Saturday, December 8, 2012

"It seemed like nobody wanted to show me how..."

That theme came up more than once at this year's Nashville SewBiz Meet & Greet at SouthStar last weekend. Our Sew Biz entrepreneurs were telling how they got started in the commercial sewing business. Which may explain why we had another such enthusiastic and informative sharing-time at the meeting - if you want to accomplish anything in the sewing business these days, you better pick your colleagues' brains because it's mostly learn-as-you-grow.

Once again we had a great mix of folks in attendance, including stylists (those people who dress country music stars for shows and videos), a retailer, a journalist, and several cut and sew professionals. We heard a bunch of inspiring and entertaining stories!

In the picture at left, Diane Kuykendall of SouthStar, her husband Mark, and Loretta
react to Otis James' telling of how he came to Nashville and started his bow tie and cap business.

Three years ago, Otis pulled into our parking lot after a referral from Brother Sebastian at the Blue Cloud Abbey in South Dakota and informed us of his plans. With Loretta's guidance, he learned enough about designing, cutting, and sewing to get started and today his business Otis James Nashville is one of the hottest things going in town. And he learned from a real pro. Loretta has professional tailor credentials, does alterations at one of the national department stores locally, and owns Crown Caps Scrub Caps as well.

In this photo Jimmy Davenport of J.D.'s Boat Upholstery relates his unintentional entry in to the boat upholstering business which has led to a contract with a local hospital to renovate the furniture throughout their facility. Listening in are (foreground) David Bloom of Tucker and Bloom which makes and markets messenger bags on the web; Eugene Tipton of Tipton Upholstery, who besides running his business has taught the craft to many students over the years; and Valerie Ford of Destine Fashions and Alterations. Besides specializing in custom sewing, Valerie also teaches sewing from her shop to both adults and children. And by the way, that's Robbie Matthews of SouthStar sitting between Messrs. Tipton and Davenport.

Here you see Amanda Valentine of Valentine Valentine; freelance journalist Libby Callaway, often highlighting fashion subjects, recently relocated from New York's fashion district; Carla Catignani of SouthStar; and Stephanie Thomas of public relations firm TBWA / Chiat / Day.

At right Katy Kattelman, owner of cleverly named Katy K's Ranch Dressing , aka Katy K Designs, shares tips and quips about her longstanding ladies western wear store in the popular 12 South district of Nashville.

And at left, Bill Starks of SouthStar, left, and David Bloom sitting at right listen to Perry Hancock of Challenger Resources discuss his career from Cutters Exchange to Singer to Rimoldi of America to Bemis and now as a manufacturing consultant to outerwear makers and serial entrepreneur.

All in all, it was a great experience because of the people who came and shared their talent and stories, plus the networking opportunities!

How about your neck of the woods? Why not get together a SewBiz Meet & Greet and get to know your colleagues in this fascinating and diverse industry?

We're looking forward to the next Nashville SewBiz Meet & Greet, hopefully this summer, at a sewing workroom TBA.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Second Ever Nashville Sew-Biz Meet & Greet

If you're in the middle Tennessee area working in the sewing industry in any capacity - or wish to be - you are invited to join us at SouthStar on Sunday, December 2, 4-6 p.m., for our second ever Nashville Sew-Biz Meet & Greet.

"In any capacity" covers everything including designing, patternmaking, cutting, sewing, finishing, altering, upholstering, teaching, marketing, supplying - you name it. Whether you own a business or you are your own business or you work for someone else or you're just learning. The more folks who come and meet each other, the more everyone and the local industry profits.

At our last party a couple of years ago, we had a messenger bag maker with decades of experience in the luggage industry, a celebrity clothing designer with his own retail shop, a high-end women's clothing designer who sells her creations through a network of independent boutiques, an independent patternmaker, an independent contract sewer who was a factory manager in her native country before emigrating to the U.S., owners of a local sewing factory, a used sewing machine distributor, and several others. Everyone got a chance to tell the whole group about themselves and then there was time to chat afterwards. It made for great networking and a good time among like-minded people, and we hope it will be even bigger and better this year.

We'll provide the snacks and refreshments, you provide your own valuable self!

Please let us know you're coming by emailing us to

Our address is 233 Oceola Avenue, Nashville, 37209. There's plenty of parking.

We look forward to seeing you here!!

Monday, October 8, 2012

Small is Big

Forbes Magazine reported recently that there are some 27 million businesses in the U.S. About three quarters of those are self-employed individuals. The other six million businesses are nearly all privately held businesses.

