From Sheep to Shirt!

Wild Fibers - - NEWS - Story by Les­lie Petro­vski Pho­tos cour­tesy of Ap­palatch

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.”

Eco friendly!

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.