When five Pittsburghers came up with an idea for a company that creates fabric from plastic bottles collected in Haiti and Honduras, it just made sense to start the business here.
That’s “the short, easy answer,” Kelsey Halling, Thread International‘s director of licensing and partnerships, said about why the company is based in Pittsburgh. “When it came down to it, there’s nothing that can’t be accomplished with trips.”
The rest of the story includes rounds of funding and community support that have pushed aside any thoughts of relocation. Thread is digging in, moving to Homewood in March and hiring neighborhood residents to work on a new product line, and plans to continue to grow and hire locally. It’s a common storyline for Pittsburgh fabric companies. There’s not a large textile scene here, they said, but there is a startup community and a growing interest the source of fabrics — and that’s made a difference.
In Pittsburgh, fabric companies’ founders praised the tech community as a source of support. For Thread, it was essential in finding funding and getting advice, Halling said. Talking with other entrepreneurs has been helpful for Pallavi Golla, too, as she she’s grown Lark Adventurewear, which makes activewear for babies and toddlers to keep them cool and protected from the sun.
Very few textile companies do all stages of production in one place, said Lloyd Wood, director of public affairs for the National Council of Textile Organizations. In most cases, companies contract out steps of creation and assembly, with different parts of the process being completed in across the country — or world. The U.S. textile industry is generally in the southeast, but there are other clusters in places such as Los Angeles and Rhode Island.
“The thing about it now, especially with computer-aided design, is creatives can be anywhere,” Wood said.
Allison Howard reached out to Thread for advice on where to produce the fabric for her company, AURATEK Textiles, which makes good-looking fabric that is also good for your skin. Then, she went to Charlotte to work with a team and create prototypes before creating bed sheets. And while she first looked at manufacturing her product in the U.S., she decided not to, since she was undertaking a large-scale manufacturing project. There’s a lot of timing involved, she said of working with overseas production, adding that while it’s faster to fly the product in, it’s more cost-effective to ship it on a boat.
Many of Lark Adventurewear’s customers are in warm locations, but keeping the company in Pittsburgh allows Golla to live where she wants to with a lower cost of living. Through connections she had from previously living in Los Angeles, she found a textile mill there to work with, keeping production in the U.S., which was important to her. It also allowed her to produce a smaller quantity of fabric at once to lower up-front costs and provide more flexibility, she said.
It’s even more complicated for Thread. From the start, its founders knew they wanted to work with people in Haiti, and now have partners all over the world in both hemispheres spanning multiple time zones, Halling said.
More sustainable fabrics
While the textile community in Pittsburgh is small, interest in sustainable fabrics is growing, Halling said. “There’s enough demand out there,” comparing it to the farm-to-table movement, saying that for fabrics, it’s about where clothes and other products are coming from and who’s making them.
And it’s not just Pittsburgh — Wood said there is “absolutely a push” for sustainability among the companies that the council represents across the U.S. textile industry. He said more products are being designed with their life cycle in mind, and generally, if a company can make a recycled product for the same quality and the same price point as a non-recycled product, they’ll be successful.
That interest in sustainable fabrics is highlighted by Thread’s Kickstarter campaign for its first direct-to-consumer product — a backpack. The campaign hit its funding goal within hours of launching Aug. 8 and is live through Sept. 19 as supporters continue to add to the funds, ensuring they get Thread’s backpack in early 2019. That direct-to-consumer launch means more job openings with Thread in Pittsburgh as logistics and customer service grows, Halling said.
The interest in recycled fabrics helped Megan Dority launch Riverview Fabrics in March. She learned that Thread was no longer doing fabric sales and decided to sell sustainable fabrics in an online store. While buyers are around the world, she said the strong maker movement in Pittsburgh has supported Riverview, and the company has carved a niche selling to individual makers, as well as to small businesses that just want a few 100 yards.
For Nisha Blackwell, founder and CEO of Knotzland, launching a business around reused fabric as a fashion accessory was a “timing thing,” as she’s noticed more brands thinking about reuse and the environment. Customers value that, she said.
“People come [to Knotzland], because we make high-quality bowties,” she said, adding that once they find out about the sustainability aspect, it’s an added bonus. “It’s what turns them into loyal customers.”