If you’re looking for signs of a resurgence in U.S. manufacturing, your first stop should be Maine. There you’ll find a burgeoning cluster of textile startups focused on making products in the state. You’ll also find a local ecosystem that brings together together the local funding, talent and training that make the cluster possible.
A central piece of the puzzle is a program that trains locals, many of whom are recent immigrants and refugees, to do the stitching. Housed at a local community college, it just graduated a class of stitchers schooled in the intricacies of creating apparel for the Maine-based startups.
It all started in 2014, when Ben Waxman and Whitney Reynolds, then fiancés, hatched the idea of forming a fleece outerwear manufacturer based in Waxman’s hometown of Portland, Me. “We had the crazy idea of producing apparel 100% U.S. made and union made,” says Waxman. They decided to name the company American Roots.
The sourced high quality fleece from Massachussets-based Polartec, but it was next to impossible to find locals with the right stitching expertise to turn it into garments. The couple realized they had to build their own workforce from scratch.
Waxman’s mother Dory, a local entrepreneur, ran her own wool apparel company, which she’d started in 1992 under the name of Casco Bay Wool Works, sold in 2003 and then re-opened as Old Port Wool & Textile in 2013. Mother, son and daughter-in-law-to-be reached out to Coastal Enterprises Inc. (CEI), a 40-year-old Maine-based impact investor and CDFI that uses a mix of venture capital, loans, advice and training to build the local economy.
CEI provided a $15,000 loan to buy six industrial sewing machines for the class. With help from Goodwill and Portland Adult Education, they developed a training program that taught technical skills as well as what Christa Baade, CEI’s workforce development specialist, calls, “contextual English and contextual math.”
The first eight-week class took place in July at Old Port’s headquarters, with six students who were paid for the training. Most were recent immigrants—a large population of new arrivals from Somalia, the Congo and Iraq recently have moved to the area—and American Roots ended up hiring four of them.
The company launched in 2015 and its inventory—which includes fleece hoodies, hats and vests—was sold out in a week. “We figured we’d better start training some more people and do it quickly,” says Waxman fils. A few weeks later, they started a second class. With demand growing, Waxman decided to focus on day-to-day-operations, and his mother Dory took over responsibility for the training program through her business.
Supplying the Ecosystem
At the same time, more textile startups in the area had started asking about sending their workers to the training program. “There’s a growing community of makers that believe in making stuff in America—and they all need stitchers,” says Waxman.
That includes Hyperlite Mountain Gear, which manufactures active wear in a former textile mill built in the 1840’s, and Rambler’s Way, an organic clothing maker founded by Tom Chappell, who started Tom’s of Maine. Both received funding from CEI.
To address the demand, CEI convened a meeting with about eight companies it was working with to get their feedback about curriculum design. That’s when Southern Maine Community College (SMCC) got involved and agreed to take over the program, training stitchers for both American Roots and other manufacturers.
Eventually, according to CEI’s Baade, the plan is for the curriculum to be fully accredited and to add other tracks, like cutting and pattern making.
As for the 16 American Roots employees, they all receive a living wage, plus benefits such as as paid vacation, sick days and a 401(k), says Waxman. The investment in people seems to be paying off. The company’s retention rate is high, at 75% to 80%. And sales growth at the company was 300% to 400% from the first to second year of business, according to Waxman.
“Our biggest problem is we can’t train stitchers fast enough,” he says.
Anne Field is a New York-based journalist who writes about social enterprise and impact investing. A version of this article originally appeared on her Not Only For Profit blog on Forbes.com.