Saturday, May 23, 2015

Creativity Labs: Summer 2015 Service Kick-Off!

Originally posted here: Creativity Labs: Summer 2015 Service Kick-Off!

 A post by Tony Phonethibsavads, Sophia Bender, Anna Keune  

This past Friday, we hosted a hands-on exploratory workshop at Clifty Creek Elementary School’s STEM Fair in Columbus, IN. Given the drop-in and walk-by atmosphere of a fair, we wanted to offer a project that is easy to create but at the same time offers all of the circuitry learning benefits of the electronic textiles toolkit. We offered one of the many e-textiles activities documented in our colleague Leah Buechley’s book Sew Electric, the light-up bookmark, and another project we made up on the fly while preparing for the workshop, a light-up bow. However, much of the preparation was done in coordination with the Clifty Creek Elementary School teachers, who also provided materials for the workshop, including electronic components and crafting supplies.

E-textiles are electronics embedded into clothing, accessories, or other wearables. In the Creativity Labs, we like to use the LilyPad Arduino toolkit, which includes sewable LEDs, battery holders, and microcontrollers that can all be connected with conductive thread. This provides opportunities to combine both high- and low-tech, both crafting and electronics, and represents an unusual and very powerful approach to learning circuitry and programming that tends to be more inviting to girls. The Creativity Labs is always happy to share e-textile workshops with our partners!
The Clifty Creek STEM Fair was an informal after-school field day, kind of like an open house, for families and people of all ages to enjoy the pre-Memorial Day Friday. Throughout the fair, barbecue grills, face painting, and moonbounces gave the festival a true Mini Maker Faire vibe, that was sprinkled with science explorations at every corner of the schoolyard and house. The focus of the Fair was many science-themed activities, such as our e-textiles workshop.
E-sewers hard at work!
Our workshop was set up in Ms. Lucas’s 3rd-grade classroom. To create light-up bookmarks, we provided various materials to the visitors of our table. These included fabric strips, felt stickers, bows, conductive thread, sewable LEDs, sewable battery holders, and batteries. Many children gathered at various tables with their parents and embarked on highly imaginative creations, which included various patterns with stripes, hearts, and happy animals. The children were captivated by the lights sewn into the fabric, but naturally, many lacked experience with sewing and needed assistance from adults. Thus, parents were highly involved; while children focused on the imagination, decoration, and connectivity of the circuits, any parents who were present primarily helped with the stitching and knot-tying.

The classroom setup
The drop-in nature of the workshop provided many interesting facilitation challenges. For instance, our workshop was very popular and attracted more youth than the two facilitators could address at the same time. Many participants were excited by the prospect of bookmarks that lit up, so they got ahead of themselves before one of the facilitators could provide instructions on the next step, and even made some mistakes when connecting the circuits. Backtracking was necessary, but this simply led to even deeper circuitry learning. Excited about the decorative possibilities, but confronted with limited time towards the end of the day, some of the children did not finish their e-textiles projects at the table. We provided them with little take-home bags filled with samples of conductive thread, a battery and some decorative craft materials. One of the mothers said that this might be a fun evening at home finishing the project together with her children. We hope to further explore how to improve facilitation of drop-in e-textile workshops.

Given this great start to the Creativity Labs' summer service activities, we are excited about the other upcoming opportunities to interact and share our learning with the local community in and around Bloomington, IN, and, in fact, throughout the country. Here is a list of some of the events we are looking forward to:

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Announcing the DML Commons Connected Courses! Get involved!

We here at the Creativity Labs have been collaborating with folks from the DML Hub to design the DML Commons ( info below. We are excited to announce that the DML Commons are officially kicking off this week! Now is a great time to get caught up before the first units start!

DML Commons is an new open online course that is designed for graduate students, postdocs, junior scholars, and early career professors figuring out a professional pathway and/or delving into design-based research. We are hoping to unearth the kinds of stuff that graduate school does not commonly explicitly teach!

There are many ways to get involved, e.g., by joining all units, joining one unit, blogging, tweeting etc. The best way to get started would be to set up a blog and to connect it to the DML Commons >>

We are looking forward to an exciting few months ahead. We would love to have people from all across the world join the fun! Come join and invite your friends to participate too!

