Sewing Academy Success

by David Billstrom

Kitsbow gear is made by people, not machines. Our gear is made by people bringing back the production of apparel in America, and to do that efficiently that means it is a team activity. We've found that it isn't enough to teach people how to use industrial sewing machines -- which is why we helped create the Old Fort Industrial Sewing Academy.

Unique Curriculum, Unique Instruction

The Old Fort Industrial Sewing Academy is operated in conjunction with McDowell Technical Community College inside Kitsbow in Old Fort. We believe it is the first educational program for apparel professionals that emphasizes the skills and techniques required for effective team work with an equal emphasis on the mastery of the industrial sewing machine equipment.

This is because the most efficient method of apparel production utilizes One-Piece-Flow, sometimes known as "Lean Manufacturing" or "The Toyota Way". With this methodology, Kitsbow has proven that it can make premium apparel at the same cost as previously paid to contract manufacturing partners offshore in Vietnam and China (in fact, in many cases, for even less). While paying Makers well, and providing 100% health insurance.

This startling result is less impressive when placed in the context of history: nearly all complex consumer goods are already made utilizing One-Piece-Flow, such as electronics, automobiles, and other product requiring complex assembly with a high degree of accuracy. Apparel simply got left behind in this revolution in production methodology because of the availability of cheap labor in offshore locations. The method is more than 60 years old, dating back to post World War II in Japan.

But there's a catch: One-Piece-Flow requires that the Maker can not only sew and assemble at a high level of quality, but at the same time also collaborate, cooperate, and coordinate with their fellow Makers. 

The Academy is the first program that combines the team work skills with the technical skills of making premium garments. For a 4-week period of 8-hour shifts in the Basic Class, students focus on learning the basics of the equipment, garment assembly, and team work.

Upon graduation from Basic, they're ready to move to the next level of training: several weeks learning to make a specific garment such as the Haskell Pants, Icon Shirt, the Technical Tees, or even the Coleman Valley Bibs (and other products with a chamois pad sewn inside).

Proof of Progress
While it is still very early in the operation of the Academy, we recently saw two cohorts graduate from the Basic class and move into a specific production cell at Kitsbow, and immediately make a difference!

How can you tell? In November of 2021, Kitsbow quietly introduced a feature in our store that provides an estimate of when that specific item will ship. "Add to Cart" means that it will ship today (if ordered by 3:00PM Eastern). This means that the item is already in our inventory, and was previously made. This is rare, but it does happen.

If the button says "Make Mine" instead of "Add to Cart", that means our Makers need to make the specific size and color of the item you want... and an estimate is provided of when that specific item will ship. This varies from "1 week" to many weeks. 

To be transparent, this means we have everything we need to make the item, it simply needs to be made. And when demand is high, say for Mescal Ventilated Shorts -- it might be many weeks. As of April 9, 2022 the estimate for the Mescal is 7 weeks. This isn't a supply chain problem, it is a shortage of skilled Makers. 
And because apparel hasn't been made in volume in America for nearly 30 years, skilled sewers are nearly impossible to find, and those with One-Piece-Flow experience are literally impossible to find. We have to create them, which is why the Academy exists.

When we place graduates from the Academy in a cell, the capacity increases which means the customer's wait time comes down!

Indeed, it already has for Coleman Valley Bibs (down to 1 week!) and the Icon Shirt (down to just 2 weeks). In the past, both of those products were 4 to 8 weeks wait. But with our new graduates, those production cells are nearly keeping up with demand.

The Future is Bright
The Academy has already bolstered our ranks, and graduates report that the intensive focus is equipping them well for their career in making apparel. We'll continue to challenge every Maker by offering new products, in different fabrics (which require different techniques) and paying them to learn new skills.
And our customers will continue to benefit by being able to order exactly and specifically the size, fit, and color they want. Made to Order. 
By responsible Makers in Old Fort, North Carolina.

Could This Be For You?
If you're interested in learning teamwork and sewing machines, applications for students in the Old Fort Sewing Academy can be made on our Careers page. Students are paid $15.00/hour during the initial 4-week Academy.