Rosie the Riveter and the Secret Plan

“We Can Do It!” morale poster by J. Howard Miller.

Take a look at Rosie the Riveter. A near myth of heroic proportions, she and her friends had to weld planes, build ships, trucks, and armaments, while millions of menfolk went off to fight in World War II. Have you ever wondered how Rosie learned to do her job so quickly? Or maybe you thought that the factories of America were just lucky enough to find several million mechanically inclined women who’d taken machine shop and mechanics in high school. Or that maybe Rosie and her friends took engineering classes at their local colleges in between laundry, cleaning house, and baking cookies for church bake sales. Probably not. So were Rosie and her chums -our grandmothers and great grandmothers-smarter and learned faster than we do? Possibly but most people don’t know that Rosie benefited from a structured method that was scientifically proven to teach complex material in a much faster way -this method has practically become a secret today as so few know about it. Imagine how this could improve your life and your business, or maybe you just want to sew better and faster with less waste. But let’s back up a bit.

A “Rosie” working on the A-31 Vengeance bomber in Nashville, Tennessee (1943). Photo by Alfred T. Palmer. United States Library of Congress

According to a recent study conducted by Alvanon, 90% of apparel industry managers say that new hires aren’t sufficiently prepared with needed skills in product development and technical design. McKinsey’s report, Is Apparel Manufacturing Coming Home? says much the same with an imperative that [presumably large] apparel producers must adopt rapidly produced smaller batches if they’re to survive.

I’m not feeling smug or vindicated even though I’ve been saying this for the past 15 years; I’m distressed that the situation continues to deteriorate. Since that’s a dark hole I don’t want to climb into let’s consider proposed solutions. There are three main tacks; one is a call for redirecting apparel programs in colleges and universities but blaming educators, however indirectly, isn’t helpful as the crisis in education is systemic and not something that any one educator can solve no matter how inspired and dedicated. The second is for businesses like Alvanon and McKinsey (and admittedly mine too) to provide fee based training and consultation to cover the shortfall. A third suggestion is for industry employers to pick up more of the load – but few companies have the ability to assess skills in any meaningful way (only 16% have) much less have the technical knowledge, infrastructure and budgets to plan and implement a solution.

Women working on a bomber, Douglas Aircraft, Long Beach, CA (1942) Photo by Alfred T. Palmer. United States Library of Congress

Most of the former isn’t going to help small companies with limited resources -but maybe, just maybe- one solution for some of us is the same secret program that solved America’s problem in WWII. And that was? Rosie got TWI, aka Training Within Industry (I’ve written about this before but key links are here, here and here). So maybe you wonder why this program, TWI, is a secret now when it was so successful? And successful it was; in spite of having to hire a completely new staff of unskilled women workers, over 86% of factories increased production by at least 25%, 100% reduced training by 25% or more; 55% reduced waste, yadda yadda yadda. It became a secret for a very simple reason. Simply put, TWI was used to develop a war time workforce but once the war was over and men reclaimed their factory jobs, they went back to how they’d been doing things. Since women left those jobs, there was no glue, no institutional knowledge to pass along to the fellows when they came back. So, TWI disintegrated, dispersed only in the minds of millions of women with no means of making connection to keep the program alive.

We need to reclaim TWI. TWI was ours. It can be ours again.

ABQFI Fall 2018 Coat Making Volunteers.

