Mike St. Pierre, the founder and CEO of Hyperlite Mountain Gear, has a problem. He can’t find enough skilled sewers near his Biddeford, Maine, facility to stitch all his ultralight tents, bags, and stuff sacks. This despite running ads in local papers, regional papers, and on the web. “I’m trying to hire five people right now, and as soon as they’re hired, I’m going to immediately need five more,” he says.
Growing has been hard for a lot of outdoor companies, not just Hyperlite, because skilled labor is hard to find in the U.S. Many American manufacturing jobs have moved overseas—750,000 apparel-related jobs between 1990 and 2011—and along with them went the skills. Take Arc’teryx, the outerwear behemoth. The brand puts a premium on building high-quality gear in North America (Vancouver in its case). In their large facility where all their top-end gear is made—everything from the Alpha SV jackets to the harnesses to their military apparel—the floor is filled with skilled immigrants from countries like China, who learned to sew back home then came here.
Smaller brands face similar pressures but are coping in different ways. Voormi, based in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, started with one skilled sewer in its local Pagosa shop and has since gone on to train four more sewers, and plans to onboard several more before the end of the year. Dustin English, the brand’s director of product integrity, says the company, which makes technical wool garments, has recruited people who either sewed at home or learned to sew in organizations like 4-H, a national youth development program, and then taught them to sew their much-sought-after skiing, fishing, and hiking kit.
Voormi also sends some of its production to The Whole Works, a small clothing manufacturer in Rifle, Colorado, and has encouraged communities around Colorado to form their own small cut and sew operations so the brand can send them work. “We really want to ramp up these micro factories as a way increase the capacity of rural communities,” English says. “We also really believe in the philosophy that a bunch of 10-person factories can compete with any large factory out there.”
As for Hyperlite, St. Pierre has formed an informal training school. Right now he has 26 sewers and the veterans in the group train the newbies. It’s key for each sewer to get the proper training because his products are made from technical, expensive materials. “We need to bring manufacturing back to America,” he says. “Manufacturing is what made this country great. We were able to build shit. We were able to build anything we wanted as a country,” says St. Pierre.