Detroit sewing: From fighting fashion-industry waste to making PPE

In response to COVID-19, a nonprofit focused on fashion-industry waste has pivoted to coordinating a massive mask-and-gown initiative in the resurgent manufacturing hub of Detroit.

Courtesy of ISAIC

Workers in a factory sew protective gear for healthcare workers.

Kimberly Holland

April 29, 2020

min read
Workers sew healthcare gear in a factory.
ISAIC workers make isolation gowns for Detroit-area health-care personnel.  Image courtesy of ISAIC.

When Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed a shelter-in-place order on March 23, 2020, the Industrial Sewing and Innovation Center (ISAIC) nonprofit organization in Detroit was tackling the problem of waste in the fashion industry, where 30% of the more than 150 billion manufactured garments end up in landfills, having never been sold.

ISAIC’s 12,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art factory was nearly completed and set to begin manufacturing small, high-quality apparel orders. But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, ISAIC shifted gears to personal protective equipment (PPE) production, and finishing its factory was deemed essential construction.

A pause for the cause

A factory worker sews isolation gowns.
A worker at ISAIC sews isolation gowns for Detroit-area health-care personnel. Image courtesy of ISAIC. 

ISAIC’s ultimate vision is to provide its proprietary training curriculum and paid apprenticeships for skilled labor in a factory where workers become invested in the company, earning equity as part of their employment. ISAIC’s model of education and training can be taken anywhere and is currently used in multiple US states to help rebuild manufacturing in the country from the ground up.

But the novel coronavirus posed a challenge for ISAIC: how to immediately pivot its manufacturing to help fight the growing pandemic. Acting fast, ISAIC consulted with local hospitals and created mask and gown kits with standardized specifications to be produced at six factories, including Detroit-area manufacturing heavyweights Shinola, Detroit Denim, York Project, and Pingree Detroit.

Meeting urgent needs

ISAIC’s newly operational factory, which still lacks the basic finishing touches of interior design, has become a hub for this massive project that will produce millions of pleated medical-grade masks and thousands of sewn isolation gowns and surgical masks—while supporting local businesses and keeping workers employed.

Phase one of mobilizing local apparel manufacturing—in a city that has historically been strong in the industry—to sew masks and gowns is underway. Phase two will automate the mass production of pleated surgical masks using advanced machinery newly acquired with the help of a national consortium, including the Quicken Loans Community Fund and apparel company Carhartt, a major ISAIC partner that dedicated space above its flagship midtown-Detroit storefront for the ISAIC factory.

“The immediate need for masks is massive,” says ISAIC CEO Jen Guarino, “so our amazing professional sewers will continue to produce masks until the higher-scale production solution is in place. Then we will shift sewing efforts to focus exclusively on gowns.”

The US apparel problem

SAIC CEO Jen Guarino sits at a sewing machine.
ISAIC CEO Jen Guarino’s long history as a fashion-industry executive includes the creation of Shinola’s leather-manufacturing unit. Image courtesy of ISAIC.

COVID-19 has also amplified the problem of the US supply chain being too spread out and tenuous. When the focus on the pandemic subsides, ISAIC plans to be a part of the recentralization of clothing manufacturing in the country. US apparel companies produce only 3% of the clothes bought in the country. The remainder is created elsewhere and imported.

“If there really was an earnest opportunity to bring back manufacturing, we could get that to 20%,” Guarino says. “Imagine that economic impact.”

Guarino sees clear signals that onshoring in the US manufacturing sector is increasing. “Technology tells us there are reasons to do it,” she says. “New processes are telling us there are reasons to do it, and our consumers are telling us there are reasons to do it.” But there’s a significant problem: Companies don’t have the skilled workers needed to reestablish a robust manufacturing base in the United States. After years of offshoring, the expert labor force that once filled the country’s factories is long gone, having moved on to other jobs or retired.

“If you don’t develop the talent required to do it differently this time, you’re wasting money,” Guarino says. “We believe that by creating a really talented workforce that understands the future of apparel manufacturing, the new workers become the experts. Then we can attract more onshoring of apparel.”

From meeting room to classroom

Another view of the ISAIC factory
The apparel brand Carhartt dedicated a 12,000-square-foot space above its flagship retail store for ISAIC’s factory. Image courtesy of ISAIC.

To help fill these worker gaps, Guarino and her colleagues in retail established a think tank of sorts that brainstormed ways of overcoming barriers and restoring manufacturing in Detroit. Out of those meetings, ISAIC was born.

ISAIC’s curriculum is unique: Through 200 hours of training, students are exposed to equipment, vocabulary, fabric, stitching, and techniques. Upon completion, they are ready to move on to the learning factory, where apprentices receive on-the-job training while working in a well-paying job.

ISAIC’s grand vision is to become a self-sustainable, profitable, and worker–co-owned factory. Not only would the factory’s sewers and equipment technicians make a livable wage of $15 an hour, they would also be important stakeholders in the business and participate in profit sharing. They would also be prepared to leave ISAIC to take good jobs in other factories around Detroit and the country.

“We understood quickly that this was actually a national solution for a national need,” Guarino says. “So we would create this as a national institute for the sewing trades but based in Detroit.”

Partners for tomorrow

A factory worker makes healthcare PPE.
A factory worker makes PPE. Image courtesy of ISAIC.

Soon after the vision for ISAIC was cemented, partnerships with local and global businesses, such as Carhartt, were secured. ISAIC also began working with Autodesk to develop and model programs so apprentices could learn to work on equipment virtually and practice the advanced skills they’ll need. “We’re looking at ways to use gaming platforms to teach these things, so it doesn’t feel like it’s technology,” Guarino says.

There will be resistance to ISAIC and the investment it requires from apparel companies, Guarino says. In a world of fast fashion and $3 T-shirts, quality manufacturing at higher price points may have some detractors. But Guarino says that’s a problem they think companies are eager to tackle. After all, they’re throwing away billions of garments every year as it is, and those losses are built into their profit planning. So what if ISAIC could inspire companies to make fewer goods at a higher quality?

“I think our job is to push the industry to understand its responsibility in changing that,” Guarino says. “We think we can be an agnostic driver for this by teaching the skills required to push technology into the marketplace—not on the backs of manufacturers, but for us to pilot, to really learn so that we can deliver the talent needed to change this. There will be pushback. But I think the climate is such that those conversations can be easier to have now.”

The Future of ISAIC

Everyone’s future seems, to some degree, more uncertain than it did just a couple of months ago, but in the wake of COVID-19, it stands to reason that ISAIC’s proposition of putting Americans back to work in robust manufacturing businesses that discourage waste will be attractive.

“We’ll exercise our expertise to help other cities around the country implement our curriculum,” Guarino says. For example, ISAIC is working with the Council of Fashion Designers of America and the New York Economic Development Corporation to examine the workforce ecosystem in New York’s Garment District. And Guarino envisions furniture making as a next logical step for the ISAIC model.

“My biggest hope is that there is a measurable agent of change, where the people making the product are the greatest benefactors,” Guarino says. “Their lives, their livelihoods, truly are measurably improved, and it’s through changing the approach of the industry.”

Kimberly Holland

About Kimberly Holland

Kimberly Holland is a lifestyle writer and editor based in Birmingham, AL. When not organizing her books by color, Holland enjoys toying with new kitchen gadgets and feeding her friends all her cooking experiments.

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