By: Terry Simpson
“Still made in the USA – and that’s the way it will always be for Stitches,” owner Donnie Peden proclaimed.
Sewing factories, which were once prominent in Monroe County, have reduced to one after the passing of The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). This trade agreement, which eliminated trade barriers with Mexico and Canada allowing many American companies to utilize the cheaper labor offered outside the United States, passed in 1994.
This caused many factories to close and Stitches Inc. wasn’t immune as they also downsized, while approximately 99% of companies moved out of the United States or went out of business.
While NAFTA allowed companies to increase their bottom lines, many of the executives noted you would have twice as much in labor costs if they stayed in the US.
Adding in the cost of material, thread, buttons and shipping, companies noted they could barely put out a pair of jeans at discount store prices.
“I had a friend who explained it to me like this,” Stitches owner Peden said. “Three pair of jeans can be made in Mexico for what it cost to make one pair here. So you can sell the first pair at the cost of one pair, mark the second pair down 80% and burn the third pair if you want. You still made a profit.”
This is when stores became “crammed full” of product and started offering to buy one get one free sale, Peden explained.
At that time, he added, people started buying more and more of what they didn’t necessarily need at a lower quality and cheaper price versus one or two products of a high quality, more expensive item labeled “Made in the USA.”
Up until that time Stitches Inc., owned by Alfred Turner and Donnie Peden, was a rapidly growing business with two locations.
The business started in 1977 by brothers-in-law Milton Boyles and Alfred Turner, with their combined years and experience in the apparel business making a great combination for their venture.
With Boyles and Turner’s retirements, Peden became the primary manager, always going back to them for advice and approval. Peden, Boyles’ son and Turner’s nephew, became a partner after Boyles’s death in 2011.
Stitches Inc., originally opened in the old National Store in Gamaliel. A separate cutting department was located in Fountain Run.
In the mid-1980s Stitches moved to the current location, a building on Holland Street, donated by the Gamaliel Industry Foundation, boasting 7,800 sq. feet, with room for 75 employees.
In 1981, a second location was opened in Red Boiling Springs, Tenn., adding an additional 100 jobs.
Business was “booming” in the 70s and 80s with the debut of the designer jean craze, with noted brands such as Calvin Klein, Jordache and Bon Jour. It was the perfect time to be in the sewing business and Stitches was growing right along with it.
Designer jeans were an overnight success with hundreds of brands being released.
Stitches became very successful as the stone-washing and acid-washing effects became popular. They were able to expand their laundry facilities and maximize profits by utilizing the techniques of the new fashion trend, soaking pumice stones with chlorine and tumbling them with the pants, resulting in jeans with high contrast fades.
It was during this time that Stitches reached its peak of 300 employees and two operating shifts.
Unfortunately, that growth halted with the passing of NAFTA. At that time Stitches Inc., downsized to one building, approximately 45 employees and one operating shift.
Peden looks back on that time and said, “We had people that had been with us for 15 years, since we began, who lost their jobs.”
He shook his head, continuing, “We had to stop the bleeding as soon as possible. We closed the other buildings and consolidated into one.”
“It was a sad time,” he continued, “Things were different when my parents started the business. Back then — those were the Good Old Days.”
Stepping into his office full of memories including old newspaper articles and a hand-pieced quilt made of irregular jeans, Peden looks at years of hard work. Two pairs of blue jeans-denim pants, pressed and creased, looking like new, hang for display as if they were just purchased today.
Picking up the quilt he explains, “I just got a crazy notion and decided to make this one day. I enjoy it and have made a couple of them. And the jeans,” he says as he passes over a pair of Calvin Klein’s, “That’s how we made things back then.”
He continues, shaking his head and laughing, “It is a hard notion to get your head around these days, they want all these holes in jeans — for a conservative guy like me, it is hard to tear holes in new garments that you just spent so much time perfecting.”
In earlier days, jeans were pressed and creased before shipping, but as the fads come and go, Stitches keeps up with the times, and as hard as it is for Peden, they now go out unpressed.
The self- proclaimed hometown boy has chosen not to follow the new ways too closely as he has been offered many times to move his business to another country or to even go for brief stays of training in other areas
He prefers what he calls “his little town of Gamaliel,” his rural America and working close to home, where he can name every employee — either by name or a nickname for the newer workers — and say pretty accurately how many years they have been with the company.
Peden himself has been with the company from the first day, 42 years and counting and says that he has five to seven employees who can say the same.
He grew up in the sewing factory, becoming the manufacturing manager in the mid-1980s after completing a program at the Bowling Green Vocational Center.
He reminisces of working in the factory after school, on weekends and often late into the night, “Everyone chipped in back then. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. It is all I know.”
His parents both worked at the factory, with his mom eventually retiring and going to beauty school and his grandmother — the late Ova Turner — working up to week before she passed away at the age of 93.
“That is something my dad and uncle had going for them,” says Peden, continuing, “There were a lot of contractors and people wanting jobs back then, some lining up the day after their graduation from high school. It is the opposite now.”