This coming week, the Design-Based Research strand will kick off with "Purposes/Argumentative Grammar of DBR", and the Professional Pathways will get started with live events on "How to Fund, Launch, and Collaborate on a Research Project"!

Looking forward to seeing you online! More info can be found in the press release after the break below.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Electronically-Enhanced Cosplay

Last semester, for my final project for my Introduction to Digital Arts and Humanities class, I decided to combine e-textiles, Maker technologies, and cosplay all in a single artifact. As a fan of many different media properties, cosplay--making a costume and dressing up as a character from a story--is something that I'd been interested in for a long time but that I'd never taken the plunge to actually try before. And with so much media starring characters with special powers and technologies, it makes sense to use electronics to enhance a cosplay.

If we think of the broader implications, technologically-enhanced cosplay is another possible way for technology to reach a wider audience than it normally would. We talk a lot on this blog about how women tend to feel shut out from techie fields. Well, what if female fans got a chance to add techie enhancements to their cosplays? (I would love to help run a workshop like this one day!) This would allow them to build on a preexisting deep interest in a fandom. Adding technology to that equation might help spark a lifelong interest in tech to go alongside the interest in fandom, in a way that may have a stronger long-term impact than one-time workshops typically do.

The cosplay item I decided to make was the brooch and bow of Sailor Moon. When I was a kid, the Sailor Moon anime inspired me with its tale of an ordinary teenager who, with the power of this brooch, could transform into the super-heroine Sailor Moon and save the world from evil. She was joined by several other female friends who also could transform into Sailor Scouts. It felt really empowering to watch a show in which, unlike most other superhero stories, all the heroes with the strongest powers were female.

Sailor Moon's transformation brooch
Just like Sailor Moon's brooch allows her to transform into a magical girl, cosplay allows fans to transform into their favorite characters. Here's how I accomplished my own "transformation."

To make the bow, Gail Hale from Discardia helped me to tie a red ribbon into an elaborate bow.

For the main part of the brooch, I used 3D modeling software Rhino and a 3D printer. Dr. Nicole Jacquard, a professor of Fine Arts at IU and an expert at using computer modeling and Maker technologies to enhance her art, helped me to model the brooch on Rhino.

Then she was kind enough to let me use her department's 3D printer to print the brooch in PLA plastic. A 3D printer extrudes layers of plastic to form a 3-dimensional shape that has been modeled on a computer. This was my first time using a 3D printer, even though it's the quintessential Maker technology. It was very exciting!

This particular shape required a support structure in order to print properly.

Here's what the brooch looked like once I broke off and filed down the supports.

I also used a laser cutter (another common Maker technology that I'd never used before!) to cut small circles out of plexiglass to go over the circles on the brooch.

I then spray-painted the brooch gold.

Then I sewed it onto the bow, along with four LilyPad LEDs and a LilyTiny microcontroller to make the LEDs sparkle and flash.

Here's the final product:

And here's my complete cosplay!

There are still a lot of things missing from my cosplay, including the skirt, gloves, and tiara. I hope one day to be able to finish it, and perhaps add some more techie embellishments!

Fans may wish they could have the magic that their favorite characters have. In the real world, one form of "magic" is technology. Learning how to harness it can be very empowering. Technology-enhanced cosplay is one possible way to get fans--especially female ones--to experience this empowerment. Cosplay really can be transformative and magical! If I ever do get a chance to do an e-cosplay workshop, this blog will be the first to get the full report!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

#TechTuesday: Why Do We Need More Women Leaders in the Wearable Industry? | Women 2.0

Originally posted here:
#TechTuesday: Why Do We Need More Women Leaders in the Wearable Industry? | Women 2.0

The founder of a new tech bracelet touches on why women are needed in the wearable tech industry to make products more appealing for women. 

By Jing Zhou (Founder, Elemoon)

In 2010, I moved back to China from New York to launch my first tech startup. Since then I have built and sold one of China’s first rich-media mobile ad companies, and developed a tamagotchi-like social app for young women to communicate with their best friends. I had two epiphanies while doing these projects. 

The first happened while I was running the mobile ad company. I reconfirmed that the majority of digital consumers are women, yet far too few products are tailored to them. This motivated my team and I to create a more emotional digital experience for women, spawning the social app, elepon. 
We saw a lot of smiles when girls were playing with elepon, but we also realized that there were limitations in the app experience. Our users wanted something tactile, something that they could touch and smell—something physical. We started brainstorming how we might marry the app with consumer products. 