All together these privately held businesses account for nearly two thirds of non-government employment and nearly 60% of all sales in the U.S. That's a big impact on the U.S. Economy!

Here at SouthStar, being both privately held and a small business,  we of course have a special place in our hearts for other small businesses. That is not to neglect you big businesses and government agencies. We love your orders too!

But when the fit hit the shan (that's sort of a garment industry joke) four years ago, to a great degree it was the entrepreneurs who carried us through. Big orders seemed to vanish all the sudden at the end of 2008. The big manufacturers were either running down inventory or shutting their doors for good, yet our small business customers kept buying this and that as they always do--as needed.

And then too we saw more and more individuals, perhaps suddenly unemployed or unable to get a job with the big outfits, starting a part time or full time business of their own. Some jumped into their own business for the first time, and some were getting back into it--doing some upholstery work, for example, that they had given up years before for a steady paycheck somewhere else.

Who knows what comes next? The forecasts are gloomy but life is full of surprises. We small businesses learn over time to be prepared for anything. Hopefully not a 40% drop in sales again, but Heaven only knows what 2013 will bring.

One thing for sure, however, is that you small businesses will keep on truckin' somehow in good times or bad. And that's big to us.

Thank you for your patronage!

SouthStar Bulletin #239 is now in the mail. If you're not a current customer or already on our mailing list, shoot us an email and we'll get you going.

Go to SouthStar Catalog Search Page.

Go to SouthStar SewBiz Resources Page.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

New Product: Steamboy Floor Cleaner

I have to admit, even though it's put out by one of our most "reliable" vendors, I was more than a little skeptical when I first looked at their advertisements for the Steamboy #T2, so it took me a while to order one in. Frankly, when they said it both sweeps and cleans, I couldn't figure out what use that was. It seemed like a gimmick, like when somebody pitches you a fabric cutter with a built-in flashlight. (We actually sell one of those. Click here to see it!)

A lot of my house is carpeted, but of course there's the kitchen which has linoleum, the bathrooms that have tile floors, and some other rooms with hardwood floors. These are not high priorities in my cleaning regimen, such as it is. What the vacuum cleaner doesn't get, I can pretty much live with. About once a month the kitchen floor gets so sticky and dingy that I'll have to clean it. That used to mean getting ammonia and water in a bucket and breaking out the old sponge mop. Faced with all that hassle, once a month stretched into more like once a quarter. 

I was tickled when Swiffers came out. They sufficed, but it took two pads to get my small kitchen floor clean. And then as slow as I was to get around to it, the pads were likely to dry out before I could use all that came in a package. Plus, the Swiffer mop apparatus was so flimsy that if it was a tough stain, I ended up on my hands and knees. No fun.

So even if I was skeptical about Steamboy, I was more than willing to check it out. What a revelation! It actually made cleaning the kitchen floor fun. No need for vacuuming. No ammonia. No chemical soaked pads.

Here's all you do: Fill it with water. Plug it in. Then while it's heating up to steam level, move it around your floor like a vacuum cleaner using the electric sweeper feature. It's quite good at getting up dust and miscellaneous items like leaves and stray Cheerios that you're dog missed. Once you've got the debris collected, then you move around the floor again, this time pressing the steamer button as you go. If you come over a tough stain, you dwell on it with the steam a couple of seconds and presto it's gone. At the end you have a nice clean floor and it's just a little damp. In five or ten minutes, it's nice and dry.

As long as your hardwood floors are finished, it works just as well on them as on linoleum. It does use a replaceable pad to wipe up the steam but it is real fabric and washable. Each unit is shipped with an extra pad and includes a hard water filter, which is also replaceable.

My only reservations about this product are twofold: It could use a longer power cord (easily remedied with an extension cord), and it is not exactly ruggedly constructed. It's hardier than the Swiffer getup, but it's no vacuum cleaner and you have to take some care with it or I imagine it would be easy to break the handle. Still its light weight and slim design makes it very maneuverable which is important for navigating around trash cans and toilets and such.

Best of all, we've got it on sale for only $129. Click here for more information and/or to order.

Go to SouthStar Catalog Search Page.

Go to SouthStar SewBiz Resources Page.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

No Doubt

I had a customer tell me once that she had a sewing machine operator who was seldom right but never in doubt.

We’ve all known people like that and maybe we’ve even been that person from time to time. That’s why we laugh when we hear such gems. It’s the Mark Twain appreciation of the quirky human condition that I think is in all us Americans.

