When Ted and Candice Hoffman purchased a fabric company 14 years ago after successful careers in the tech industry, they knew they were in for a creative challenge. This year their company, Clothworks, will dye its millionth yard of American Made Brand fabric, one of the only quilting fabrics produced entirely in the United States. The fact that this milestone is happening in the midst of a global pandemic makes it even more significant.
Searching for a new venture
Ted Hoffman says he joined Microsoft back when the company was made up of around 18,000 employees and left when it was around 118,000. Although big tech wasn’t for him, he missed the atmosphere of entrepreneurialism he’d experienced in the early days, and he and his wife Candice knew they wanted to be directly involved in the management of their next venture.
“I wanted to ‘be my own Bill Gates,” Hoffman says.
They began hunting for an enterprise that would allow them to exercise their creativity in business and the arts and purchased Clothworks on March 15, 2006. Originally a fabric distributor, the company had shifted over the years from selling to department stores to selling to independent quilt shops.
At their first Quilt Market, they realized their new industry was drastically different from the tech world. Ted remembers Candice commenting, “Everyone’s all hugging each other!” While there’s a healthy amount of competition in the quilting space, it was nothing compared to the tech world. It seemed the perfect environment for innovators to shake things up a bit.
Shaking things up
“When you buy a business, you kind of go with what you’ve got,” Hoffman says. This meant having their fabrics produced in Japan and Korea, centers of premium quilting fabric manufacturing. But as they found their footing and their unique identities as business owners, the Hoffmans were ready for a new challenge.
Ted found himself asking over and over, “Why can’t we do it here?” Why couldn’t Clothworks produce and manufacture high-quality quilting fabric entirely in the United States? It turns out, moving the process of fabric production back to home soil was more daunting and difficult than it initially appeared.
Accepting the challenge of domestic manufacturing
As he identified the different links in the supply chain, Hoffman learned that US-milled products were just not up to the standards quilters had come to expect. Over the past few decades, textile manufacturing in the US had shifted toward industrial products rather than over-the-counter fabrics for quilt shops.
Hoffman recognized from the beginning that he had a long road ahead of him. “The mills in Japan and Korea had this down,” he says. And he knew that independent quilt shops had high standards for fabric quality. “We had to get a different yarn spun by the spinner, a different weave done by the weaver, just a completely different process.”
What kept him going? “I know this will sound corny, but it was a bit of patriotism,” Hoffman admits. He says he’s witnessed so much manufacturing leaving the country, that a switch was flipped in his mind, and he just became determined to figure it out.
Cotton at the spinning mill.
Photo courtesy of Clothworks.
Even though potential manufacturing suppliers and partners weren’t set up to create quilting cotton, Hoffman said he got enthusiastic responses when he presented the project to them. “They’d say ‘Quilting! My grandmother does that. Tell me more about it!’”
It took years to fine-tune production here in the US. “It was a big education process,” Hoffman recalls. What kept him going through each iteration were the encouraging emails from customers who were enthusiastic and grateful that they would be able to buy quilting fabric made in the US. Over time they’ve improved the American Made Brand base cloth and today, the fabric has a beautiful hand that the Hoffmans are very proud of. “The yarn that we use is better. The dyes are better. The processes we finish for hand are better.” If shops or consumers tried it once a few years ago, Hoffman encourages them to try it again now.
Hoffman says that the key to Clothworks’ success is a high-quality product and a willingness to meet independent quilt shops where they are. Whether a shop can order a full line and pay up-front or would rather order a smaller minimum and use terms, Hoffman says that kind of flexibility and support make Clothworks an attractive company to work with.
Quilts made with American Made Brand fabric.
Photo courtesy of Clothworks.
The Millionth Yard
While the exact date for the shipping of their millionth yard isn’t certain, it will happen before the end of 2020. COVID-19 has disrupted some normal business operations, but challenges are nothing new or unwelcome to Hoffman and his team. “The demand for our American Made Brand Cotton Solids for mask making has been off the hook. So we are very happy about that,” says Hoffman.
For their Millionth Yard promotion, they’ve dropped prices dramatically to make it easier for independent shops to carry their fabrics. A free sample pack is available to shops who want to try before they buy by. Shops can send a request to firstname.lastname@example.org to receive a secret link to order one.
Clothworks is treating its retailers as individual customers and making an exciting game out of the act of carrying the product. The Millionth Yard promotion includes prizes for fabric buyers in each state and a grand prize of a full collection of all 90 colors of their solid quilting cotton.
Clothworks has taken a risk by investing so much time and resources into a production process that was long ago deemed unsustainable and unprofitable. Now though, perhaps more than ever, consumers value products manufactured in the United States. A million yards later, the Hoffmans’ bet is paying off.
Mallory Donohue is one half of the hilarious and informative weekly podcast, Sewing Out Loud. Over at SewHere.com, she and her mother Zede Donohue produce online sewing classes and drafting guides to help people of all sizes, ages and genders make well-fitting clothing. You can hang out and sew with Mallory, Zede, and 20,000 other thoughtful “Sewing Machines” in the engaging, inclusive Self Sewn Wardrobe Facebook Group. Sew Long, and Sew Happy!