A year ago, the emergence of wearable technology captured our imagination, but none of the products on the market truly inspired us. We instantly knew this was a huge opportunity. So there came the second epiphany: the utilitarian and fashion value that hardware could bring is limitless. 
We decided to combine software and hardware to evoke a truly emotional experience and make technology a bigger part of people’s lives.

Wearables made by men for men can be a problem. 

Since most of our team members are women, it’s always quite easy for us to recognize products made by Silicon Valley men for Silicon Valley men. The first time we wandered around the wearable section at an Apple Store in New York, we saw a lot of group-think. Almost all of the products were in the health and fitness category, and there was an unrelenting hype for smart-watches. But most of these products focused on function while ignoring form. They lacked personality, sex appeal and just weren’t pretty! A wearable is something we incorporate into our lifestyle—it’s not enough that something works, it also needs to be attractive and reflect our taste. One month into the design and development of our product, we saw the media calling for more fashionable wearables. 

Here’s an awesome quote from Wired Magazine’s cover story Why Wearable Tech Will Be as Big as the Smartphone. “Wearable devices—technology that people will want to display on their bodies, for all to see—represent a new threshold in aesthetics. The techcompanies that mastered design will now need to conquer the entirely different realm of fashion. And that could require technologists to unlearn a great deal of what they think they know.”

What can women bring to the wearable world? 

By being “superficial.” 

As Wired magazine pointed out, wearables have to look good first. When we started rethinking wearables, we made sure to think untech: Whatever we ended up making had to be beautiful even when not activated. We decided to stay away from things that have little emotional attachment for us, such as watches. We also didn’t want to waste effort on making things that smartphones can already handle well, like step-tracking. 

Everyone on our team is obsessed with color and Native American jewelry. We have an eclectic taste in fashion and love wearing accessories, but all we were seeing in the market were these bland rubber wristbands.

So we asked ourselves: What if we could have a bracelet that changes color and pattern to match whatever we wear? We all liked that idea, and tried to recreate the sensation of traditional jewelry with new material and interactive features. The first thing we nixed was an electronic screen. 
Thinking untech encouraged us to avoid too many features and simplify the user interaction. We didn’t want to overwhelm the user. We paid attention to how people naturally interact with a designer bracelet. Nothing beyond tapping, rubbing or shaking. 

However, our thinking untech approach also created some major technical challenges. Smart jewelry really set the standard high for design and engineering. As creative thinker Matthew E. May articulates, “Elegance is simplicity found on the far side of complexity.” Even though our hardware team had 10 years of experience in making smart devices, we found ourselves in uncharted territory. After we made our working prototype in June, our male collaborators were psyched about its tech capacity and wanted us to unlock more features. We said no. 

Innovation is born out of diversity. Engaging talent with different culture backgrounds while giving an equal voice to women is crucial—especially in such an interdisciplinary field as wearable tech. And beyond the fitness and health niche, there’s something broader called lifestyle. This is a trend particularly driven by female consumers who are willing to spend more money for something that truly speaks to them. But the only way to speak to them is to make sure that their voice is integrated into the product, from concept through completion. 

What wearable tech would you like to see in the future?

Photo via Elemoon Facebook.

Original at

Monday, February 24, 2014

OpenKnit: 3D Printing Knitted Clothing

As reported on boingboing, OpenKnit is a new open-source knitting machine that can "3D print" knitted clothing that has been designed in a computer program and saved in a digital file.

Inspired by the open-source 3D printer Reprap, OpenKnit is entirely open source, costs less than $500, and can knit a complete garment in under an hour. Here are some examples of garments knitted by OpenKnit:

With its focus on open-source and personal fabrication, OpenKnit very much fits within the spirit of the Maker Movement. It shows how the open sourced computerization of textile creation can take the power out of the hands of huge clothing corporations and their mass-production models, and give it back to consumers, who can be free to circumvent traditional forms of clothing acquisition, customize their garments to make them unique rather than mass-produced, and have a sense of agency over the creation of their clothes without having to take the time to knit them the traditional way.

