For Design Week Portland in October of last year, Crispin Argento (PINO) and I put together an event called Fashion Speaks. FS was focused on making and manufacturing apparel and other textile products and how this is impacted by the current state of Portland's production resources. We hosted this event at Spooltown, which is a factory for production of bags and accessories located in Southeast Portland. It was my first time visiting Spooltown, and to call it impressive is truly an understatement. Owners Sara Tunstall and Dana Hinger have created a model that should (and will) be emulated across the country, taking it upon themselves to train a new class of skilled fabricators amid the backdrop of a dying industry for production in the United States. What is happening at Spooltown is absolutely essential to the success of emerging companies in Portland.

If you want to get inspired, the following interview with Sara Tunstall will give you some insight into how Spooltown operates, what they look for in clients, and what they have in store for the future.

Sara Tunstall (left) and Dana Hinger, owners of Spooltown
  • Photo Credit: Spooltown
  • Sara Tunstall (left) and Dana Hinger, owners of Spooltown

What is the function of Spooltown in Portland's design community (for folks who don't know)? 

Tunstall: We're a small-run handbag and accessory factory. We mostly work with existing companies to produce their goods, but we can also take someone from concept to production. We do runs as small as 25-50 pieces, so we're pretty unique in the factory world. Also, we specialize in difficult-to-sew fabrics, where a needle hole is forever so you have to just do it right the first time. We don't do any apparel production.

Spooltown Factory on SE 9th Ave.
  • Photo Credit: Spooltown
  • Spooltown Factory on SE 9th Ave.

How was Spooltown founded? Where did you get your start, and in what directions does Spooltown appear to be headed?

I started Spooltown 2.5 years ago. I was the Production Manager at Queen Bee, and had just finished grad school (MBA at PSU). Over the years, Queen Bee had been approached by many people wanting us to make things for them, and I wanted to test the concept and see if it could gain any traction as a separate entity. It was perfect timing—Queen Bee was going through a lot of changes and Rebecca wanted to focus more on design and expanding their retail space. I have always been a nerd for process and efficiency and loved the production end of things. So we started by doing most of Queen Bee's production, and quickly expanded from there.

Now, we have 18 awesome employees, 22 sewing machines, and a lot to do. 2013 was a big year for us. In February, Dana Hinger joined the team as my business partner. In May, we moved into a 5,000 sq ft building in SE. We bought a robotic cutting table (think reverse air hockey table that sucks fabric down and cuts/marks fabric using digital patterns with extreme precision). We also purchased a 20-ton clicker press, a skiver, and a harness weight cylinder arm machine, all of which allowed us to delve into more advanced leather work.

This year, we're focused on process improvements rather than acquiring more machines. We're offering cutting as a separate service from sewing, and have a small (but growing) line of bags/accessories that people can purchase and brand with their own logos.

Spooltown Tags
  • Photo Credit: Spooltown
  • Spooltown Tags

How many clients do you currently sew for?

We have about 50 clients we work with on a regular basis, and then more that we do special projects for.

What do you look for from potential clients? What is your “production ready” criteria?

Small-run production is very difficult to make a business out of. Often, the people who want 50 of something are folks who are just testing a market, or want to make one-off batches, or are just getting started. Sadly, not many of those projects succeed and come back for more, so you never get the chance to get good and efficient. We love working with start-ups, but have learned that we can only handle a handful at any given time. So mostly, we're looking for folks with more established businesses who already have a regular need for production. 

People are sometimes surprised by the process of product development that they have to go through before we can start actual production. In order to have efficient production with consistent quality, you need a perfectly replicable pattern and process with all the kinks worked out. And believe me, it takes a while to get to that point. But you have to, or else you might end up with something you don't like. And no one wants that. So, we make tech packs, we standardize patterns to match our internal processes, and we make a final sew-by sample that's used as the golden example of what the product should look like.

Industrial Machinery
  • Photo Credit: Spooltown
  • Industrial Machinery

Do you help with textile sourcing and/or try to influence small companies to use viable sourcing methods?

Sourcing is notoriously difficult for everyone, so we try to make it easier. We keep a fabric library that clients can shop from. We work hard to find fabric companies that offer some continuity (so we can re-order the same fabric when we need it again) and to maintain good relationships with them. We definitely encourage small companies to take familiar sourcing routes, otherwise they get lost in the rabbit hole of 'the perfect tweed' and don't re-emerge for months. Unless your company is large and can meet the minimums and timelines for custom textile production, sourcing can be a real challenge.

What about Portland impacts your company (for better and worse)?

Man. I could go on for days. We've got a strong maker mentality here and a lot of creative folks. People are supportive and helpful on every level, and that's critical to the success of any business. Also, we're at the epicenter of the resurgence of American Made. People are looking to Portland as an example, and not just as an example of what to put a bird on. I also think that Portland is a unique manufacturing city. We haven't been burned by outsourcing in the same way that east coast factory towns have been, and our city leaders are forward thinking. So as a community, we're more willing to take risks on helping create a new manufacturing infrastructure, and we see the value of showcasing visible manufacturing. That's a very strong foundation for social change.

That said, we dream of manufacturing infrastructure, but we don't actually have much of it. We often have to go to LA or NYC for machines, parts, fabric, etc. It would be a lot easier if we had a garment/fashion district closer to us. From machine parts to zippers and thread, very little of what you need to be a volume manufacturer in this industry is available locally. And maybe the hardest part of being in Portland is the difficulty in finding affordable production space. 5,000 sq ft industrial spaces are being sucked up by design/tech/advertising firms faster than they go on the market. I get it—they're cool spaces. But you can't put a factory in an '80s office with drop ceilings. And if factories have to compete against companies who can afford to pay so much more for space, there's no hope of keeping American Made affordable. So that's a real dilemma. But my strong sense, from both city leaders and developers, is that there's a lot of interest in the maker community, our fashion community, and creating jobs in the trades. I feel hopeful, and even with the hard parts I certainly wouldn't want to be anywhere other than Portland.

The Spooltown Staff
  • Photo Credit: Spooltown
  • The Spooltown Staff

Anything else you'd like us to know?

We have a cute shop dog. Her name's Nelly, and she's a champion stuffed-pig-snuggler and cheese-eater. Her schedule's pretty erratic, though. She often can't be bothered to make it to work.

Do you have any exciting events or products you'd like us to know about?
Of course! There's always something going on at Spooltown. We're collaborating with New Seasons on a line of grocery totes and cases that are available soon in their stores. That's been a fun project and we're excited to be working with a company that's so dedicated to supporting local.

We're also in the process of developing a line of Spooltown-made blank totes and accessories that companies and non-profits can use to promote their own brands and events. Think conference swag bags, grocery totes, and cute zippered cases. We're excited to be offering a locally-produced, well-made alternative to the ubiquitous cheap options that fall apart after one use.

And last, but definitely not least, we're cooking up all kinds of schemes to help designers learn what it means to work with an American manufacturer. It's tricky to start a line and have someone else make it, but we've learned a lot over the last few years and definitely want to share our thoughts. We have an awesome community of makers and designers, and we're excited to give back however we can. We don't have anything concrete to announce yet, but when we do, we'll let you know.