How I got my start -midway

It was cold, hard winter day in late November 1995 when Beth called me to say she was going under and had to close her business. Her voice sounded from far away as I watched the snow flurry from the window over the pasture. I don’t remember what she said, just that she did. I hung up the phone. Empty then, drained, I put my head down and I sobbed for a long while. It didn’t have to happen, it was such a waste. Overnight, eight stitchers were out of work.

What was going to happen to Beth’s eight stitchers? Living on the Navajo reservation, it’s not as though they could have gotten other jobs; the unemployment rate was 80%. Overnight, eight families weren’t going to buy winter clothes or wood to heat their homes against the elements. It’s cold on the reservation. Even these days, many don’t have plumbing or even electricity. No phones either. Overnight, there were eight more mothers without the means to feed their children. Eight families without a future, all gone overnight. They were all I could think about. Like I said, I just cried.

I became very angry at Beth and more so as time passed. I resented her. This was her fault. Eight families weren’t eating because of her. The problem wasn’t her costs, her market, her designs or being knocked off (she was copying Blue Fish); it was purely stupid business practices. That’s it. She should have dispensed with formality and had a bulls-eye or the word “victim” tattooed on her forehead. I know she owned the business but why did she have the right to act so irresponsibly? People were trusting her to make simple sane decisions, they helped her. They invested in her. She didn’t listen to anything I said, ever. She wouldn’t even do something as basic as issuing style numbers because it was “too corporate and conflicted with her image”. She really said that. She’s the one I wrote about in my book who named her styles “the Dorothy zoo blue dress” and “the June Cleaver meets Zuni Pueblo”. The stupidest part of that is that her stitchers mostly spoke Navajo and very little English. And she wondered why she had so many problems? Beth changed a lot of lives, mine, hers, theirs, maybe even yours.

But I digress. Today is Blog Action Day, an internet event in which thousands of bloggers post on a singular topic with the hopes of affecting social change. This year’s topic is Poverty. I wasn’t sure what to write about which is kind of ironic because eradicating poverty is the basis of what gets me out of bed every day. People always ask me how I got started. I started with Beth. So, I thought I’d tell my story about Beth so that once and for all, everybody will know what I do and why. Fighting poverty with job creation is all I do.

This blog, my book, all I do, is not about you. Not about you.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve come to like you, sometimes love you, adapt to you, give you what you need, pull you along in fits and starts with cajoling, teasing, humor or occasionally, even thinly veiled threats. But, I don’t do this for you. I do this for the people you hire. People like Beth’s stitchers. People who are too busy struggling on increasingly limited incomes to even know I exist much less know my name, visit my blog or read my book. Obviously I’m not doing this for adoration or acclaim if the people I’m working for will never even know to thank me, assuming they felt I deserved it.

Returning to that day in 1995, I needed to do something. First I thought I’d start a factory but it was a stupid idea if my goal was to help employ people. I wasn’t sure what to do. A couple of months previous, my mentor had died and it profoundly affected me. Slowly, I realized I could create jobs if I made an effort to help people like you. If I helped you, you’d create jobs and a whole lot more than I ever could on my own. So that’s what I did. I just wasn’t sure how to go it.

The fact is, I’m using you. You’re a tool. A means to my nefarious ends.

I started with a newsletter and called it The Designer’s Network Newsletter. It was really lame but surprisingly popular. New to computing, I’d forget to run spell check. My son, much younger then, thought they were ugly and drew dragons in the margins in colored pencil on some of them. Not all my subscribers appreciated it but still, circulation doubled every month, all word of mouth. In 1997, tired of being chained to publishing deadlines, I put it all into a book, The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Sewn Product Manufacturing. I thought I’d end up with 990 copies gathering dust in the garage but those sold, all word of mouth. And they continue to. I thought I could get back to pattern making and the occasional consulting if I had a ready reference to pass off to people. Naively, I thought they’d read it, follow my advice to the dot and scamper off to fame and fortune. Right. Why are you so stubborn?

I reiterate, I’m using you. My means to an end. Job creation.

If you think about it, some of my entries make a lot more sense through this lens. You get mad or frustrated if your tools don’t work the way they are supposed to. And I know that people aren’t really tools. You can’t meld them as much as I may have tried. Why do you think I get mad at you? Why do I get so frustrated with you? Logically, if you have my book, I’ve made my money off you so why would I care what you do now? This is why I genuinely do not care if you are literally, the finest designer to ever draw breath. I only care that you become a profitable enterprise and that you are a good, fair and ethical person on your way there. I think I’ve been rather transparent about it. As I’ve said before:

If you haven’t figured it out yet, my driving passion is job creation. Not everybody can work at Mc Donald’s and support a family.

