Since pandemic-related effects reduced the sewing workforce that Mike Kallas leads from 20 employees to fewer than 10, he has been earnestly seeking new sewers for his team. But you might not know it based on the job listings he posts—not if you’re new to the industrial fabrics industry, that is.
“Whether I’m writing a job posting or talking to someone who’s not in the industry, I’m careful to use the phrase ‘machine operator’ instead of ‘sewer’ to attract the attention of people who lack sewing experience but have the right fabrication skills,” Kallas says. “I once heard someone refer to sewing as thread injecting, so I often use that phrase as well. Switching up the verbiage has helped us pique more interest.”
Old skills, new trade
Finding and keeping sewing talent has long been a challenge across the industry. And it’s become increasingly difficult at Roeming Industries, the Mequon, Wis.-based industrial solutions manufacturer where Kallas manages the sewing department. “Too often, sewing is written off as a career choice because most people don’t understand what it entails,” Kallas says.
Less than five years ago, he was one of those people. But when Kallas was between construction and manufacturing jobs in October 2018, his brother—warehouse supervisor at Roeming Industries—convinced him to take a chance on a material handler position at the company.
After several months of learning to sew with Kevlar® and fiberglass, Kallas was asked by Sandy Schumaker, company president, to fill in for an open sewing supervisor position. More than two years later, he’s still going strong—and loving a career and industry he never previously considered.
“Everything was new to me when I started, from the materials to the equipment. But the one thing I knew how to do was work with my hands,” Kallas says. “A lot of my progress was self-taught. I could easily apply the skills I developed from construction and building jobs. Instead of a saw, I used scissors to cut material. Instead of nails, it was a needle and thread.”
Kallas’ favorite aspect of his newfound passion is the creativity it requires—and inspires. Using new plans and processes he created, Kallas spent most of his time before the pandemic delegating work, scheduling employees and researching fabrication methods for upcoming sewing projects.
“Before I started, the approach to every sewing project was up to each operator’s discretion. Now, I give employees a work order for every job so they know exactly which steps to follow, from beginning to end. We’re so much more efficient now; it’s amazing what a little structure and organization can do.”
Kallas starts or completes the first order for every new project so he can develop a process that will produce the highest quality product in the shortest amount of time. With an established, easy-to-follow plan in place, he then cuts the material for each work order.
A work in progress
When employees left during the pandemic, Kallas took on more hands-on production work to ensure jobs were completed on time. “I help with it all–cutting, sewing, quality control and shipping,” he says.
Kallas also performs all the machine maintenance and servicing repairs. Most of the sewing equipment at Roeming Industries comprises needle feed and walking foot lockstitch machines. Operators sew on everything from cloth, plastic and leather to webbing, fiberglass and rubber. They manufacture products that range from lampshades and welding curtains to bibs and cow hobbles used by cattle farmers during calving.
Over the past couple years, Kallas and his team have started using more programmable automated machine systems. “Working with these machines has been a lot of fun and helped us implement new ways to use different patterns, webbings or straps that save us time.”
The Industrial Fabrics Association International (IFAI) has played an important role in attaining this new equipment. “Thanks to the networking opportunities available through IFAI, I’ve met people who can point me to new machines and help me learn how to service them,” Kallas says. “Whether it’s a machine or a process, I love taking a hands-on approach to fixing things; it’s just fun to make things work.”
Material shortages plaguing the industrial fabric industry are one thing Kallas is unable to fix.
“Never really knowing how long it will take to get materials for new jobs makes it nearly impossible to create an effective production plan,” Kallas says. “When discussing timelines with customers, I explain our situation to help them see how all of the unknowns and possible variations of material supply might affect our production process.”
With a shrinking team and increasing uncertainty and workloads, open communication between employees and management has become ever more critical. “To successfully handle constant change, our team has to be on the same page at all times,” Kallas says. “Our internal communication and planning have improved but it’s a constant work in progress. My team knows that if I don’t know how to fix something or provide an answer, we’re going to learn together and figure it out.”
Driven to succeed
Regardless of the problem, Kallas’ first priority is to develop solutions instead of “making it someone else’s problem,” which is why he refuses to give up on helping his trade thrive by attracting more sewing talent.
Roeming Industries offers financial incentives to employees who refer new hires. It also posts job listings at a local community college to encourage students to learn more about the industry. Kallas has found more luck with Facebook and Craigslist ads. “Some of my newest hires had no sewing experience, but are currently running machines right now and enjoying it. Witnessing and supporting their progress has been awesome.”
Kallas continues to conceptualize new ways to encourage people to join the industry. “It takes more than a written description of the job. I want to provide the opportunity for people to talk to our team and see the position in action so they can see it’s not just sitting in front of a sewing machine all day. It takes creativity, a strong work ethic and a knack for solving problems; skills that have helped me succeed and that I know would help so many others excel within the industrial fabric space as well.”
Holly Eamon is a freelance writer based in Eden Prairie, Minn.
Photography by ©Mark Skalny Photography
SIDEBAR: Project Snapshot
From scattered to systematized: Fabricating the Phantom saddle
When Tethrd, a Roeming Industries customer, presented a prototype for a new hunting saddle design, Mike Kallas saw an opportunity. “I had just started in the sewing supervisor role, so it was my first shot at creating an effective production process for a new project,” he says.
The fabrication process for previous Tethrd designs occurred all over the shop, with no organized sewing strategy. Before beginning on the new Phantom saddle design, Kallas moved the machines that would be needed for production to the company’s mezzanine.
Roeming has made more than 15,000 Phantom saddles to date. “Being an integral part of bringing Tethrd’s ideas to fruition has been incredible,” Kallas says. “We have enough orders and material to keep us busy for a long time. I’m proud of the way we worked to create an efficient procedure to meet customer standards more quickly and easily.”
Photo credit: Samantha Earl, Roeming employee
What small change has made a big difference in your team’s efficiency?
A connection I made through IFAI introduced me to Fil-Tec’s pre-wound bobbins, and we’ve been using them in our larger jobs that don’t ever seem to stop.
By taking bobbin winding completely out of the picture, our operators can work much faster by avoiding the continuous stopping and starting that winding requires.
It has also increased the amount of thread we get per bobbin. When using regular bobbins, we’re limited to how much thread we’re able to wind per bobbin. With prewounds, we have a much higher yield, which means fewer bobbin changes overall.