When you spend years in one kind of industry and then start digging into a completely different one, the learning curve is ste-eee-ep. Manufacturing can be a whirlwind of mind-numbing small details and overwhelming technical ones.
I first emailed Libby O’Bryan, the founder of Sew Co., last fall. For the next few months, we exchanged emails until finally, this past February we met at her shop in Hendersonville, NC. Sew Co. took our roughly sewn prototypes and turned them into something amazing. The craftsmanship in the Hem + Haw bags blows my mind every time I pick it up (and I pick them up so often these days, it shouldn’t still surprise me but it does).
As Libby and I have worked together of the last few months, I’ve come to admire her vision and skill more and more. She's incredibly thoughtful about her approach to Sew Co's work and its place in American life. Read on.
How did Sew Co. begin?
After working in NYC’s garment district, I was a witness, and honestly a contributor, to garment production moving overseas in order to compete financially. I left the industry to pursue a fine art degree at The School of the Art Institute of Technology and I reflected hard on my experience on the gluttony of the fashion cycles and extinction of skill in our domestic economy. I started making performance art and interactive installations, but I wanted to have a more meaningful impact. I conceived of Sew Co. as a site for independent, conscientious designers to collaborate with a like-minded producer while preserving the skill of sewing and providing living wage jobs.
I reached out to Bethanne Knudson, co-founder of The Oriole Mill, because of her model for industrial production to shake hands with education and fine art. When she heard I wanted to start a cut and sew company, she invited me to set up with in the mill, so they could function as a more vertical facility. My partner and I moved from Chicago to Hendersonville, NC to start Sew Co.
You Trained in fashion design, studied fine art at the Art Institute of Chicago AND you have a degree in BUSINESS ADMINISTRATION. HOW HAVE ALL of these areas SHAPED SEW CO AND the work you do?
I learned my craft of pattern making and sewing at The Fashion Institute of Technology and found my path into socially responsible business practices while studying at The University of San Francisco. Those dovetailed into my career as a production manager in the fashion industry. Conceptual art education allowed me to creatively analyze and problem solve how the future of my career could subvert the mass-production, mass-consumption regime.
Why is the work of Sew Co. important?
I grew up sewing with my mother and grandmother. it was joyful work together. Sewing as a profession has a legacy of oppression and tragedy. I want to change that perception. I want to help make the “bad jobs good”.
I’ve learned so much since I began Sew Co., mostly from my crew. They taught me tools, techniques, and our regions manufacturing history. The legacy of skill is vanishing fast from our community, but the demand for local and quality manufacturing is high.
How has sew co. evolved?
Sew Co. started with just me and now we are a team of six. It’s been 6 years and we’re still small, but we plan to grow thoughtfully. We are selective with who we work; that has held us back from the most profitable path, but we feel it has cultivated a strong collection of clients that showcase our strengths.
Why should people care about US manufacturing?
Sewing is a skill for survival. If we loose the industry in our domestic economy, we lose the skills and the ability to survive if needed. Globalism has its benefits and beauties, but if resources deplete, we will be forced to return to the local, not just celebrate it. I know that’s pretty extreme and alarmist, but that’s how I see it matter-of-factly.
We Love that you combine your art and work practices. How has that challenged your perspectives in both areas?
My business and art practices are completely synched. They inform each other. The movements, actions, and issues we face in the sewing studio permeate and mutate into choreographies and metaphors. Time spent in a creative space allows for new light be shed on practical problems.