Openknit also brings the history of computation full circle: the first "computer programs" were punched cards that told Jacquard looms what patterns to weave. Computation and textiles have been more intimately connected to each other throughout history than most people think.

Openknit: Challenging the corporate hegemony over the clothing industry, one 3D-printed beanie at a time.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Modkit Coders and LilyPad Stitchers "Create, Innovate, Inspire" at South Fayette School District

Earlier this month, the Creativity Labs (Sophia, Naomi & Diane) returned to the South Fayette School District in the Pittsburgh, PA area to provide another e-textile professional development workshop to follow up on the one conducted in Summer 2013. The district is gearing up to do a LilyPad Arduino project with its entire fourth grade (plus selected MS Art & Home Ec), as a part of its innovative STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) Studio, so all of South Fayette's fourth-grade teachers attended, as well as its STEAM, Art, Home Ec teachers and technology coordinators. The workshop also shared e-textiles for the first time with teachers from two of South Fayette's partner schools: Fort Cherry and Manchester Academic Charter School.

Teachers at the South Fayette e-textile PD work on their LilyPad projects.

The e-textile project taught at the workshop involved the ProtoSnap LilyPad Development Simple, a kit that includes a LilyPad Simple sewable microcontroller, four sewable LEDs, and a sewable buzzer that plays musical notes. Teachers sewed these components with conductive thread onto a t-shirt specially created for this purpose.

One teacher's LilyPad project. The orange flower with the buzzer on it has snaps so the buzzer can be detached for washing. This is one of the many innovative ideas that emerged during the workshop.
For the coding, teachers used the visual block-based programming interface Modkit Micro, which makes programming various Arduino microcontrollers easy and kid-friendly. The teachers used Modkit Micro to program the LilyPad, which told their LEDs to flash in various patterns and their buzzers to play musical tunes.
A teacher customizes her shirt with beautiful decorations that also serve to disguise the electronic components.
The "Create, Innovate, Inspire" slogan was a very apt choice for a shirt that would feature e-textiles. Making an e-textile project necessarily involves creating. Every one of the Creativity Labs' e-textile workshops has prompted innovations to emerge, whether in the way the electronics are used, in the way the participants personalize their work, or in their Modkit programs. And we also hope that these projects inspire people to become more interested in computing and electronics. It's wonderful that South Fayette, Fort Cherry, and Manchester are sharing e-textiles with their students, and we at the Creativity Labs are excited to be a part of this creativity, innovation, and inspiration!

Once again, we thank Aileen Owens, Director of Technology and Innovation for South Fayette, who coordinated this amazing workshop,  to all of the wonderful, creative participants for their enthusiasm and thoughtful participation and to the school district's administrative officials who took time from their busy schedule to stop in and lend support to this tremendously ambitious endeavor. 

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Creativity Labs Bring E-Textiles to the IU CEWiT Launch!

This past Monday, Oct. 28, 2013, Indiana University held the official launch ceremony for the new Center of Excellence for Women in Technology (CEWiT). The Center, the first campus-wide establishment of its kind in the nation, will seek to promote participation of women in technology-related fields throughout all stages of education and career. Since women are woefully underrepresented in technology fields, CEWiT is an extremely important initiative.

Sophia, in a CEWiT shirt that she enhanced with a LilyPad Arduino and several LEDs, "sits to take a stand" in the Red Chair at the CEWiT launch.  The Sit With Me campaign seeks to bring more women to the table in IT and computing fields.
CEWiT celebrated its launch with a keynote speech by Moira Gunn, host of NPR's Tech Nation, followed by a reception, where women from all across campus showcased the technology they use in their work and research. This ranged from Google Glass, to 3D printed objects, to a friendly baby seal robot, and more!

Naomi Thompson and Sophia Bender of the IU Creativity Labs brought a plethora of e-textile artifacts to display as part of this showcase. We had bags, shirts, e-cuffs, puppets, and a solar-powered backpack, all shining brightly with LilyPad LEDs, and some controlled by the LilyPad Arduino. We had Modkit running on a computer, showing how simple programming e-textiles can be. We also had a copy of the newly published Textile Messages book, edited and written by several friends and contributors to this blog, for visitors to leaf through.

