The heartland of Detroit’s automative sector is being repurposed by apparel manufacturing, updating warehouses with new equipment and training to meet in-demand roles in the sector. Just 3% of apparel purchased in the States is produced domestically - a margin which presents an opportunity to bring meaningful jobs back to America. Alongside thundering roadways and neglected backyard plots, a new layer of infrastructure is being inserted into pockets of Detroit’s 139mi² urban quilt.
The Industrial Sewing and Innovation Center (ISAIC) is at the heart of Detroit’s revival in apparel, launched in April 2020 to convene the sector and introduce new textile talent to the industrial workforce in South-East Michigan. ISAIC’s 12,000ft² Midtown Detroit facility is funded by workwear manufacturer Carhartt, located on Cass Avenue at the intersection with the Interstate 94.
A pandemic launch set the center on an unexpected PPE course. An ultrasonic mask welding machine was installed, and thousands of isolation gowns were sewed within the first year. The end of the pandemic allowed for the original vision to be pursued, manifested in training program Fundamentals in Sewing Productions (FISP). The 8-week course has been completed by 25 graduates since launching in mid-2020, with placement job locations in apparel, automotive and accessories.
Competing with existing textile centres in the Carolinas, California and Pacific Northwest requires the adoption of advanced manufacturing. ISAIC’s partnerships with apparel companies like Carhartt, Chicken Tramper and DO Apparel allow them to invest in high-spec equipment. Artificial Intelligence is carrying out quality assurance by scanning knit material, while virtual reality headsets have been used to simulate training. An automated knit-turning system, on-demand laser cutter, and multi-ply automated cutter are in place. A 3D Knit machine from Variant3D will arrive from Malibu, California early in 2023.
Ecosystem connections involve Advanced Robotics Manufacturing (ARM) partners at Michigan’s Lawrence Technical University, helping to introduce advanced training projects for the sewn goods industry. Inclusion priorities are upheld by Henderson Sewing, Variant and Tukatech. Higher Education institutions College of Creative Studies, MSU, University of Michigan’s ERB Institute play a role, as do 23 funders including Autodesk, Ford, General Motors and Cordes Foundation.
North-West of ISAIC is another training and production facility - the 5000ft² operation Detroit Denim Co.. Launched in 2012, Detroit Denim’s team of seven is made of a small core of experts steered by founder-owners Brenna Lane and Eric Yelsma (Lane also helped found ISAIC in 2017). Detroit Denim have set out to challenge existing paradigms in apparel, namely running a made-to-order model that reduce wastes and demonstrate that craft and profitability can co-exist. After going through thousands of iterations, their design software can configure to a range of sizes and preferences from clients - all focusing on denim products.
Looking through Detroit Denim’s training program is illuminating. The entire operation has been broken into six production cells with varying amounts of complexity. Even beginner sewers are able to learn on the job, being allocated a specific process to learn the craft. It takes years to progress, but each member of the team meticulously use stopwatches to time the completion of a knit so that managers can look through the data and evaluate where staff member need additional support. Time sheets read 3:17, 4:22, 3:54 - concrete reporting in real-time.
Detroit Denim Co. opened a store in the city’s burgeoning Downtown in November 2022. Lane is candid, admitting that fitters will be able to evaluate critical measurements through visual inspection, but customers are pampered with their typical measurements taken during appointments. Despite this service and a transparent knowledge base on their website, some conventions remain in place.
Located beyond the formal boundary of Detroit in Pontiac is Detroit Sewn, founded by Karen Buscemi in 2015. The operation’s team of 13 employees have the capacity to sew any items, but specialize in knitwear - t-shirts, hoodies, sweatshirts, leggings, joggers and beanies being highest in volume.
ISAIC’s 2023 calendar already looks productive, with five FISP classes scheduled to focus on job-seekers and employer placement partners. They will be rolling out multiple types of new technology - a 3D knitting machine and pinfelting machine. A worker-owned factory incubation is in place to train employees to be successful as leaders of future micro-worker-owned factories. ISAIC also plan to extend systems to support alumni in obtaining full-time employment, and will continue to develop training to offer manufacturers across the company.
Commenting on the state of manufacturing in Detroit, Buscemi is confident and suggests that Michigan presents itself as a center of gravity.
“There are more places for manufacturing, and even though we have clients located all over the country, it’s surprising how many are from Michigan. They all have a passion to make in Michigan if possible, and we are helping them do that,” Buscemi highlights, also making a case for state government involvement, “Many states have growing apparel manufacturing industries because their state government has committed to it, has funding and initiatives in place, and it’s making a real difference. I’ve been calling for this since I did my TEDxDetroit talk on the subject back in 2015!”