And that’s what we’re doing, at least the start of it. By “we” I mean me and the volunteers of ABQFI, The Albuquerque Fashion Incubator; a not for profit charity that trains apparel workers and entrepreneurs in my factory. We do this during our Apparel Manufacturing Boot Camps. Twice a year, our charity with the help of volunteers, cuts and sews products that we donate to other charities. Using TWI concepts has always been a part of our DNA but this March, we’re kicking that up a whole other level. We’re doing a crash course on TWI during the event, implementing as many of its practices as testing in Pre-Production shows we can. Only then can we begin to practice Lean Manufacturing -single piece flow. Sure this is ambitious but I think we can do it as we’ve we been phenomenally successful at training people in industrial sewing, even those who’d never sewn before. But I’m getting ahead of myself; because we have to train ourselves first, our next project must be a simpler product to manufacture so that we can focus on developing and implementing the TWI program. Previously we’ve made complex products like warm lined winter coats for kids; school pants, and comparatively complex dresses for senior citizens but this Spring we’ll make a product used in animal rescue. It has to be a simpler product than before or we couldn’t possibly manage the project. If you’re curious about what an event is like and want to see a baseline of how we do it now, see us in action with this video produced by from documentary film maker, Ramona Emerson.

L:R Carla, Celina, My Phuong, Catherine. 2nd row: Amy, Hannah, Rhonda, Claudia, Trista.  The ABQFI F2018 Pre-production coat sewing team

This is an equal opportunity event; you can participate too. And as to what’s in it for you; with TWI you can learn to sew better and faster. You can produce in a more organized, and more disciplined way. TWI means less waste with lower costs. Icing on the cake is that you’ll get lots of practice and direction while you’re sewing a product that will be donated to another needy charity. And your fee (necessary to purchase materials and cover event expenses) is also a tax deduction but the training itself? That’s free. Just like Rosie’s was. The long and short of it is that if you want to learn something that will be life and career changing, join us. Spring registration is open but it closes next Sunday, October 29, 2018. I should mention it is a very popular event but you still have a shot because we hold a lottery (October 30, 2018). Before the lottery, all 25 slots were filled inside of an hour. And in case you didn’t catch this, we train, no experience required.

I hope to see you there!

PS. Since my posting on this site has all but evaporated, some people mistakenly think I’ve retired or scaled back. The truth is that I have less time to write because I more responsibilities in managing the factory and keeping my customers happy. And then when I do have time, I worry more than I should about what people will say because I feel I’ve let them down by failing to post regularly. But I’m still here, I still care. I’m open for business, working 12 hour days providing manufacturing (no minimums) and pattern engineering services. I’m continually pleased with interesting projects and ideas that new customers bring to me. And I’m hiring too, just call me.

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  1. Jaimee says:

    I’m one of the faces in the large group picture (Fall 2018). This program is the real deal. No where else are you going to learn production management on a real factory floor from start of design to end of the finished product in such a short time.

    All the while, the main goal remains the quality product you are making for needy people/animals. However. An added treasure of this experience is that you take away real, practical knowledge that you can implement into your own program immediately. Our company has saved countless money and headaches by learning several processes I hadn’t even known about before going to Bootcamp.

    Cheers to Kathleen and Eric for opening up their factory and sharing this wealth of instruction, machinery, and skills.

  2. Kristin says:

    Oh Kathleen I SO enjoy your posts. I am in no wise involved in the industry, just a home sewer. One comment on ” -our grandmothers and great grandmothers-smarter and learned faster than we do?”
    They were- at least according to my own grandmother, who was in her 20s during WWII era. She told me that in her day, a woman was expected to be able to sew (not just ‘sew’, but actually make garments from scratch, darn, knit, crochet, embroider) those things we learn today as hobbies were de rigeur for even a teenage girl then. A woman was also expected to have at least SOME college, hopefully a degree, and of course she must know how to cook. I am finding today fewer and fewer women have just one of these skills, or even a degree. Now, you take a woman in her 20s in the 1940s, who’s had some college, and remember our schools required a great deal more from the students then than now, and I do believe women in 1940s took to learning mechanical skills a lot easier then. I do believe that is a major reason why- but I also very much agree with your reason for the actual post and that is the Training Within Industry. I think a trip to the or searching for some old wartime instructional manuals is in order to find what methods were used, this could prove quite valuable instructional material, don’t you?