Story Image
The Indiana Daily Student, IU's student newspaper, ran a feature on the CEWiT launch and snapped this picture of Sophia at the e-textile table.
Visitors to our table included members of both the IU and wider Bloomington, IN community. We spoke with teachers, journalists, Girl Scout troop leaders, an entire (very interested!) Girl Scout troop, and even Moira Gunn herself! The table was humming with activity for the entire duration of the reception.

Naomi sits in the Red Chair and shows off the e-cuff she made.
As reported in the Textile Messages book, e-textiles is the first computing field to be dominated by women. It represents an alternative technological pathway to that of more traditionally male-dominated fields like robotics. As such, the Creativity Labs' e-textile researchers plan to remain deeply involved in CEWiT. Dr. Kylie Peppler is a member of the Center's faculty alliance, and research assistant Sophia is committee director of the Affinity Groups Committee for CEWiT's student alliance. In the future, we hope to train CEWiT members to run e-textile workshops for youth in our community. We congratulate CEWiT on its launch, and wish it all the best!

Sunday, October 6, 2013

E-Textile Design Night for IU Makes

IU Makes is a new organization created by people from all over IU's campus in order to share events, work produced, and highlight work being made using innovative technologies. One of its founders is Dr. Kylie Peppler, director of the Creativity Labs, and several of her students are IU Makes affiliates.

It was only a matter of time, then, before members of the lab would begin to offer making-related programs to the IU Makes community. The first of these was a lecture on September 5, at which Graduate Research Assistant Sophia offered a similar talk and activity to the one she did at the Bay Area Maker Faire in May 2013.

The second was an E-textile Design workshop on the evening of September 26. This workshop was open to the entire IU Makes community, and attracted about 20 participants from all across campus, including students, faculty, staff, and even a couple of children of IU Makes members!

Nicole Jacquard, co-founder of IU Makes and School of Fine Arts professor, shows off the e-cuff she made at the IU Makes e-textile workshop.
The program was one our lab has done many times before: e-cuffs. Participants first learned about circuits in series and parallel by playing with alligator clips and LEDs, and then sewed three LilyPad LEDs to a felt wristband with conductive thread. A conductive metal snap served as a switch.

Not everyone used felt for their wristband, however! One participant brought in this beautiful lace, and used it as the base for her light-up bracelet.
Creativity Labs members Kylie Peppler, Sophia Bender, Anna Keune, Naomi Thompson, and Verily Tan all helped to facilitate the event. We were all inspired by the wonderful creativity and enthusiasm surrounding us at the workshop, and were grateful for the IU Makes community's openness to our work and positive response.

Meghan McGrath, intern for the new student organization Women Empowering Success in Technology (WESiT), displays her Halloween-themed wristband.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Sewing Jobs


A Wave of Sewing Jobs as Orders Pile Up at U.S. Factories

Jenn Ackerman for The New York Times
Ruth Kirchner, an instructor at the Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis, Minn., showing students different kinds of fabrics and stitches.
  • SAVE
  • E-MAIL
MINNEAPOLIS — It was past quitting time at a new textile factory here, but that was not the only reason the work floor looked so desolate. Under the high ceilings, the fluorescent lights still bright, there were just 15 or so industrial sewing machines in a sprawling space meant for triple that amount.

American Made

A series that examines the challenges associated with manufacturing in the United States.
Previous Article in This Series:
The issue wasn’t poor demand for the curtains, pillows and other textiles being produced at the factory. Quite the opposite. The owner, the Airtex Design Group, had shifted an increasing amount of its production here from China because customers had been asking for more American-made goods.
The issue was finding workers.
“The sad truth is, we put ads in the paper and not many people show up,” said Mike Miller, Airtex’s chief executive.
The American textile and apparel industries, like manufacturing as a whole, are experiencing a nascent turnaround as apparel and textile companies demand higher quality, more reliable scheduling and fewer safety problems than they encounter overseas. Accidents like the factory collapse in Bangladesh earlier this year, which killed more than 1,000 workers, have reinforced the push for domestic production.


