Rifle’s Whole Works reaps growth as it sews
In a year and a half, The Whole Works has grown from a startup with one seamstress and a single client to an established apparel manufacturer with six employees, 41 clients and 4,531 garments produced with another 1,876 scheduled for production by Nov. 30.
It doesn’t hurt that Something Independent presented the Rifle company with its annual Wright Award last fall. The award recognizes organizations that excel at the intersection of lifestyle and commerce.
“It put us in touch with this community of garment designers and vendors, and we have been riding the wave ever since,” said Whole Works partner Kelly Alford. “We had a little light shown on our vision, and it turned out it was a vision that really appealed to people.”
“We believe in the return of American manufacturing, the power and sanctity of a job and supporting rural economies,” Alford said.
It’s a big endeavor, but the partners are willing to start small. In fact, it’s essential.
“We believe there is a certain scale beyond which growth has a diminishing return,” Alford explained.
That’s a very different model from before the domestic garment industry began to decline. Alford doesn’t think that model was sustainable, either, as it relied on underpaid workers and prices that didn’t reflect the real cost of manufacturing and labor.
“I see the quota-driven approach as a race to the bottom where quality isn’t the goal,” she observed. “We’ve been experimenting with paying by the hour. We find that people are psyched to be here, and that’s when creativity shines.”
She’s the first to admit that The Whole Works approach is made possible only by a fundamental shift in both society and technology.
“It really parallels the food movement,” she said. “We think of our sewers as farmers.”
“I think Colorado is a leader in conscious consumption,” she added. “It supports this model of what Governor Hickenlooper calls small-batch manufacturing.”
“Everyone is kind of inspired by the environment,” factory manager Julie Monroe said. “There’s a lot going on out here.”
Indeed, the project got its start in partnership with GarCo Sewing Works, a Rifle nonprofit that teaches business skills through sewing. It also brought in clients such as Voormi, a vertically integrated garment company out of Pagosa Springs that specializes in outdoor gear made from Rocky Mountain Merino wool.
“The interest we’ve had has been astounding,” Monroe observed. “There’s a common vision across different roles.”
The community of Rifle has also been extremely supportive.
“It’s really neat being on Main Street. We love it when people stick their head in,” Monroe said.
In the end, it all comes down to the human element.
“It always takes two hands and a person behind the machine to produce anything,” Monroe observed.
First to join the team was Mayka Maloney, a former seamstress for the New York garment industry who was working from home and selling her work on Etsy.
“I always liked to create something that someone else might enjoy, but I needed something more stable,” she said.
She now commutes from Parachute to a space that bears little resemblance to a big East Coast factory.
“It’s quite a difference,” she said. “It makes you feel better about coming to work.”
Like Maloney, Rhonda Bivens also did sewing at home.
“I’ve been doing this all my life, but I kind of thought the sewing industry had come to an end, and then I saw the ad,” she recalled. “Part of why I wanted to work here is the satisfaction of bringing things back to being made in the USA.”
Then there’s Katie Varley, a Rifle native who grew up watching her grandparents sew and attended sewing school in San Diego. After failing to find a job there, she returned home and worked wherever she could until she, too, saw an ad in the paper.
“At first I thought it was a joke,” she said. “I could see Denver or Junction but not Rifle.”
“It’s a good job,” she added. “I get to do what I like to do.”
The space offers plenty of room for expansion, so The Whole Works could end up with 10 to 20 employees supporting more in-house vertical integration. A collaboration with Colorado Mountain College for a sewing certificate is in the works, and the company is also applying for an advance manufacturing grant from the state.
After that, you may see Whole Works popping up in other small towns around the state.
“Rather than growing a $40 million company in one community, we’d like to develop a $1 million company that can be replicated 40 times,” Alford explained.
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