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Made in Minnesota: The makers coalition and the renewal of our industrial sewing heritage

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Courtesy of the Makers Coalition
Industrial sewing: learning a heritage skill anew.

Scott Loeser, who lives in Minneapolis’ Uptown neighborhood, is using “marked” leather to create heirloom-quality satchels and tote bags. “Marked” hide, he explains, might have a cattle brand or other signs of distress, and typically ends up in the trash heap. He seeks out marked leather before it lands in the trash. Fittingly, he’s dubbed his product line Marked.

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“We all mark ourselves through our clothes, tattoos, piercings — all the ways we decorate ourselves to be individual,” he says. Similarly, fleshing out his concept further, the story behind Marked is how each handcrafted item “is one-of-a-kind,” he says.

Loeser’s background is in product development and global sourcing for companies like St. Paul's Gander Mountain. Today he hand sews the bags and accessories he designs in his barebones studio in Northeast. Loeser belongs to a new generation of industrial sewers emerging as part of the national makers movement, which is finding a unique toehold locally.

A group called The Makers Coalition, which originated a year-and-a-half ago, is driving the local movement. The coalition brings together 60 businesses, educational institutions, nonprofit organizations, and service providers to fulfill its mission: to bring back industrial sewing skills, which largely disappeared in America decades ago.

A major thrust for the coalition is a training program it developed in collaboration with Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis. Sewing was last taught at Dunwoody in the 1940s, according to a CNN story. To keep pace with a new re-shoring trend in the sewing industry (re-shoring refers to the practice of bringing outsourced personnel and services back to the location from which they were originally off-shored), the new training program was developed to “ensure the businesses that need high-quality cut and sewing industrial production have the talent they need to grow,” the coalition’s website reads. The 22-week program at Dunwoody covers a “variety of cut and sew production industries, from silk and leather goods to canvas work,” states the coalition’s website.

‘A huge problem across the industry’

The coalition came about following discussions between a couple of business and nonprofit leaders.  

Tatjana Hutnyak, who works for Life Track in St. Paul, a nonprofit organization that provides job assistance, heard various local businesses were having trouble finding skilled sewers. She knew plenty of people who needed a job; none of them had the right sewing skills. Hutnyak says she was surprised to discover “there weren’t any programs that teach basic sewing skills for production workers. It’s a job market that went overseas. A whole generation of people lost those skills.”

She talked with Jen Guarino, then the CEO of J.W. Hulme, a St. Paul company that makes handcrafted luxury leather bags. J.W. Hulme was growing by 50 percent each year, but wasn’t able to keep up with demand without trained sewers. After turning to other industry insiders, Guarino says, “We found the lack of skilled sewers was a huge problem across the industry, on a national scale.”

That led to conversations about “how businesses are the guardians of their own trade,” she says. So Guarino and Hutnyak founded The Makers Coalition last February. “We were proactive in getting the coalition going, and making it happen fast,” Hutnyak says.

Dunwoody worked with the coalition to develop a curriculum “driven by partners, employers, and what employers need on the production force,” Hutnyak says. The coursework, she adds, “isn’t theoretical. It’s based on the need. We’re feeding trained workers directly into the industry."

The first Dunwoody class graduated in June. A handful of graduates are employed in the industry and several have started their own businesses. Meanwhile, Dunwoody just began teaching its third cohort of students. Over time, classes have been tweaked and the program’s demographics have changed. Many people enrolling now are college graduates seeking professional enrichment opportunities.

Meanwhile, the coalition has also gotten industrial sewing approved by the State of Minnesota as an official apprenticeship program. Such professional advances are “the equivalent to a journeyman card,” Guarino says. “They say you’ve been classically trained in class and technically trained on the job. They put you at a higher [pay] level.”

A boon for local makers

The Makers Coalition brings together “the whole spectrum of the industry,” Hutnyak says, from makers of evening gowns, leather goods, and dance costumes to tents “and other things I didn't even know were sewn.” As a nexus of activity for makers, and a networking resource, the coalition has been a boon for local companies.

Businesses and sewers are “meeting each other, working together, and sharing suppliers and vendors. That alone has been valuable,” Guarino says. Through internships and on-site training, companies "get first dibs on talent coming out of our programs,” she adds. Likewise, students "get to rub elbows with business leaders."

The makers movement is largely being driven by a new generation of do-it-yourselfers “who want to make things,” Guarino says. The movement also signals a return to domestic manufacturing. When Lee Begnaud started Leather Works Minnesota in St. Paul in 1999 with her husband Kent, “We half-joked that we were going to bring manufacturing back to America,” she says.

Still, she’s seen the shift toward buying local and shopping American take effect. “People are understanding that it’s important to support American manufacturers,” she says, and “are becoming more aware of what they're spending money on."

The company, which uses domestic tanneries and hardware, joined the Makers Coalition early on. But like many other companies in the coalition, Begnaud can vouch for the lack of skilled workers in a growing marketplace. Leather Works is so busy that her husband, who was asked to teach a class at Dunwoody, can't be spared. He has to keep sewing, for the time being, because handling leather requires high levels of care and skill.

Her high-school-aged son, who sews for the company, perfected his skill over a period of 14 months, which is the norm when it comes to this craft, Begnaud says. Still, she’s hopeful the coalition and its partners will cultivate and train a new crop of sewers that can fill the void.

Growing beyond Minnesota

When Loeser was first contemplating the Dunwoody/Makers Coalition program, a Leather Works wallet caught his eye, inspiring him to follow through on his desire to become a leather designer and maker. Loeser had already designed a leather satchel, even before he knew how to sew. He had the bag custom-made for himself and carried it around everywhere. “I would get comments all the time from people, like ‘Hey, what a cool bag. Where can I get one of those?'"  

The program equipped Loeser with the training he needed to duplicate the bag and create other products for his Makers line. He also hired a fellow student, Rhea O'Connor, as a maker in his shop. Loeser hopes to diversify and expand his line with soaps, perfume, and cologne. And a third bag is in the works, which he hopes will become “a famous brand in the U.S. with global reach in other countries that are into leather goods,” he says.

The Makers Coalition is also looking to expand its reach, and has garnered interest from similar groups across the country. “We’re experiencing the wonderful trend of local employers invested in bringing this cool skill back to Minnesota and the Midwest, and producing locally,” Hutnyak says. “So we’re excited about growing the coalition beyond Minnesota.”

When entering a new city, Guarino says, “It’s critical that we partner with a willing academic institution, a willing nonprofit/social services organization, and one business that will step forward and lead the parade,” Guarino says. Such partnerships were key to the Makers Coalition success here, she adds, and will no doubt ensure its success wherever the organization plants itself next.

This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy. Anna Pratt is The Line’s Innovation Editor and Development Editor.

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Comments (1)

A wonderful story !

Individually designed goods, hand made with exceptional craft and care by local craftspeople, modest business goals, employment created directly from personal effort - aren't these, all working together, a model for a small, start-from-scratch industry ? I.e., as opposed to an army of employment counselors ?