I love Twain but my favorite contemporary commentator is the economist Thomas Sowell. As you may have guessed from reading this column (don’t you have work to do???), he tends to be a bit right of center, but what I really like about him is that he has a great way with words. Just look him up and read some of his work.

My favorite Sowell-ism is “It takes a high IQ to evade the obvious.”

It seems to me there are just a few too many of us with college educations these days, and more and more, except for true sciences like engineering and biology and physics and such, I wonder just how well we’re served by all these four year and advanced degrees.

For example, I don’t think it took a high IQ to know that exporting good sewing jobs to Mexico and everywhere else in the world through NAFTA was not such a good idea. We went from something like a million sewing machines operating commercially in the U.S. when I started in this business to less than a tenth of that now. Somehow the folks with high IQ’s and advanced degrees told us we were supposed to see many more jobs than that created in the changeover to a service economy, but I don’t see it. In fact I just saw a story that more people filed for Social Security disability last month than got new jobs.

I may not be so smart, but I prefer to cast my lot with people who actually get out there and shake it than with the academics. Like you folks out there that put needle and thread to fabric and make a living out of it and then buy stuff from us. I think you’re the ones who’ve got it right.

No doubt about it!

Go to SouthStar Catalog Search Page.

Go to SouthStar SewBiz Resources Page.

Monday, July 16, 2012

SewBiz USA: Otis James Nashville

Otis James
In only three years, Nashville's Otis James has made a name for himself around town with his handcrafted bow ties and neckties. He's been featured in the Tennessean and Garden & Gun Magazine, and most recently he has enjoyed national exposure in GQ magazine. With so much sudden success, it seems Otis is one of those people to whom special things just happen all the time!

Tucked away in Marathon Village, Otis' studio is full of scattered hats and neckties in various stages of construction. The whiteboard in the corner is full of custom orders and "to-do's" also in various stages: completed, in progress, and new orders. Currently Otis James shares this space with local leather artisan Emil Erwin, so the studio is an interesting combination of Otis's sewing tools and Emil's various leathercraft.

A native of Knoxville, Otis' presence in the rag trade is fairly new but it seems his passion for creating things has always been there. Before hats and bow ties, Otis James originally left the south to study filmmaking in southern California. It wasn't until a few years out of school, and after some soul searching road trips, that Otis returned to to the southeast with the determination to make clothing. He settled in Nashville and took a job working at Levy's, a local tailoring shop where he learned the basics of construction.

Under the mentorship of Loretta Thompson of Crown Caps Scrub Caps, Otis began experimenting with garment construction and eventually was commissioned to make a tie as a gift for Father's Day. Otis didn't originally plan on just making ties but this Father's Day creation became such a success that custom orders began to pile up and eventually snowballed his hobby into a full time business. However, now that Otis James Nashville is an established brand, he is beginning to branch out and making the move into other areas - he has some particularly good looking hats for sale. Otis eventually wants to take on all aspects of clothing design but for now ties are the bread and butter of the business.

Yet so much care and attention go into the details of Otis James' creations that to call them "bread and butter" is a complete understatement. As an artisan Otis is meticulous: buttonholes are stitched here, finished products are hand stamped, and there are absolutely no sliders on the bow ties. Orders are as customized as you can get; some even have the name of the garment's owner stamped right in. It's these little details that make such a huge impact for the customer and mark a selling point for the brand itself. When you buy a product from Otis James, you're not just supporting a local artisan, you're supporting a way of doing things that few businesses chose to do anymore. Here, the focus is on the quality of the product, not production numbers. And although Otis is soft-spoken about it, it is obvious in his work that he takes his craft very seriously.

Otis James's feature in GQ is out now and it's aptly titled "Nowville". Here GQ crowns Nashville as the hip, new "reborn southern scene". But what's most ironic is that Otis's traditional designs featured in the magazine shine just as brightly alongside those "new and hip" trends that come and go. In fact, there's a better word than hip to describe Otis James's designs: classic.

Contributing writer for this Sew-Biz USA feature is Grace Kay. You can read Grace’s musings on music by visiting her blog, Project Goshen.

Photos courtesy of Otis James Nashville.

Go to SouthStar Catalog Search Page.

