From Sheep to Shirt!
All gamboling lambs and quirky animation, the Appalatch Kickstarter video showcases the company’s earnest cofounders explaining their mission of becoming the first company in the world to offer sustainably-produced, custom-sized sweaters on a large scale. “Our mission,” says Grace Gouin, 26, looking comely in a cornflower-blue wool t-shirt, “is to bring you higher-quality, longerlasting clothes that are ethically made in America to replace fast-fashion clothes that are made abroad.” Like many idealistic entrepreneurs today, Gouin and her business partner Mariano deGuzman, 35, turned to crowdfunding to help pay for the Stoll fully-fashioned knitting machine that would power their Asheville, North Carolina-based outdoor apparel company. Essentially a 3-D printer for garments, the machine would allow them to put into practice their radical idea of basing a company on custom-knitted, grown-and-sewnin-the-USA sweaters.
So when their campaign launched last October, Gouin had to almost physically restrain herself from watching the numbers climb on her Kickstarter phone app. “You’re watching your future unfold,” she says. “It pretty much was going to determine everything.”
To lure potential investors, Gouin and deGuzman offered generous perks, including all-American cotton and wool t-shirts ($29 and $59
A Rambouillet flock from a small farm in North Carolina with good looks and good locks.
respectively) as well as custom-fit organic cotton and wool sweaters (for donations of $109 and $189).
“At the beginning you get so many contributions right away,” Gouin explains, “and then it starts to be not as new and contributions slow down and then they go up. It was a crazy time.”
Prior to their Kickstarter premiere, the Appalatch duo had already proved themselves to be hardy business people. Before their campaign even launched, the two had gotten Appalatch.com up and running the previous April selling “responsibly priced” t-shirts made from 18.5 micron Montana-sourced Rambouillet wool. By the fall of 2013, they had added wool blankets, bags, socks and standard-sized wool sweaters.
Making a 100 percent American t-shirt and other togs isn’t so easy, however. Unwilling to compromise even on the thread (a U.S.-made, luggage-quality nylon), Gouin and deGuzman had to create a supply chain from scratch, from the backs of sheep in Montana to finished garments, a chain that links at least seven vendors and more processes, all of which Gouin and deGuzman had to carefully vet. (See sidebar.) It took them the better part of a year before they were able to sell a single shirt.
“The (typical) supply chain is set up overseas,” Gouin says. “You put in a call, say what you want and they send you back samples. Here, if you want domestic fabric, you have to carve this stuff out of thin air. It’s incredibly hard.”
Finding anything mass-produced from U.S. fibers is also challenging, which is what makes Gouin and deGuzman’s commitment refreshing. Though the ethical fashion world in the United States has embraced organic cotton (mostly from Turkey, India and China), along with fair trade goods and products that are cut and sewn domestically from foreign fabric, it has yet to fully exploit fibers cultivated on American soil.
“The perception is that it will cost more,” observes Oceana Lott, executive director of Fashion Revolution USA, part of the global Fashion Revolution campaign to raise awareness about the real human and environmental costs of fashion. “Designers typically source textiles through a broker, so you’re getting to see what that person has available and it’s fabric that’s made someplace else. I’m not sure the American textile business has done enough in terms of marketing.”
Currently, only about 2 percent of clothing purchased in the United States is made stateside. Cheap overseas labor and trade liberalization policies have gutted the U.S. apparel sector, shuttering the plants and mills that
made up the supply chains of the past and rendering domestic fabric manufacturing almost extinct.
Because most apparel manufacturing moved overseas, American wool and cotton growers followed; today more than half of the American wool clip and cotton harvest is exported.
Americans, though, love the idea of good old red, white and blue manufacturing. And hip Americans, increasingly, are besotted with heritage brands, DIY ingenuity and clothing of the sort John Steinbeck might have favored. According to a report by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, 78 percent of study respondents said that given a choice, they would rather purchase an American product. More than 60 percent said they would pay a 10 percent premium to score Yankee-made goods.
Neither Gouin nor deGuzman, however, wanted to create products so precious and elite that they would be inaccessible to people who might love a comfy wool base layer or sweater made on U.S. shores but couldn’t afford to pay premium prices. They also recognized early on that while they couldn’t compete with the Gaps, Targets and Walmarts of the world, they could position their products attractively in the category that includes outdoor apparel from manufacturers like SmartWool and Icebreaker, which source their merino wool from New Zealand, if they took a different approach.
