Roadtrip Day 3: A Little Needling

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Last night we decided to drive around the small town itself where we found lots of shops and restaurants worth exploring. We had an authentic 1860’s dinner at the XXX. The building had been used by Confederate sharpshooters during the Battle. And according to the Internet, it could be haunted. We wake at our hotel on the outskirts of Gettysburg, XXX. It’s nice and clean. Not much more. Off we go, about an hour to get to our embroidery factory. It’s in a small town surrounded by twisty country roads and hilly farms. It’s in an unassuming storefront. As you walk in the front door you realize you’re in the shipping department, surrounded by boxes marked with Hanes and Champion and Under Armor. The factory does embroidery on shirts and hats and bags that are produced by other factories. For us, they embroider on items that are Made In America. They’re a small company, although fairly big for an embroiderer, with eight people in the building the day we visit. Sure, they’ll embroider on items made elsewhere. But they prefer to see the Made In USA label. The embroidery business has largely been off-shored, so they’ve felt first-hand the impact of the overseas garment industry. There are six machines in the main room. Each machine has 15 ‘heads’ where a shirt, or hat or bag is mounted and embroidered. We meet XXX working one of the machines. She tells us how she has mastered them, how she can do some basic maintenance to keep them going, how she can tweak them to make them perform ‘just so’ when she needs them. She’s been there for six years. In the computer room, we meet XXX. He’s been there XXX years. He digitizes the artwork that comes with each order, converting the graphics to instructions for the computerized embroidery heads. He’s a mouse and a computer screen to add or remove stitches from the embroidery instructions, to help make production more efficient. We find XXX. She’s working on a massive project, with a twelve-head machine simultaneously embroidering a huge muslin cloth with 12 four-inch American flags. The machine finishes the flags and stops, she pulls the muslin forward and starts the machine for another set. These flags will eventually be cut out and, like a patch, sewn onto something else. XXX got her start four years ago. The operation is pretty busy, and every order has a deadline. It’s pretty loud, too. I sense that everyone’s used to that – they just talk louder when needed. They tell me it’s nowhere close to the business that they once had, before overseas manufacturing -- and the Internet – took much of the business away. They no longer work two shifts. And they started offering screen printing to fill in the lulls. Nearly every inch of the building is production space. There are no executive offices, no conference rooms, no reception desk. There are no training courses for embroidery people. You follow someone around and gradually learn by observing and by trying it yourself. It takes a few years to master the equipment. And a few more years to learn what to expect from the various and odd fabrics, shirts, jackets, bags and hats that others want embroidered. We walk out finally with lots of gratitude toward the folks who know how the equipment works best, and who make the end-products look so beautiful. We’re off to Fredericksburg, Virginia for our next stop. But first, we have about five hours of driving.
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