Have the changes in American manufacturing affected the livelihood and opportunities of you or your family?
But because the industries were decimated over the last two decades — 77 percent of the American work force has been lost since 1990 as companies moved jobs abroad — manufacturers are now scrambling to find workers to fill the specialized jobs that have not been taken over by machines.
Wages for cut-and-sew jobs, the core of the apparel industry’s remaining work force, have been rising fast — increasing 13.2 percent on an inflation-adjusted basis from 2007 to 2012, while overall private sector pay rose just 1.4 percent. Companies here in Minnesota are so hungry for workers that they posted five job openings for every student in a new training program in industrial sewing, a full month before the training was even completed.
Patricia Ramon during a sewing and production specialist class as part of the Makers Coalition, an effort to create a skilled work force from scratch.
Margaret Cheatham Williams/The New York Times
Patricia Ramon during a sewing and production specialist class as part of the Makers Coalition, an effort to create a skilled work force from scratch.
“It withered away and nobody noticed,” Jen Guarino, a former chief executive of the leather-goods maker J. W. Hulme, said of the skilled sewing work force. “Businesses stopped investing in training; they stopped investing in equipment.”
Like manufacturers in many parts of the country, those in Minnesota are wrestling with how to attract a new generation of factory workers while also protecting their bottom lines in an industry where pennies per garment can make or break a business. The backbone of the new wave of manufacturing in the United States has been automation, but some tasks still require human hands.
Nationally, manufacturers have created recruitment centers that use touch screens and other interactive technology to promote the benefits of textile and apparel work.
Here, they are recruiting at high schools, papering churches and community centers with job postings, and running ads in Hmong, Somali and Spanish-language newspapers. And in a moment of near desperation last year — after several companies worried about turning down orders because they did not have the manpower to handle them — Minnesota manufacturers hatched their grandest rescue effort of all: a program to create a skilled work force from scratch.
Run by a coalition of manufacturers, a nonprofit organization and a technical college, the program runs for six months, two or three nights a week, and teaches novices how to be industrial sewers, from handling a sewing machine to working with vinyl and canvas.
Eighteen students, ranging from a 22-year-old taking a break from college to a 60-year-old former janitor who had been out of work for three months, enrolled in the inaugural session that ended in June. The $3,695 tuition was covered by charities and the city of Minneapolis, though students will largely be expected to pay for future courses themselves.
After the course, the companies, which pay to belong to the coalition, sponsored students for a three-week rotation on their factory floors and a two-week internship at minimum wage. Then the free-for-all began as the members competed to hire those graduates who decide to pursue a career in industrial sewing.
“We need to think practically about getting skilled labor,” said Ms. Guarino, a founder of the training effort, known as the Makers Coalition. “The growth is there but we’re going to be in trouble if we don’t have a pool to draw from.”
Last year, there were about 142,000 people employed as sewing machine operators in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, which had almost 1.75 million workers last year — and where the unemployment rate as of July was 4.9 percent — only 860 were employed in 2012 as machine sewers..
Airtex had room for 50 of them. “We are looking for new sewers every day,” said Mr. Miller, the Airtex executive.
Wooing Immigrant Workers
Airtex’s roots in Minneapolis date to 1918, when Mr. Miller’s grandfather started the Sam Miller Bag Company, specializing in potato and feed bags. In the 1980s, Susan Shields founded a baggage company, and the two combined in 2000 as the Airtex Design Group, producing home textiles for companies like Pottery Barn and Restoration Hardware.
Soon after the merger, the company began producing in China, first in the Dongguan area, then Wuxi and Shanghai. Today, it still employs about 100 Chinese workers through a partner factory in Dongguan, but production there is no longer the bargain it once was, said Ms. Shields, Airtex’s president.
Initially Airtex paid $3 an hour on average for its Chinese workers; now, it pays about $11.80 an hour, including benefits and housing.
Its American factory-floor workers make about $9 to $17 an hour, though Airtex estimates benefits add another 30 percent to those figures.
As costs were rising in China, Airtex was also getting a new message from some of its clients: They wanted more American-made products.
Health care clients wanted medical slings and other sensitive medical products made domestically to ensure quality. Retailers did not want to pay overseas freight costs to import bulky items like pillows, and they wanted more flexibility in turning around designs quickly. As Airtex considered production in Vietnam and elsewhere, it became concerned about safety and quality issues — and increasingly interested in the American alternative.