To make the numbers work, they decided to upend traditional marketing paradigms and sell direct to consumers instead of big retailers. By investing some extra legwork, they were able to begin working directly with suppliers, eliminating the middlemen – the reps and brokers – who drive up costs.
Appalatch is a case in point that with a little American ingenuity, American goods don’t necessarily have to cost more. Appalatch’s short-sleeved wool t-shirts retail for $60. Compare that to a similar shirt from SmartWool, made from New Zealand wool and knitted in Vietnam, for $75; the merino/Capilene “men’s merino 2 lightweight shirt” for $80 from Patagonia (wool from – where else? – Patagonia) that’s made in Vietnam; or Ibex’s $60 shirt, which also uses wool and fabric from New Zealand but which is assembled in the United States. (Ibex also makes a handful of garments in the United States using domestic wool. A mediumweight zip-neck for women retails for $150.)
“When we first looked at the supply chain, a wool jacket that we would like to retail for $300 in someone else’s store would have to be twice as expensive,” says Gouin. “To reach that price point, we would have to compromise some-
While Gouin was undergoing her conversion from anthropology to fibers at Skidmore, deGuzman was working on a master’s degree at Harvard and becoming increasingly interested in building an ethical,
American-made clothing company.
thing, the quality of the material or the country of the sewing. Neither of those things sat well with us. We don’t want to compromise on material or labor or the price; we want it to be affordable. We decided to embrace the Internet and try a different model.”
It starts with fiber.
The road to building a brand based on U.S. wool started, not surprisingly, with fiber.
After Grace Gouin learned to knit during a long winter at Skidmore in Saratoga Springs, New York, she became obsessed. Soon the anthropology major was ducking into textile classes to study weaving and dyeing, and ditching other classes to knit. A class in Southeast Asian art history introduced her to bamboo fiber and ecological design and that was it: she fell down the ethical fashion angora rabbit hole.
“Once you delve into that,” she says, “you realize, ‘Oh, wow, there’s a call to action in these books. Look at all the problems that could be solved if people sourced more responsibly and designed more responsibly.’”
The problems she refers to are these: the fashion industry is one of the dirtiest, most polluting industries on Earth, next to oil and agriculture, with as much as 25 percent of chemicals produced worldwide used for textiles. There are also devastating human consequences of low-cost clothing, the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, in which more than 1,100 garment workers died, being a case in point.
“People buy organic food for environmental reasons then turn around and shop at H&M,” where they buy throwaway clothes, says Gouin. “It’s an invisible problem. It can get depressing when you think of it that way.”
While Gouin was undergoing her conversion from anthropology to fibers at Skidmore, deGuzman was working on a master’s degree at Harvard and becoming increasingly interested in building an ethical, American-made clothing company. With a background that included stints with AmeriCorps and the antipoverty organization CARE, deGuzman wanted to be a capitalist with a conscience. Moving to North Carolina, the heartland of American textile manufacturing, he went to work as an intern at Spiritex, a dirt-to-shirt company that makes organic cotton clothing that’s grown and manufactured in the United States.
Serendipitously, after graduation Gouin also moved to North Carolina, where she landed a job at the same company. Being a passionate knitter and “fiber head,” she dreamed of doing something similar with other American fibers. What, she wondered, if you could produce sweaters and other items that are grown and sewn domestically?
She mentioned her idea to deGuzman, and soon the future business partners would be sending texts to each other at 3:00 A.M. with product ideas. While Gouin imagined clothes made from fibers like flax and angora, it was deGuzman who said, “Maybe we need to scale this back a little bit and think about wool.”
Gouin loved the idea. Contrary to common perceptions that wool is for winter only, wool has properties that make it ideal for year-round outdoor apparel: it’s moisture wicking, temperature regulating, antimicrobial (so it resists odors and needs less washing), stain resistant and insulating when wet. It’s also biodegradable, renewable and, depending on the breed and quality of fleeces used, incredibly comfy. Given that sustainability was one of their cornerstones and to avoid the carbon load of shipping across hemispheres, Gouin and deGuzman were determined to buck the sports industry trend of importing merino fiber from Australia or New Zealand. “Woolmark Australia has done the best job of marketing merino wool,” Gouin says. “People think, ‘If it’s not merino what is it?’”
