster workforce, aid local designers

Sewing success: Nonprofit's classes bolster workforce, aid local designers

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ST. LOUIS — The creative side of designer Courtney Tharpe’s soon-to-launch clothing line was humming along last year when she was stymied by practical considerations. She needed fabric, patterns and, most importantly, sewers. In six months, she had scouted companies from Los Angeles to New York.

But the only cut-and-sew operation she hit upon here had just closed.

“The hardest thing about starting the clothing line was finding the right resources and the right people,” said Tharpe, who needed a few dozen samples of her tailored tank tops made.

Then, in early fall, she stumbled into a new collaboration between a fashion design consulting business and a nonprofit that teaches sewing skills to immigrant women.

Small-batch manufacturing, which usually involves orders up to a thousand, falls in a tricky space between custom designs and large-scale apparel merchandising. Because of the limited quantities, outsourcing to another country — or even a different U.S. city — is expensive and time-consuming.

Decades ago, when many companies shifted their production overseas, fewer U.S. workers had the impetus to learn industrial sewing. But, now, higher tariffs and shifting trade agreements, coupled with an increased demand from consumers for locally made goods, have left designers and smaller clothing companies in a bind.

Five years ago, Terri Stipanovich of Clayton developed a program through her nonprofit, Faith that Works, to teach sewing classes in East Africa. She brought back scarves, shirts and shawls to sell in St. Louis, and she started hearing a common refrain.

“I kept getting approached by companies that need sewers,” said Stipanovich. “It’s kind of a lost trade.”

So in 2017, Faith that Works moved into a small storefront in the Central West End. She connected with the International Institute and other immigrant organizations to find women who were new to the country and seeking marketable skills.

The free sewing classes soon became Faith that Works’ main focus; in the first two years, five volunteers taught 50 women the basics of sewing. Stipanovich hired the most promising from each class to handle a few small-batch jobs she had contracted, like adding “locker loops” to swimsuits — so they could be hung to dry — and making fit patterns for leopard-print leggings.

Last year, Stipanovich began searching for a bigger space. She also met Annie Miller of St. Louis, who owned a consulting company that worked with designers on product development.

Miller saw a paradox in the shortage of industrial sewers: Small-batch manufacturers can’t stay in business without a workforce. But no one will even get trained in the field without the hope of a job.

She pinpointed a third need, too: Designers have plenty of ideas but lack the technical know-how to go from concept to completion. That need took Miller across the country, helping designers create patterns, find suppliers and prepare samples.

Stipanovich and Miller decided to tackle all three problems at once, and rebranded as the Collective Thread.

In November, the nonprofit found a bigger space on Washington Avenue, in the old Garment District, and scrounged up a fleet of industrial sewing machines, including flat seamers, blind hemmers and sergers.

They moved in four weeks ago.

The extra elbow room now allows for expanded class offerings. Beginning sewers who show aptitude will be able to sign up for industrial sewing and production, alterations and tailoring, even shipping and receiving.

Miller meets with individual designers and larger companies such as St. Charles-based athletic brand Triflare. Part of the draw, said Triflare’s owner Andrea Roberts, is the personal connection.

“Getting sample runs done is so hard if you’re outsourcing,” said Roberts, who uses factories in China, Vietnam and Europe. “You have to travel and wait.”

So far, the Collective Thread has supplemented the fees that businesses pay for their services with fundraisers and grants. The goal is to land enough jobs within two years to be self-sufficient.

Roberts wants to move a third of her production work to the Collective Thread by next year.

“If you can do printing and cutting and sewing all at once, that’s the hardest thing to find,” she said.

The Collective Thread’s sewers start at about $10 an hour, working up as they master more of the machines. Zohra Zaimi, who moved to St. Louis from Morocco in 2016, took her first class in the fall and is already training to be a floor lead.

“It’s a place where you can learn a lot of skills,” said Zaimi, who is practicing how to cut fabric with electric tools and take care of the machines.

Zaimi had worked as a cook before, but for most of the sewers, the Collective Thread is their first job in the United States.

“We have redone the curriculum to help prepare them to enter the workforce,” said Miller.

The nonprofit hopes to employ 20 sewers by the end of the year, but most of the women who take their classes will be gaining experience to apply elsewhere, at companies like the Normal Brand and Weissman dancewear.

“Designers here are a little bit trapped,” Roberts said. “What Terri has is the missing piece: the workforce.”

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