Small Batch Sewing
Arlo is an industrial sewer. A big bear of a man, he spent seven years in Western Colorado making huge PVC ducting for mine shaft ventilation. Needless to say, heavy needle work doesn’t intimidate him.

Currently, Arlo is making bags and packs in a small batch fashion for a white water company located in Grand Junction. Small batch sewing is just what it sounds like; a handful of people cutting and sewing production runs that range from dozens up to a few hundred pieces at a time.

We recently sat down for Thai food and conversation about the world of sewing machines. I was interested in hearing his thoughts around three simple questions. What advantage does small batch sewing have? What is the biggest disadvantage? And what does the future look like?

When I asked about advantages Arlo immediately replied, “Quality.” He pointed out that in small batch production the sewers are masters of the entire product they are making. “In a small shop we can change our process to match different products. There’s more intention in our sewing and we make corrections as problems come up. We have great quality.” It was a good point, the pride and ownership involved in working with smaller teams is a major plus.

Unfortunately, discussing the disadvantages brought on the usual gripe session that takes place between any two American makers. How do we compete on cost with big brands that use big factories located in far-away lands? In order to be price comparable and bridge the gap with imported goods, small domestic makers often skip wholesale and sell directly to their customers. However, without traditional retail, distribution is challenging for small factories.

Arlo was thoughtful about what the future might bring. He stroked his long bushy beard and complained in jest about being asked to “prognosticate.” Taking his time, he finally answered, “It’s about community. Our products are on rivers on every continent on earth except Antarctica. Worldwide, river runners know who we are because we are inside that community ourselves. They care about us because we care about them. It’s a closed loop and I think there’ll be more of that.” Again, I scribbled down the word “intention” in my little notebook.

I knew Arlo was a ringer when the small bags I had brought him as gifts were instantly turned inside out and closely inspected. Only pros do that. I also found hope in his story. Arlo’s products are more than just beautifully made; they are part of the glue that holds an outdoor community together. Using products made from within the sport highlights enthusiast’s connection with one another. Authentic product always signals membership.

Small batch sewing is concise. Limited by distribution and cost, small makers have responded by getting closer to customers, listening to them and producing products that serve a community. Perhaps caring about what you make is more important than price.

Disclaimer: Mr. Gray’s primary intent while sewing is to avoid disaster. He rarely succeeds. The publisher may not share in his opinions.