“The opportunity for domestic business right now is unbelievable,” Ms. Shields said. “Either we start to bring it back here, more of it, or we start going to places that are marginally unsafe.”
But the lack of workers here in Minnesota made shifting business back home frustrating.
It had gotten to the point where new business sometimes felt like a headache, not an opportunity. As Mr. Miller was headed to Chicago for a sales pitch in February, for instance, he was more worried than excited about landing a new contract.
“What concerns me is, if I get it,” he said, “where are we going to find the people?”
In the various waves of American textile production, dating to the 1800s, the problem of an available and willing work force solved itself.
Little capital was required — the boss just needed sewing equipment and people willing to work. That made it an attractive business for newly arrived immigrants with a few dollars to their name and, often, some background in garment work. Typically, the mostly male factory owners would recruit female workers from their old countries for the grunt work.
From the 1840s until the Civil War, it was new arrivals from Ireland and Germany. From the 1880s through the 1920s, it was Russian Jews and Italians, who would buy newly mass-produced Singer sewing machines and often set up shops in their tenement apartments with wives, daughters and tenants making up the initial work force, said Daniel Katz, provost of the National Labor College and author of a book about the garment industry.
Puerto Ricans, who were given citizenship on the eve of American entry into World War I, and black migrants from the South rounded out the work force until the 1960s, when Chinese and Dominican laborers took over, Mr. Katz said.
In San Francisco and New York, a small number of Chinese women came to the United States despite the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 barring Chinese laborers, making up a base of garment workers. After 1965, when immigration restrictions eased and Chinese were allowed to join family members, greater numbers of women came and that pool of workers grew.
“It was pretty well known that basically the day after you landed, you’d be taken to a factory by a relative to learn how to use an industrial sewing machine,” said Katie Quan, associate chair of the Labor Center at the University of California, Berkeley. In Los Angeles, Latinos made up much of the work force. And in the Carolinas, Hmong immigrants filled textile manufacturing jobs well into the 1990s, halting — or at least delaying — the migration of jobs overseas, said Rachel Willis, an American studies professor at the University of North Carolina.
Now, here in Minnesota, immigrants are once again being seen as the new hope.
Wanted: English and Math
Last fall, Lifetrack, a nonprofit group in St. Paul that helps immigrants, people on welfare and those with disabilities, began screening clients for possible admission to the sewing training program. Inside a gray-green room in a building on the edge of a four-lane road, people gathered around three tables: Burmese women at one of them, Ethiopian men at another, and at the back of the room an African-American woman, then 61, and a white man, 60, both born in America.
The first task was for students to test their English and math proficiency. Language skills are essential so workers can communicate with their bosses, but math skills are just as important in textile work because sewing requires precise measurements. As the students worked on the proficiency tests, Tatjana Hutnyak, Lifetrack’s director of business development, went over the basics.
Starting wages: $12 and $16 an hour. Transportation: The college, Dunwoody College of Technology, is on a bus line, but if students interview with a company not on a bus line, Lifetrack will help them get there. After passing career-readiness tests, students could qualify for the course, which would give them a certificate in industrial sewing — and, ideally, a job.
“They want to have a career rather than packaging, assembling, cleaning jobs,” said a Lifetrack manager, Dagim Gemeda, explaining why clients were interested in the sewing certification.
The Burmese women had come to Minnesota after spending time in refugee camps in Thailand. Paw Done had done piece work, sewing at home while she watched her children. The others had little sewing experience.
The Ethiopian men, who ranged in age from 21 to 42, had been in this country several years. A couple were students, one was a former custodian who had moved from another state to be close to his college-bound son, and a fourth, Abdulhakim Tahiro, had been laid off from his job at an airport car rental kiosk.
“It’s good, for my level it’s good,” Mr. Tahiro said of the starting wages.
Mr. Tahiro and Ms. Done enrolled in the course that started last January, when about half of the class were immigrants. Another student in the course, Patricia Ramon, 56, was an entrepreneur in Mexico with sewing experience. Ms. Ramon already had a job as a sewer at J. W. Hulme, but quit to take the course with the goal of obtaining certification. She wanted proof, she said, that she had technical skills.
“I am not like an old-time seamstress,” Ms. Ramon said. She expects to sew as a career, and said that making $16 an hour with health insurance would be enough to live on.
