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Makers’ mark

End product manufacturers bring ideas to life.

Markets | March 1, 2023 | By: Tim Goral

At the 2021 IFAI Expo in Nashville, a team of sewers from Bearse USA provided live sewing demonstrations, making 50 red backpacks from start to finish. The backpacks were donated to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Middle Tennessee. Photo: © Mark Skalny Photography

Whether it be automation, dealing with workforce issues or managing supply chain difficulties, fabricators large and small continue to face a number of challenges.

With all of those matters (and more) in mind, the Advanced Textiles Association and its fabricator members work to build a network to exchange information, solve common problems and develop mutually beneficial relationships to empower those who are making the products and delivering the services their customers rely on. 

Solving problems

Jennifer Fennell, director of supply chain at Polo Custom Products, based in Monticello, Iowa, says makers play an important role in bringing an idea to life. The company provides innovative custom industrial sewing services, film and fabric welding, forming, supply chain management and more.

“We have some customers who come to us with a full, ready-to-go package and say, ‘This is what you have to make.’ Other times we’ll have a customer come with just a concept, or they will ask us to redesign an outdated product,” Fennell says. “We’ll go back-and-forth between our designers and their team for about two months, tweaking, building a sample, sending it out, producing sometimes six different iterations until we finally land on a design that their marketing and engineering and buying teams are all happy with.” 

Tom Auer, president of Bearse USA, in Chicago, Ill., says experienced fabricators help customers save money in the long run. “Most customers don’t know manufacturing or sewing very well, so they might go to a local shop down the street to make a prototype that they can show to a company like ours,” he says. “But that prototype maker probably doesn’t have the same level of sewing hours that we as a company have and doesn’t understand higher volume production. You can make one item as a prototype but making 1,000 the same way doesn’t always work.”

The company will suggest several options that won’t affect the functionality or quality of the product but will allow Bearse to make it faster. “Ultimately we’re selling time,” Auer says. “When we’re quoting a customer, we’re actually doing it as a time study—how long it will take us to build that product. Less time means lower cost.”

Every maker’s goal is to work efficiently. Lower cost is the ideal situation for both the customer and the fabricator but getting to that goal can be a challenge. Oftentimes the customer has not designed the product according to their desired budget, which leads to what Brian Rowinski, vice president of the Seattle, Wash.-based Rainier Industries calls “value engineering.” 

“We will look at what they’re trying to accomplish, and maybe recommend manufacturing changes, such as how we’re laying out materials, what cut files we’ll need to do, the sewing processes and finishes involved. A lot of times they want the gold star material, but they’ve got a budget for the polyethylene tarp.”

In those cases, the maker’s knowledge of fabrics and processes can help get the customer back to the real world.

“We have some experience in knowing how different fabrics stand up for durability,” he says. “We know the different types of fabrics that can be put through that kind of wear and tear over the long term.”

Persistent problems

Like every other business, makers were affected by the pandemic. “We have observed just incredible price increases,” notes Fennell. “For example, in the last 12 months natural gas has increased almost 400%. Almost every facility uses natural gas for heating and so on. What we’re seeing is that some facilities just can’t absorb the cost and can’t pass it on to the customer who won’t tolerate it, so they’re just shutting down, which constrains the supply even further. It’s a domino effect that
I think we’re just now starting to get our arms wrapped around.”

It’s a balancing act, she says, because the company doesn’t want to bring in too much inventory, but they don’t want to run out either.

Supply chain issues have hit the makers hard and getting the raw materials to produce a product is an ongoing problem. “The supply chain is definitely an obstacle for us,” says Rowinski. “At the beginning of the pandemic we had problems getting aluminum and then the following year it turned into fabric supply shortages.” And it’s not just fabric: “Simple things like grommets are still in such short supply that I have projects I’m sitting on right now that I can’t deliver because I don’t have the grommets to complete them in a timely manner,” he notes.

“In the makers world, it doesn’t matter if we’re missing a 10-cent snap, a 50-cent zipper, or a $10 piece of fabric, we can only build and ship when we have everything on our bill of material,” agrees Auer. “It’s still a problem, but much less than it was several months ago. We don’t make simple products; we make fairly involved complex packs and cases and the bill of materials might be 30 to 40 different items. In many instances, especially with the military products, you can’t deviate from the bill of materials. There are still some companies that are weeks and months behind on things that we used to be able to get in two or three weeks.”


An ongoing post-pandemic problem is a shortage of skilled workers—not only training them but keeping them. 

“Here in the U.S., we have a challenge to keep growing the workforce and making sure that there are enough sewers out there to fill demand,” says Auer. “We need more sewing companies in the U.S. not fewer. I’m not afraid of competitors out there. I’m more concerned with not having enough U.S. competitors so people will be forced to say, ‘Let’s not make this domestically, let’s look offshore to Central America or China.’”

ATA has been working to ease that situation by posting videos and other materials to the ATA website. At,  there is a broad library of training videos and webinars offered that are geared specifically toward the textile industry that you won’t find elsewhere. 

Visitors will find instructional how-to videos that cover a variety of topics in different manufacturing areas, including sewing, cutting and slitting, printing, grommet setting, hand tools, fabric information, pattern design and more. 

“We recognize the best investment we can make is in our people,” says Polo’s Fennell. “They are truly our biggest selling point, so we worked with [ATA] to produce some training videos that you can find on the website.”

The videos help lower the cost of training for smaller association members that don’t necessarily have the resources to send an employee for off-site training.

Fennel says that the ATA’s recent rebranding has opened the door to expanding opportunities. “I think the perception of ATA historically was to support the textile makers and the yarn makers, not the end-product manufacturers. But that’s changing.”

Collaboration and networking are key ingredients of the association, says Rowinski.

“We don’t shy away from our peers, we embrace them, even if they are competitors within our specialty area. That’s an immeasurable value, and I’m a big believer in it.” 

Tim Goral is the former senior editor of Specialty Fabrics Review.

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