A government-supported Garfield County sewing factory is hoping to ride Aspen’s animus toward plastic grocery bags into a program that gets people off of public assistance while trying to take back American industry.
GarCo Sewing Works opened its doors this spring in a former parole office in Rifle. With six industrial sewing machines and a random smattering of donated fabric, about a dozen people, most involved with Colorado Mountain College’s “Link to Success” program, are about one-third of the way through their first order of 6,000 reusable grocery bags destined for Aspen and Carbondale.
“We could be doing a whole lot of bags for a long time,” said Beth Shaw, director of GarCo Sewing Works and dean of business and industry at CMC, while motioning to a room full of fabric.
The materials that are being reused come from sources as diverse as an auto upholstery plant; outdoor gear labels like The North Face and Big Agnes; and local hospitals, which are making weekly donations of the blue matting that surgical instruments are sterilized on prior to use.
Labor costs are minimal, estimated at under $3,000 a month, in a business plan that helped secure a $47,000 grant from the Garfield County commissioners, which paid for the equipment and a year’s rent in the Henry Building in Rifle. The organization also has a $25,000 grant from the Colorado Women’s Foundation. The targeted per-bag margin using donated or inexpensive fabric is $1 or $2, according to the proposal.
“[GarCo Sewing Works] will keep costs down by employing and training individuals who are on public assistance and who must volunteer time to learn a skill or attend school,” according to the business plan.
The idea, according to Shaw, a business process expert, is to create a laboratory to foster every step of the entrepreneurial process. At the beginning, participants are taught the basics of sewing, but already one of the girls is training to become the shop’s accountant, which would be a paid post, Shaw said. As the business grows, it will provide opportunities to learn the ins and outs of sales, design, marketing, grant writing, materials sourcing, human resources and distribution.
Shaw noted that a county commissioner told her if two people in the program get off Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and enter the workforce, then the taxpayer support would pay for itself.
Right place, right time
The program’s genesis took place at a Glenwood Springs chamber of commerce women’s networking meeting about a year ago, where Shaw got to talking with Doreen Herriott.
Fifteen years ago, Herriott arrived in Colorado with nothing but her kids and $50,000 in divorce debt, she said. She previously had a 15-year career in the downtown Los Angeles garment industry, but was in “a terrible spot.” Herriott found a new life and career as a financial advisor in the Roaring Fork Valley, which she maintains today. Her children went through the Carbondale school system and are now grown.
Herriott, with her knowledge of the garment industry, figured a manufacturing plant along Interstate 70 could be good for the community — and in demand as well. Larger sewing shops on the Front Range and in Mesa County are maxed out, she said.
“This valley is hurting for jobs,” she added.
Right around the same time, city councils in Aspen, Basalt and Carbondale were talking about banning plastic bags at the grocery store. (Basalt residents voted down the ordinance, while the electorate in Carbondale upheld the ban. It was not challenged in Aspen.) Shaw, Herriott and Jill Ziemann, director of Go2Work at CMC, which runs the Link to Success classes in conjunction with county social services, formed a partnership and got in touch with the Community Office for Resource Efficiency in Aspen, which was pushing for the bag ban.
One criticism of the bag ban was that it would increase reliance on reusable totes manufactured overseas, and CORE was looking for a locally produced option. The partnership seemed like a good fit, said Jason Haber, CORE’s energy programs manager.
By the winter, Lindsay Gurley, a CORE staffer, got to work seeking out fabrics that industrial manufacturers were willing to give away for free or for a minimal price.
“It was surprising to some degree how responsive [the manufacturers] were,” Haber said. “All this stuff is industrial scrap material that would otherwise go to the landfill, and it’s being recycled or reused. ... It’s a positive message.”
Haber noted that a funding source is there, as the bag ban laws in Aspen and Carbondale, which took effect May 1, allow shoppers to purchase paper bags at the checkout for 20 cents, which goes into a fund that can be used for “waste reduction.” In this case, the waste reduction fund will pay CORE back for the initial bag buy.
CORE is paying GarCo Sewing Works around $2 per bag, Haber said, and is then distributing the bags to town halls in Aspen and Carbondale. He said CORE’s long-term relationship with the program is “to be determined,” depending on what local demand is still there six months or a year from today for more reusable bags.
Shaw noted that GarCo Sewing Works is monitoring other communities that are considering bag bans, and is actively reaching out to those places to generate more potential orders.
Herriott likened the program to an internship for the participants, mostly mothers who are struggling financially and on TANF. They spend two days a week in classes where they polish resumes and job-acquiring skills, and work on their educations. Most girls average three days a week in the shop, Herriott said.
Teresa Jess said she once did some sewing in middle school, but not since. She moved to the area in November from Arizona, seeking a better life for herself and her 2-year-old daughter. The experience through the CMC program and the sewing works has been positive, she said.
“I love it here, I really do,” Jess said. “People here are nice and extremely helpful.”
Jess is in the process of applying for jobs. She said she eventually wants to get involved in social work and “help people the way I’ve been helped.”
Another program participant, Angelica Hendricks, arrived in Rifle in 2004, having gotten away from an abusive husband in California, she said.
She also emphasized the support she has received from the program.
“People are willing to help you — they’re not turning their backs and they aren’t judging you,” she said.
Others emphasized that the program is work. Crafting various types of material that arrives in many different forms into grocery bags is a multistep, labor-intensive process.
Herriott said she can relate to most of the girls.
“I can show by example that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “I tell them that if they’re in a bad situation, that your life is not defined by that — it’s how you move on.”
Organizers see the current iteration of GarCo Sewing Works as phase one. Phase two would be a full-on industrial sewing factory that works with all manner of product designers to manufacture their goods — a place that provides full-time jobs with daycare and benefits, Herriott said. For some of the girls, the next step is beginning this week as Herriott begins teaching pattern making, which is the basis of fashion design.
As word has spread about the operation, everyone from Haber at CORE to the organizers have been fielding calls from near and far from people who would rather manufacture their goods in the United States. But given the early stages the program is in, it is currently focused on getting the first order of bags completed before taking on new tasks.
One potential advantage the outfit has is its small size; theoretically it would be willing to take on smaller orders of sample products from someone with a new idea, whereas bigger, more established sewing factories won’t take orders under many thousands of units.
“China and Mexico will always be cheaper,” Herriott said. “But here you have control over the quality, you can watch it being made. ... We used to turn around a garment order in two to three weeks [in L.A.] — 1,000 pieces out the door. It can happen here too.”
Chris Council contributed to the reporting for this story.