The students who were not immigrants often had difficult work histories or other problems. One of them was Lawrence Corbesia, the man sitting at the back table during the screening session. He was a former machine operator and custodial worker who had been looking for work for three months.
Another was Edward Johnson, 44, who was homeless when the course started. After food service and call-center jobs, he went to prison for felony assault, and had a tough time finding a job when he got out in 2009. He moved to Wisconsin to pick fruit, moved back to Minneapolis because he hated picking fruit, and was living on the streets and selling watercolor paintings when a homeless-center counselor hooked him up with the sewing program.
Until now, the only sewing experience Mr. Johnson had was sewing on buttons — a punishment meted out by his mother when he misbehaved. To save money, Mr. Johnson walked the 45 minutes to and from the college.
The program was overwhelming at first, he said, “so frustrating that sometimes I’d go home crying.” But he spent days at the library, watching YouTube videos on sewing techniques and studying terms used by the industry. By the end, it had gotten easier, he said, making pajamas, tote bags and aprons.
So many people are on government assistance, he said. “I’d rather learn a trade and go to work — and work,” he said.
By Margaret Cheatham Williams
For Edward Johnson, 44, a criminal record made it hard for him to get a job. He turned to an industrial sewing program after enduring bouts of homelessness and unemployment.
A Long-Term Solution
Manufacturers elsewhere are also trying to build a new labor pool.
In a former glove factory in Conover, N.C., the Manufacturing Solutions Center has touch screens showing the technologies that textile manufacturers use today, while new machines spool out printed fabric. In Pennsylvania, a work force investment board has started a program with plant tours, YouTube videos of workers and a Web site promising that “contrary to popular opinion, many good jobs in manufacturing are still available.”
Other industry groups have created a curriculum for high schools on manufacturing, including Manufacturing Day, with factory tours for school groups.
Still the difficulty attracting young people frustrates Debra Kerrigan, a dean at Dunwoody overseeing the Minnesota program.
“I think it’s just the idea of, ‘Oh, I’m a sewer,’ that doesn’t thrill the average young individual today,” she said. “Skills for a lot of different industries are coming back now, machinists and automotive workers and sewers. I think if you have a skill when the economy gets bad, you’re more likely to succeed than someone who doesn’t.”
Compared with the other courses Dunwoody offers — graphic design, Web programming, robotics — sewing can seem a little old school, students say. But Elizabeth Huber, 22, who took a break from the University of Minnesota to take the sewing course, said that can also be a selling point.
Elizabeth Huber, 22, and several Makers Coalition students completing sewing samples.
Margaret Cheatham Williams/The New York Times
Elizabeth Huber, 22, and several Makers Coalition students completing sewing samples.
“I like getting back to making things, to touching and manipulating materials rather than just pushing buttons or tweeting all day,” she said.
As the sewing course drew to a close, members of the Makers Coalition were jostling for the 18 graduates. Don Boothroyd at KellĂ©, a firm that makes dance costumes, hoped to snag 10 of them. J. W. Hulme wanted five, and was considering covering a student’s tuition for another course exchange for a contract promising that the student would work at Hulme for one year. Airtex hoped for five to 10 students.
But only nine students completed the course — many dropped out for personal reasons, or decided they just weren’t interested in the work — and eight got jobs. The coalition is now revamping the curriculum to focus more on hands-on work and machine maintenance.
Airtex decided it could not afford to wait for the coalition’s training program to work out its kinks. So, as the course proceeded, Airtex redoubled its efforts to find people who had some background in sewing. Mr. Miller and Ms. Shields offered a bonus to existing employees who brought in friends. They hosted an open house for prospective workers, and tried to think of groups they had not approached before — like a nonprofit that works with people with disabilities.
“I had a guy driving me to the airport the other day,” Mr. Miller said, “and he mentioned he knows a lot of people in the Cambodian community and I should call his pastor.”
Finally, Airtex decided it had to pay for training itself, even if that meant the company was less profitable for a while. It trains workers for a few hours a week, with a technical-college instructor and existing employees instructing new ones on topics like ergonomics and handling tricky materials. Airtex has since made 10 new hires for floor jobs, none of whom were highly experienced.
“The reality is, if we want good workers we know we have to train them and bring them in ourselves,” Ms. Shields said.
The factory floor now seems less barren because there are 25 sewing stations (there is still room for another 25). And most significantly, the additional workers mean the company can take on new work: Airtex has tripled its capacity, and is now making about 70 percent of its products in the United States.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013