Go to SouthStar SewBiz Resources Page.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

SewBiz USA: Sevier Skirts

When Suzanne Sevier Rowland explains the concept behind her business, it's just as unique as the product itself. Suzanne doesn't just sell skirts, she's offering a tailored experience for her clientele. Sevier Skirts, which she founded in 2004, boasts brightly colored designs with distinctive Southern flare

Ironically, Suzanne's journey to becoming a successful entrepreneur very much mirrors her brightly patterned products. A native to the Nashville area, Suzanne grew up with sewing as a hobby, but never intended to make a career out of her talent. She earned a degree in economics and went to work in the corporate world. But as Suzanne's website so perfectly puts it, corporate America just "was not a good fit." So from there Suzanne attended the Fashion Institute of Technology while working in one of New York City's iconic fabric stores, Mood Fabrics.

By the time Suzanne returned to Nashville to start her business, it was with a strong sense of design coupled with a passion for fabrics. Suzanne's love for her fabrics is evident in her warehouse, stocked full of bright jewel tones, mod-like 70's patterns, and fascinating graphic prints among many other unique fabrics. These aren't the typical styles you'll see in department stores; Suzanne's pieces truly respect the fabric without compromising the design.

Another custom feature of Sevier skirts is the way the company markets its products. Sevier Skirts comes directly to its consumers by working closely with local hosts to throw "Skirt Parties" in their private homes. These parties offer in-home consultations and fittings in the atmosphere of a cocktail party, so what results are all the luxuries of a boutique in the comfort of home. This is how Suzanne first started her business, and it's proved tried and true as it is still the primary source of new business for her company.

But what's perhaps most important, and perhaps unique, about Suzanne's brand is her attention to the fit of her product. When asked what is most rewarding about her career, without hesitation Suzanne replies that she loves “fitting a hard to fit body." Unlike most major retailers, Suzanne's brand respects the female form and caters to the fact that not one body is the same as another, much less able to be categorized into just small, medium, or large. Just like the patterns of fabric in her warehouse, Suzanne knows that figures come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. It's this attention to detail that sets Sevier Skirts apart from others in the field. When a customer invests in a Sevier Skirt it truly is a one of a kind, custom fit piece that is exquisitely tailored to the client.

Like all small business owners, Suzanne has weathered her fair share of challenges but also has found many rewarding experiences. She takes pride in creating jobs for individuals, but even moreso, enjoyment in helping them grow and flourish in the field. She's even created a custom training program she calls "Skirt School" to help her associates along.

So what's next for Sevier skirts? Expansion! Suzanne's brand is now active in 18 states and counting, not to mention opening maternity and children's lines. Sevier Skirts also boasts a strong online presence, as well as a fun blog to keep tabs on all the happenings going on in the workshop, as well as styling tips. With all these components in place Sevier Skirts is well on the way to becoming a nationally recognized brand. Suzanne Sevier's future is looking as bright as the fabric she uses!

Contributing writer for this Sew-Biz USA feature is Grace Kay. You can read Grace’s musings on music by visiting her blog, Project Goshen.
Photos courtesy of Sevier Skirts.

Go to SouthStar Catalog Search Page.

Go to SouthStar SewBiz Resources Page.

Friday, April 27, 2012

SewBiz USA: Pointer Brand

This 4th generation maker of overalls and other work apparel in east Tennessee has redesigned their web site, featuring a beautiful video which showcases their cutting & sewing operations:

But don't just watch the video: go the new Pointer Brand web site to see the full Pointer Brand product selection on their site.

Go to SouthStar Catalog Search Page.

Go to SouthStar Sewing Business Resources Page.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Cutting Edge

I was groaning to my S.O. Florie about how much work I had left to do as I was getting ready to put this 237th SouthStar Bulletin to bed. Then it occurred to me that as much effort as it still takes, it's a lot easier than it used to be. Frankly, this Bulletin is on the cutting edge of technology!

When we started in 1989, I had to clip out pictures of the products from vendors' brochures and sometimes even draw the products by hand, carefully paper clip it all together in a big folder, and carry it over to the printer. His "paste-up girl" then had to size the pictures to fit, type the copy I had written by hand, and finally call me to come proof it. It usually took several days before I got that call. Meanwhile we had to print the mailing list on a dot matrix printer and get it over to the mailing service, where it was sliced and diced and glued to each Bulletin. It was weeks between starting on a new Bulletin and finally having it in the mail.

As years passed we got PC's, desktop publishing, scanners, web-based resources, and so on, things my kids take for granted but each of which made a night and day difference in this production. Now I can do the whole thing on a laptop, including the mailing list, and upload it all to the printer. They have machines that print and fold and sort the entire piece including individual addresses all in one process in a matter of hours. If I've really got it together I can get everything updated and to the printer in a single day. Amazing! This is exactly what economists mean when they say that Americans' productivity has increased.