Manufacturing does support families. I don’t know why people think factories are so awful, have you ever worked in one? They can be kind of cool, fun places. I have literally spent the best years of my life in factories. Some people like the noise of the machines… Factories aren’t what you think. Only 3% of US manufacturers are sweat-shops so very few factories are boring, dangerous, dank and dirty. People who work or have worked in factories may resent your sweat-shop comments because they wouldn’t work at a place like that anymore than you would and if you intimate that they have, that’s an underhanded way of saying you’re better than they are. Some of us deeply admire and respect our previous factory employers so a sweatshop comment can be offensive. DEs call me up and that’s the first thing they’ll say, “I need your advice but I don’t run a sweat-shop”. It makes me want to say, “are you suggesting that I do run a sweatshop or that I advise people on how to set them up? Do you think that if I suggest a cost-effective way to do something, that what I’m really saying is that you have to run a sweat shop yourself?”

In summary, the best path to the eradication of poverty is to run your enterprises intelligently. You don’t have to run a sweatshop to turn a profit but you can’t be selfish, you can’t be pig headed, short sighted or in love with the vision of your fashion empire unfolding. If you don’t listen, I can’t respect you; I don’t care how talented you are. I don’t care where you went to school. I don’t care if you worked under the best designer who ever lived. I don’t care how much money you have. The fact is, most of you will never become large enterprises and that’s just fine by me. Small businesses hire a lot more people than large ones. Did you know that? Small companies, when profits are compared to head count, are more profitable than large ones. Did you know that? Maybe no one else gives you the time of day but I respect your impact. I’ve staked my entire career on it.

Now go give me a count of how many jobs or hours of work my advice has helped you to create. Together we have an impact, what is it?

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  1. Well, so far I’ve got one part-time sewing contractor, and I feel good about that. She is 70, on a fixed income, and what I pay her helps. I have another one who can also do the work, but I have to wait for spring orders to know if I’ll need her.

    I hope to keep production local. I like employing local and I like the control staying local gives me.


  2. Andrea says:

    You have helped me spread the word with other designers and make sense of my own place in things. Thank you. I am still not able to employ people, but will get there…now I just barter…sewing for anything I can offer!

  3. Karen C says:

    Probably the biggest impact you, your book and blog have had on me is to instill confidence in women and their value. I was just contacted by a woman who’s been patternmaking for 15 years. But because she hasn’t worked in a factory, she doesn’t consider herself a professional and prices her services WAY below market. I asked her if she was any good, and she proceeded to tell me of lots of people in the industry who have used her for both patterns and sample making. I told her about your site, your book and the need to increase her prices.

    I had a wise teacher who was adament about women pricing themselves correctly and valuing their talents, services and work product. When we value what we do as a business, others will too. And everyone rises up.

    Thanks, Kathleen. It’s the little things we do that make up the whole.

  4. Sandra B says:

    Thank you so much for this post. I had become disheartened lately, probably due to lack of focus on my true business goals. This post has put me back on track, by reminding me that it’s not all about me. I had forgotten that. I’m speaking at a TCFWA (Textile Clothing and Footwear Association of Western Australia) function next week, I will be giving your book and blog as much of a recommendation as I can.

  5. Carly says:

    Thank you Kathleen. As much as I love the community of sewing that you have built, it would be nothing with out the heart that you bring. Your logic and determination are the backbone of what keeps people on track, what helps them think that compassion and problem solving might provide an answer where dictatorial policies have failed. I have done production sewing for years. I worked with wonderful people and consider that time the most effective sewing instruction I ever known. You are right, for many sewing is a living, factories can be a place where you interact with your co-workers and make the money to feed your family. They are talented sewers making useful things. That beats a job at starbucks, hands down. Thanks

  6. RachelMM says:

    You have really helped me re-focus my designs in regards to time. Before I read your book, my designs were very time intensive and therefore much too expensive. I learned that in order to make a profit, keep my costs down, and still have people interested in buying my garments I needed to streamline my designs. I keep track of everything according to your formulas and now I feel really good about my pricing.

    I don’t employ anyone yet, but I am working with a couple other people in the “trading stages.” I know that one day things will emerge to a bigger place where I will be able to have full-time employees.

    I don’t think anyone minds that you are using us, because we are grabbing on to everything you say. I guess we are using each other! Thank you. -Rachel

  7. Pam says:

    I have read your book and have implemented parts of it and while my line is what is considered “push manufacturing” we continue to grow and build our brand and for us it works and hopefully it will continue to grow and work really well.

    I use a manufacturer overseas in Pakistan and I will say that before I started this venture of a clothing line, which by the way, was never a huge dream, goal or anything but I kind of fell into it, I had so little understanding of that culture; they were just “over there”.

    Nevertheless, we now have a manufacturing factory there run by a married couple who have become my best of friends yet we have never met in person. One day we will I am sure.

