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!

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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.

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