I am fully aware that what you our customers do, defies such automation. Indeed, your sewing jobs are a lot faster than they were 100 years ago, if not 25. But manual labor and artistry are still the essence of what you do in the rag trade.

So it seems that you Sew-Biz folks are the ones on the real cutting edge!

We thank you for choosing us to be a part of your great work.

Go to SouthStar Catalog Search Page.

Go to SouthStar SewBiz Resources Page.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

SewBiz USA: Tucker & Bloom

Form and function. Can the two coexist, or does design overwhelm the underlying importance of construction? According to the father/son entrepreneurs who comprise Nashville sewing business Tucker & Bloom, form is inseparable from function. With over thirty years in the bag industry, head designer David Bloom has created a unique brand of designer bags that honor aesthetic design without compromising the importance of construction.

The man behind the bags is just as unique: David Bloom's start in the "rag business" was more of a chance encounter. Bloom was studying jazz guitar at Berklee School of Music in Boston when he first began collaborating with a friend on handbag construction. Bloom stayed with it, sharpening his skills through experience, and eventually gave up a potential career in music for one in the art of sewn product design and manufacturing. What resulted from Bloom's self-taught background is modern American design utilizing classic European techniques.

After working in major design powerhouses like Hartman Luggage, Bloom eventually relocated to Nashville and founded Tucker & Bloom with his son Case. Aside from the logistics of relocating, starting an independent business presented its own set of challenges. And what exactly is the biggest challenge for Tucker & Bloom? "Branding,” Bloom readily answers – along with producing local product at an affordable price. Nowadays many materials are outsourced at lower prices from international vendors, which makes the American textile business a difficult (and expensive) venture.

Despite the challenges of growing an independent business, Tucker & Bloom still honors the importance of domestic manufacturing without compromising design. In fact, Tucker & Bloom boasts some of the most specialized products in the business. Producing custom bags specifically designed for clientele needs isn’t something you’d see from Macy’s.

Ever heard of a bag specifically designed for DJ equipment? Tucker & Bloom has one! The influence of Nashville’s status as Music City USA can be seen in a recent Tucker & Bloom creation, a custom bag for a prominent DJ to store sound equipment. There is also a bag designed specifically for photographers to store camera lenses, cords, and other equipment efficiently (and safely)... along with their signature line of messenger bags and other accessories.

But what’s most interesting about this business, and particularly important, is the fact that these well made bags and cases do not carry with them the attitude and pomp you find in other embellished products. They are humbly stylish with beautifully monogrammed buckles and tabs against the well-wrought textile. Tucker & Bloom describes this subtlety best on its website as a look that “looks like business” but is tailored for those who “want to describe that look for themselves.” Which emphasizes an important point for Tucker and Bloom customers: these bags truly enhance your personal style; they don’t define it.

Anyone who lives in Nashville is well aware that it is an alternative town. And to have the alternative bag to match? Now that’s the selling - and branding - angle for Tucker & Bloom.

Contributing writer for this Sew-Biz USA feature is Grace Kay. You can read Grace’s musings on music by visiting her blog, Project Goshen.

Go to SouthStar Catalog Search Page.
Go to SouthStar SewBiz Resources Page.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Property Rights

A few years ago, some local eggheads here in Nashville decided that they would like to create a big hotel/retail development near Music Row, the famous street where country music has been recorded and published for years and years.

The developers acquired all the land they needed except one parcel, owned by a little lady who just refused to sell.

Her late husband had started their business some decades earlier and she had continued running it after his death. It specialized in making demo records for aspiring country music performers. A lot of her business came from word of mouth. She felt the location and its longstanding reputation were important to her business.

So despite all kinds of pressure put on her by the developers and some of her neighbors who were eager for their property to appreciate, she would not budge.

No problem. The developers went to the "progressive" government of our fair city and convinced them the city stood to make a lot more tax revenue if the development were built. So the city promptly condemned her property.

End of story? No! She fought back. And she won! And for reasons that have nothing to do with her, the development was never built, but there are blocks of empty buildings around her producing hardly any tax revenue at all now!

There's a moral in this story for us small business owners: government is not our friend. And the only interest government on any level has in our property is their ability to tax it. But property rights are the absolute basis of a free market economy and thus of a nation where citizens are promised "unalienable" rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happines.

In this year of decision, those of us who fuel the economic engine of this country with our thousands of small businesses must choose carefully the candidates who recognize our rights, work to protect them, and will keep government off our property, out of our business, and off our backs.