Like any good knitter interested in wool provenance, Gouin turned to Carol Ekarius and Deborah Robson’s encyclopedic The Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook, where she discovered the Rambouillet sheep, a close cousin of the merino and popular with U.S. ranchers
because of its hardiness and ability to produce both meat and high-quality fiber. She read, “Rambouillet sheep produce nice, soft fibers that trade a little of Merino’s elegance for extra doses of warmth and resilience.” Fine Rambouillet, at 18.5 microns, could create base layers like those produced by companies such as SmartWool and Ibex, which source most of their wool Down Under, but at a much lower carbon footprint and with the concomitant benefit of supporting American ranchers. “One of our missions is to introduce the idea of a different breed of sheep, what they are and where they are found, which is mostly in Montana,” Gouin says. “We want to tell the fiber story of things instead of just selling a pretty product.”
On April 1, 2013, Gouin and deGuzman went live with Appalatch.com. Larding the site with optimizing keywords like “eco friendly,” “apparel made in USA,” and “ethical clothing,” the two spread their message to the world through social and traditional media, hoping that if they built a high-quality, American wool shirt, people would come.
And come they did. Before long, Appalatch’s longsleeve Henleys had sold out, along with several colors of the short-sleeve men’s and women’s tees. Thinking that their products would appeal to crunchy-granola types, deGuzman says their goods have resonated more with quality- and fashion-minded customers who appreciate the care with which Appalatch products are made and their casual modern Americana vibe.
“There’s a movement in the apparel industry for clothes that are individualist and unique and meaningful and we’re on that trend,” he says. “Our market is people who care about fashion. Sustainability is not specifically what they are searching for, but that closes the deal.”
Appalatch debuted an initial run of wool and cotton
sweaters – simple pullovers for men and women – in late fall, 2013, that were produced in New York’s Garment District. About the same time they began learning about fully fashioned knitting, which, instead of producing a rectangular sheet of knitted fabric, creates garment pieces like a hand knitter – only the machine does it really, really fast. Not only does it reduce the amount of material needed to make a sweater, it all but eliminates the 20 to 30 percent of fabric that typically goes to waste.
By rejiggering the inputs into the machine’s software, they realized they could custom knit a sweater in about an hour and a half to a customer’s exact measurements. This would be their game-changer.
Not ready to go the venture capital route, Gouin and deGuzman decided to partially fund the $100,000 Stoll knitting machine by pre-selling sweaters through Kickstarter. Orders and comments like this started pouring in: “This really has the potential to disrupt traditional clothing manufacturing while having positive social/ environmental benefit. Not to mention that I have one of those body types/sizes that doesn’t seem to fit into traditional S, M, L sizing. Can’t wait to get my sweater!”
By December 6, 2013, they had received Kickstarter contributions for 180 sweaters and a raft of t-shirts, outstripping their $50,000 goal by more than $5,000.
“The way we are structured straight to consumer,” deGuzman explains, “we can match supply to demand, which is the Holy Grail. If you can match supply to demand you don’t have all this waste and we don’t have to hold all this inventory.”
Late this winter, Gouin and deGuzman spent two months at Stoll headquarters in Reutlingen, Germany, learning how to machine knit and operate the sophisticated equipment. While awaiting arrival of what they hope will be the first of many Stolls – it’s due to deliver in May – Gouin and deGuzman have been dreaming up new products and ways to improve their supply chain: things like studying the feasibility of natural dyeing and adding more of Gouin’s beloved exotic fibers like alpaca. A new batch of Henleys will be making an appearance on the website as well as t-shirts made from Cleaner Cotton from California, which is cotton grown from non-GMO seeds and without the thirteen most toxic chemicals used in most cotton production.
“We want to show that responsible businesses can be competitive,” deGuzman says. “It is really different and pioneering and risky, but we think there has to be a better way to do this. We want to prove that this business model is doable and that others can be more responsible global citizens.” Wf
A Rambouillet sheep prepares to re-purpose its fleece.
100% wool scoop neck t-shirt.
An ethically driv driven outdoor apparel comp company with a rebellious spirit to upend the clothing industry for t the good.
According to Grace Gouin, they hadn’t planned on including a pig in their photo shoot. But Tim, the model, revealed that Messy was in the next room so Grace told him to go and get her. Grace says their men’s shawl-collar sweater has never looked so good.
Women’s 100% wool shawl sweater.
Men’s 100 % merino shawl-collar sweater.
Men’s 100% Rambouillet wool t-shirt.