    The factory is run with about 30 people, these people all depend on their work to feed their families. It is not a sweatshop and the people there like the work they do and have pride in what they do, so I am told. The couple that runs the factory tells me it is my factory and I have said NO it’s not mine but in actuality I can see their point.

    When I am here going over the numbers, profits etc. I often thing maybe this just won’t work. I mean it has been a lot of work, learning, trials and tribulations and do I really want to continue it? Then I look at the other side of things. We are going into our 4th year of the brand and have improved so many things it would be stupid to stop now. And, yes, I have certainly looked at the point that I am now responsible for feeding about 30 families in an Asian country. Did I ask for this responsibility? No but now I have it so would have to really think it all through before I stopped everything.

    So Kathleen you can take a little comfort in knowing some poverty has been prevented by your work too.


  8. I’m native. It makes me really happy, you and other people who want things to change. there’s a lady I know who lets native street kids sleep in her living room in the winter. I cry at these things, too. Thanks.

  9. Tonya says:

    This is a very timely post and a dose of good medicine for all of us ‘creatives’ who have a tendency to overplay the importance of our creative vision. It’s not all about us, our designs, or even having fun. It’s about meeting a need and being smart about doing it, so we can continue to do it for a long time.

    It’s amazing to me how many comapnies can be in business for 20+ years and after 1 bad quarter, go under. I want my (future) company to be around as long as there are customers who need our products.

  10. Christelle says:

    I haven’t created any jobs, yet. But I am teaching jr. high girls how to sew in an inner-city after school program. Future employees, maybe? My best jobs were working in factories. I met the most interesting people in those jobs. No sweat….

  11. Elaine says:

    Kathleen, I’m not a DE (not yet, at least), but I’ve been considering hiring some help with my online businesses. But even though I’ve not been diagnosed, I’d bet that my score on an Asperger Syndrome test would be fairly high. From your viewpoint, would hiring be a recipe for disaster? Would it depend on the type of contract/work understanding I had with the person?

    I do believe strongly in what you have outlined above; however, as I get older I also am finally realizing that I likely have very little clue how to get help from other people/employees as an employer. (No, most people don’t know how to do the things that seem relatively easy to me but yes, they do know how to do things I barely even understand that I don’t know, like stay organized in my work areas).

    The only persons I know personally with a higher AS score than me might be my dh and one of my brothers. And after being in public, like at church for a few hours, dh and I head for opposite ends of the house for a few hours to decompress… ;). Luckily we do get back together for meals, etc. lol.

  12. Kathleen says:

    …I’ve been considering hiring some help with my online businesses. But even though I’ve not been diagnosed, I’d bet that my score on an Asperger Syndrome test would be fairly high. From your viewpoint, would hiring be a recipe for disaster? Would it depend on the type of contract/work understanding I had with the person?

    I’m probably the last person of whom to ask these questions. Whether you have a disability or not, you need to hire your weakness. With clients… well… this could be a roundabout motivation for why I wrote a book -specifically to outline the ground rules of a working relationship. Even today it really throws me if a client doesn’t have style numbers or they’re really bad ones. It hijacks everything else I’m doing and derails the whole process. That may sound a little odd but if I don’t have the means to organize the work process itself, I can’t step through it. So, my strategy has to become very selective of those I work with. I don’t think I’m alone in this. I think plenty of contractors share some of these characteristics and with so much competition btwn DEs for contractors, it makes it easy for service providers to say no if somebody doesn’t have their ducks in a row. There’s other work out there that’s not as much hassle.

    …as I get older I also am finally realizing that I likely have very little clue how to get help from other people/employees as an employer.

    I don’t have employees now but I had four at one point. At that time, we didn’t have a word or a diagnosis to explain my oddities but there was a pattern. If your impairment is significant and whether you work for yourself or someone else, you have to ask for accommodation. That’s what I did with my staff. There were some things that Kathleen just couldn’t do or did poorly. That’s why I hired them. And that’s not to say that I wasn’t diffident about it because I was. Here I am, I’m supposed to be the boss but I’m largely doing what my staff tells me to do. Believe it or not, it can work with the right people. Frankly, I would LOVE to hire a boss (of me) even today. I do not like telling people what to do. I dislike it so much that I think my resentment is sometimes interpreted as annoyance because I don’t like being in that position. That probably explains a lot about some of my posts right there.

    (No, most people don’t know how to do the things that seem relatively easy to me but yes, they do know how to do things I barely even understand that I don’t know, like stay organized in my work areas).

    This is a problem of executive functioning; many autistics are notoriously bad at it. It’s something you learn to live with if you can’t find a boss (of you) to hire. If you do figure a way around it and can effectively teach it to others, you’d be a millionaire. A some time strategy I use is to have a private class. If I know I have people coming in, I have to clean up. That’s probably the real reason I rarely have classes, having to clean up. eek. I should do them monthly to keep me on the straight and narrow. ~sigh~

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