Training Program Targets Sewing Skills Gap

By Debra D. Bass St. Louis Post-Dispatch

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) The ability to sew using industrial equipment is a hot commodity in the St. Louis region. Mom-and-pop alteration shops and bigger manufacturing companies in the area are so desperate for skilled, well-trained workers that it's fueling opportunities.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

An effort to rebrand sewing as entrepreneurship continues to gain traction, as many insist that skilled workers who perform job duties without a keyboard are making a comeback.

Apprenticeships are being touted as America's best option to solve a persistent job skills gap.

There were 6 million job openings in April, a record high, according to the Labor Department.

At the same time, there were 6.8 million people out of work.

That math looks simple, but about 95 percent of employers said they had difficulty finding skilled and available workers, according to a recent workforce survey by Business Roundtable.

Lydia Merritt of Elyse Theo Design Studio downtown thinks her training program can solve a small slice of the problem.

She can help those with immediate need for skilled garment workers, including her company, in the region and provide typically low-skilled workers with a viable long-term profession.

Though some see it as dead-end work, the ability to sew using industrial equipment is a hot commodity.

Mom-and-pop alteration shops and bigger manufacturing companies in the region are so desperate for skilled, well-trained workers that it's fueling opportunities.

Gregg Garland said he had openings at Moxi Enterprises, his manufacturing facility on South Vandeventer Avenue, that were unfilled for two years.

He has since filled the positions but said, "Everyone is busy. We have as much business as we could handle." Garland hinted at a future expansion: "Everyone I know is busy, so a training, apprenticeship program makes sense. I think there's a bad perception that working on garments for a living is a Third World occupation. It's a stigma, but it doesn't need to be."

Wages aren't as competitive or lucrative as in tech, but hours can be flexible, working with one's hands can be more fulfilling to some and the threshold to starting a business is low.

Locally, garment workers can make about $10 to $15 a hour, but Merritt wants to entice workers with a little known fact that skilled garment workers have options outside of a traditional career.

"We don't just want to teach a skill, we want to teach people to be entrepreneurs," Merritt said. She's housed in the Washington Avenue basement of the T-Rex building, a co-working space and business incubator focused on technology startups.

Merritt, who works in the design department at Soft Surroundings by day, runs her company as a startup, too. She wants her apprenticeship program to be a business incubator as well.

Aside from learning to sew on industrial machines and manufacture professionally, each apprentice will develop an item to produce and sell.

Their apprenticeship will end with training on the little-understood stages of pre-production, including developing a tech pack, pattern making, sample making and sourcing. And they'll leave her program with a small batch of products to market and sell.

The charge for the program hasn't been determined yet.

Anne Stirnemann of the City Sewing Room quit her career as a registered nurse to open a shop for sewers to learn and manufacture products. Even her family laughed at her folly until she developed a following that includes classes, dozens of regulars and two local designers who are manufacturing out of her facility.

Some regulars are just hobbyists; others want to start a business. "And you can't say you can't do this, or you won't make it because now we have people who are doing it and making a living," Stirnemann says.

Just like a young entrepreneur who dreams of making the next great mobile phone app or digital platform, Stirnemann said people who sew needed the same encouragement because there's opportunity.

Merritt uses her career as an example of how varied and interesting a résumé in the art of sewing can be.

She worked at internationally known design houses in New York, including Chaus and Eileen Fisher before she moved to St. Louis to work with May Department Stores. Along the way, she's always been able to earn extra money with her sewing skills.

"It's definitely not a dead end, it's a career," Merritt said. "We need to change people's mindset."

Merritt has the coveted skill set of being a pattern maker and technical designer, which means that she can earn more than quadruple the rate of an entry-level seamstress.

In short, she specializes in the pre-production work of tweaking designs to make manufacturing items more profitable.

Beyond a concept or style, even designers with university training don't necessarily know how to source materials, what type of finishing will be used, where they will manufacture or how a piece of cloth should be cut to minimize waste.

And plenty of people stumble into design without any skills.

Aaron Mottern of Agogie, a new St. Louis-based company that makes a brand of resistance pants for athletic training, said he came up with the idea for his product without knowing anything about fashion.

His previous company was a technology-based athletic training program.

In fact, he doesn't even call his product clothing. He considers it "wearable equipment." Still he needed a pattern maker -- and a digital pattern to boot.

"I had no idea what a pattern was," Mottern confessed. He had the contacts and confidence that his product would sell. Athletes were interested in it before he even had samples, but he needed help creating it. Even those manufacturing overseas, like Mottern, need to produce patterns that speak the universal language of sewing.

Although his offices are also at T-Rex, it took him weeks to find out Merritt was working out of the basement of the same building.

"She's the reason we were able to go from idea to concept to first product in nine months," Mottern said. "If I hadn't found Lydia, I wouldn't even be in the market yet."

Right now, Mottern has a slew of professional and collegiate athletes, as well as former Olympians testing and marketing his line.

He estimates that he's sold a few thousand since his launch in January, and he's preparing to unleash a national sales force and more than 12,000 units from the overseas production of his line within the next few months.

"It's possible to work smarter, not harder, and make a decent living," said Jennifer Ingram, who coordinates the fashion design program at Washington University and is working with Merritt to develop her internship program. "We need to restore the art of sewing and construction and manufacturing before it's a lost art."

Ingram said the influx of cheap, disposable clothing is a mixed blessing. The need for alterations has skyrocketed, even if people deem fewer items worth repairing.

"If you have a sewing machine and an iron, you can be open for business," Ingram said. "It doesn't require a shop, or major overhead ... but it will require some training."

Merritt and Ingram say this training obviously transcends basic alterations and can easily amount to work that's suitable for building a business. Or at least a useful "side hustle."

Merritt's daughter, Caprice Elisa Merritt, operates CEM Designs. The 27-year-old never found a profession outside of sewing and manufacturing that truly inspired her. She's an example of the type of youth her mother wants to reach with her apprenticeship program.

Caprice Merritt wasn't interested in a traditional higher education degree, but she didn't want to work in alterations.

"I really just want to do what I want to do, and if people want to buy it, good," she explained. So far, she's started a small business in addition to her full-time job, also at Soft Surroundings.

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