    Thank you Ms Fasanella! I find all your stuff very Fasanella-ating! < terrible pun I know :(

    • Avatar photo

      Oh you caught me, catering to my audience. You do know that some people these days think that any of us over the age of 40 are abject morons; particularly with tech. Just who do they think invented all of this stuff?

      Idly, I wonder if there was (culturally) an undercurrent of backlash against women with technical skills post war; must have been threatening for the girlies to do all that man-stuff.

      I do agree we’d done more then but then we had to.

      In some parts, there is discussion that younger people may have more computing power than we do because their environment was less polluted with lead than ours. Something to think about, eh?

  3. Gina Nelson says:

    I would love this, I wanted to produce my stuff here but saw how much China could do and gave up, I still one-offs for people and repair garments but realized I didn’t have all that it would take to train and get staff if I needed it.

  4. Margaret Crawford says:

    Kathleen, I ha e read your blog with great interest.
    I live in North Easy Ohio and am a member of the American Sewing Guild.
    I tell you this because I have had an idea brewing in my mind about presenting to the high schoolers, and any others in our area that are interested in the apparel/textile/fashion industry, a program to make them aware of other opportunities in this industry beside drawing a pretty design or sewing a beautiful garment. What I just read presents that in an interesting and and enlightening way.
    Do you or would this be something I could talk to you about,maybe speaking to a group sharing your knowledge?

    • Avatar photo

      I’m always game, maybe you can inspire people. We’ve been short handed for quite some time as most young people don’t envision themselves doing this sort of work. They only like the drawing pretty pictures part.

  5. Becky Larner says:

    I was just thinking about you the other day and wondering what you were up to. Happy to read your post and know that you’re still making a huge difference in the world!

  6. Hi Kathleen,
    Don’t feel guilty about not posting frequently – we’re lucky when you do get a chance to post as your insights are always incredibly helpful. One of these days I need to get out to New Mexico, but I’m in the same position as you: busy running a growing company. We make totally customizable clothes for women using a proprietary fit system (not standard sizes).
    Good luck with everything!

  7. Linda Rees says:

    I’m happy to see you are still blogging when you get time. I am a home sewer, primarily dressmaking for myself and my family. However, I love reading your blog and find it fascinating. I read your tutorials, too, they are very helpful. Thank you, Kathleen, for taking the time to blog when you are able.

  8. Sewist says:

    Glad to hear from you, Kathleen! Missed the opportunity though, but hope I’ll be able to join you next year. You’re a wonderful team, girls.

  9. M.H. says:

    Thanks for your posts. I bought the book and have been studying it and the blog and have been learning a tremendous amount.
    We all appreciate your efforts, no need to feel bad about your time away.

  10. Brooke Haubenstricker says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for taking the time to make this blog. I recently decided to delve deeper into sewing and you have the most informative articles by far, and I love hearing what you have to say about the manufacturing side of this industry. (And your writing style is awesome.) I’m hoping to join your forum within the next year and come to one of your camps as soon as possible!

  11. Patricia O says:

    You know, I’m from the UK and despite being over 60, never mind 40, and I didn’t really know who “Rosie the Riveter” was though I had seen the character referenced – I think on a Folkwear pattern though I didn’t make said pattern, just saw it on a website. I just make stuff for myself and haven’t been all that productive this last 12 months (just small items). But it’s great that young people are getting a chance to learn various aspects of this industry. I don’t know about the USA but in the UK a lot of stuff is imported (including ready made wear). I have to be honest though – the sewing lessons I had at school weren’t really all that helpful – aprons and sew up the side skirts with an elastic waist, that sort of thing. I learned more from using easier patterns for the home dressmaker (there’s one brand always suited me reasonably well straight out of the envelope) and some advice from Mum but I went to a dressmaking evening class for a year in my early 20s and I learned at least reasonable basics there though as I say I am definitely not a professional and only make for myself.

  12. Halley Gruber says:

    I just discovered this page today, through an interview you did 3 years ago. I am so impressed with all the work you do, and sharing your knowledge with us. It is absolutely extraordinary.

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