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Sewing still a sought-after skill for manufacturers

Katie Tabeling
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Some Delaware manufacturers big and small are still looking — and sometimes struggling— for workers with a niche skill: sewing.

“There’s a rich history on Delmarva, but when it comes to the skill, it’s almost like it’s become a lost world,” said Steve Manlove, of Avalon Industries. “In a sense, we have to start from scratch when it comes to the workforce.”

Avalon Industries designs, develops and manufactures textile products, namely bags, containers for electronics and firearms, for major contractors like Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics as well as other sectors. The company is based in Baltimore, but Manlove aims to move his staff of 20 to Dover soon.

Textile manufacturing has long been a part of the fabric of Delaware’s economy, dating back to 1831 when the Bancroft Mills started production. DuPont later established a textile department in the 1950s, which was later sold and spun off to many other enterprises. Harris Manufacturing used to run a sewing floor in its warehouse in Smyrna before it closed in 2015.

In central Delaware, ILC Dover made a name for itself for making space suits for NASA ahead of the Apollo 11 mission. Back in 1968, seamstresses would be on standby to change anything of the suit, when called and would teach each other how to work with the industrial fabric, according to notes from a Fashion Institute of Technology exhibit.

Today, ILC Dover is more known for its biopharmaceutical manufacturing, but still employs a small number of garment workers. A recent job posting seeks applicants with foundational sewing skills and “the ability to follow a pattern and with a demonstrated aptitude to advance.”

Meanwhile, at Shore Industries, which designs and manufactures porch enclosures, shade sails and boat covers, advertising the job does little help in attracting qualified applicants. The company is looking to relocate from Dover to Preston, Md., in order to shorten the drive to many customers in Baltimore, Annapolis and Washington, D.C.

“You won’t see many applicants, because no one thinks they have the experience. You’ll have better luck in advertising for equipment operators or hand machinists,” Shore Industries owner Mike Pugh said. “There’s two categories of high skill and straight line, and I’ve found you can teach anyone to sew in a straight line. So you take your more qualified people and move them up.”

For the workforce, many small firms have to turn to unexpected solutions. Manlove said he worked closely with a firm to attract visa workers from Central and South America in the past. These days, the workers with visas come from “all over.”

“We’re willing to work with anyone who has the patience to learn the job and the sewing machine, but the visa workforce is mainly where we’ve had our success,” he said. “These people are good, skilled and hard-working people. And we’ve really built up this workforce in Baltimore for 15 years, so it can be a challenge to rebuild it when we move.”

One of the main draws that Delaware provided Manlove was Cape Henlopen High School’s textile program, giving teenagers the skills rarely taught today. In 2016, the high school announced it would start an internship program with First State Manufacturing, another industrial firm that works with federal contracts as well as large clients such as Amazon and Procter & Gamble.

“Part of the misconception is that it’s working 50 hours a day on shirt collars, and that’s not what we’re doing,” Manlove said. “There’s different projects and different aspects of projects to work on.”

Pugh has managed to find his workforce in the marine industry, as boats need sails and covers, as well as the shades his company makes.

“That’s high-end, and it’s a different fabric than what we normally work with. Desperation has really taught us what we can and can’t do,” he added.

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