Outdoor Research, a Seattle-based maker of tactical and outdoor gear, is opening a new production center in California to find workers with a skill that’s declining in Seattle: sewing.
Since the company established its first factory in Seattle in the early ’80s, its seam-sealed tactical gloves, which are meticulously stitched to lock out water and minimize bulk around the hand, have become something of a flagship product sold to the military and through outdoor equipment retailers like REI.
Producing those gloves requires a sharp eye and deft hand, and automation was not an option.
“Wearing a pair of gloves, if you’re off by two millimeters, you’re going to notice it. Especially if you’re in the military,” said Jason Duncan, who runs the tactical and innovation department for Outdoor Research.
As more and more local apparel companies moved production outside of Seattle – and often out of the U.S. entirely — Outdoor Research has struggled to find highly skilled sewers.
“In Seattle, there used to be a fairly strong sewing community and a lot of those workers either left or retired,” Duncan said.
Searching abroad for skill was not on the table. To continue working with the military, Outdoor Research needs to follow the Berry Amendment and produce its goods in the U.S. So the company settled on El Monte, Calif., a small city just east of Los Angeles, where it essentially reproduced its 105-employee Seattle facility (which will remain open).
Feng He has noticed the shrinking of the talent pool in her 23 years at the company. She started working part-time at Outdoor Research when her family moved to Washington from China. Her aunt expertly stitched together the gloves while He packaged the product.
“She’s much better than me,” He said. “I don’t know how to sew very well.”
He calls it a generational problem. She graduated with a business degree in 2004 and went from packaging clothing to running the floor. Most of the sewing staff at Outdoor Research were first-generation immigrants, like her aunt, who had sewing jobs at factories back home. Now, they’re ready to retire.
“Their kids are all college graduates, they’re doctors, they’re lawyers,” He said. “They don’t join the industry.”
El Monte is less expensive. Its median household income of about $44,000 is less than half of Seattle’s. But there’s more to it: El Monte was once home to a bustling garment industry that was sometimes coupled with bleak working conditions. Over the years, companies have abandoned plants to move production overseas “at a lower cost,” said Ken Rausch, CEO of the El Monte Chamber of Commerce.
Now, said Rausch, the garment industry is growing again in El Monte, and there’s a higher demand for advanced sewing skills that the community already has.
For products other than gloves, Outdoor Research has tried to automate its process as much as possible in Seattle, using machines that can automatically stitch according to internal software, with some human guidance. But the gloves, the crown jewel of the company, still rely on the human hand.
“It is expensive and it’s very stressful,” said Duncan. “But we specialize in this area.”