Those jobs, still offered at Stitches as needed, are advertised through Facebook blasts, which usually draw 10-12 people with one of 20 staying for a year. They do not have a lot of strict requirements but a high school diploma or a General Education Diploma (GED) is preferred.
Peden shared his opinion, “I just think people are cheating themselves if they don’t have that diploma or GED, but if they are willing to work 40 hours a week and have reliable transportation, we are willing to train them.”
The training, Peden noted, is assembly line manufacturing with different jobs and varying levels of difficulty. “Sometimes, we will put someone on a job and if it does not suit them, then we will move them to another. We also have people working here who are in the process of obtaining their GED and we fully support them.”
Donnie Peden continues speaking of the older days, saying, “We are in a conservative area and back then, men farmed and women were housewives. They sewed for their families so it was only the next logical step to work in a sewing factory.”
“To my knowledge, there has never been a fully automated pair of pants. It is all manual, an art form really.”
Not that men can’t do sewing jobs, Peden added, they just usually prefer and are given the more strenuous jobs, such as maintenance, repairs and bundle movers. However, he does note that it is the opposite in Mexico with the men having most of the sewing jobs.
While a lot of similar factories moved to Mexico and left their communities, Stitches has stayed right here in the USA, finding contracts through companies who hold the same beliefs, products made in the USA for Americans by Americans.
Stitches is a contract company, not making their own brands, but bidding costs to make a product. They are supplied material, thread, buttons and any other needed items, with their current contract, Tyndale, putting out an entirely 100% USA made product.
Tyndale is a company which did not start as a garment company, but understood people would demand a made in the USA product and made the smart choice to start their business producing fire retardant uniforms, Peden said. The retardant material can spark a flame but will not continue to burn once the flame is removed. Another similar garment is made for a company called Steel Grip.
These materials became necessary as the government mandated electricians, steel and oil refinery workers wear these uniforms as a safety practice after several deaths occurred.
Stitches manufactures these 95% fire retardant material bottoms in denim, khaki and a green scrub-like color and ships them mostly to Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Texas.
Peden states that the Stitches factory is just a speck in the fire retardant material industry, but it is enough to keep them going and he is proud to have won the bid for this contract. He steps onto the factory floor to explain a little bit of how the requirements of that contract are met.
Multiple rolls of fabric are the first thing you see as you step into the room. Adjacent to them, a table is lined with bundles of pant legs, front pockets, back pockets and other pieces of what will be a finished product of fire retardant pants.
Each bundle has a number and each pair of pants in that bundle is numbered. For instance, a bundle may have 42 pairs of pants in it with each piece numbered one of 42, two of 42 and so forth. When it is time to start sewing the pieces together to make one pair of pants, each number will correlate with that pair.
Numbers are used frequently throughout the process, and this ensures that all of the pieces in the finished product match in color and design, which is very important because multiple rolls of fabric are used.
These bundle tickets tell the size of the pants, the cut number and the purchase order, which tracks where the pants are in the process at all times.
Product samples are arranged on a rack for employees to compare the product they are working on to the required standards. This visual helps with quality control, efficiency and productivity, Peden said.
While the factory does not have a production quota, the customers require a promised amount in the bid, so Peden schedules a goal of 3,000 units a week or 600 units per day on this particular contract.
Peden is proud of the pace of the workers, who he says are each a piece of the puzzle, but points out a quota is not required.
However, Lisa Woods, a 30-year employee, mesmerizes anyone watching as she quickly and efficiently places belt loops on to the pants, saying, “I work for what I get. I don’t want you giving me nothing.”
“She’s from the old school, where she believes in an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay,” Peden said.
Woods works on one of several machines in the factory both new and used, some over 60 years old and some state of the art.
One of the newer pieces of equipment is what Peden refers to as “the coolest thing we have.”
It is used to sew on back pockets by simply placing the material on a template and pushing two buttons. Peden noted that in the ‘80s this job took five people to do it manually.
Another piece from the mid-80s still being used, is the pattern maker, a large printer.
Before this printer was purchased patterns were drawn out on cardboard by hand. Now when a customer places an order, the pattern is e-mailed to the pattern maker.
The machine uses computer programs to draw out the pattern, utilizing every piece of fabric and eliminating waste.
Some of the machines can be operated by almost anyone at the push of a button, and some are more difficult skilled sewing jobs as Peden notes, “Automation is good for some things but many jobs are better performed manually. I can train almost anyone in one day to work at any of the machines.”
This process has worked very well over the last 40 years he noted, “We have made a few subtle changes over the years, but no rocket science changes. We figured out what works a long time ago and we are sticking to that.”
That logic passed down through the generations of his family has worked for those 42 years.
Those lasting ideas, integrity, ethic and self-proclaimed conservatism has led to a small-town company that stood its ground and is still standing, while those around it crumbled.
Stitches Inc., can truly say their product is made in the USA, by Americans, right here in Monroe County.
“We’re American-made and American-proud,” Peden said.