Maine needs to tap into skills of old-time craftspeople

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Throughout Maine, old mills are empty, idle, and crumbling. Or they’re converted to apartments, shops, and museums. Mostly, Maine’s mills are ghosts of the era when textile, shoe, and lumber mills were Maine’s largest employers.

The mill’s efficiency systems, created by Frederick Winslow Taylor, stunned the world for their productivity, but removed individuality craftsmen used before becoming millworkers. But, as Gen. Stanley McChrystal points out in his bestselling book, ”Team of Teams,” modern communications technology has bypassed Mr. Taylor’s thinking on individuality.

Peter Roberts, who owns Origin Maine, a combat sports clothing manufacturing business in rural Maine, created a model for preserving the know-how of Maine’s millworkers, combined with modern business technology. I will write more on this in the future.

But, earlier, when Mr. Roberts was designing/selling other martial arts clothing, the overseas company he’d hired to make his clothing “ripped off” his “intellectual property, selling it to other brands.” Roberts confronted the company owner, who answered: “Business is business.”

That was “a defining moment,” said Pete, in Jocko Podcast interview #93. “I knew the challenge in front of me.” Everyone said it couldn’t be done, which caused Roberts to do the opposite. “It’s happening,” he said. He would stitch his own line of clothing.

Friends helped Pete cut trees on his property, using the milled logs to build a barn/factory. Next, Pete needed sewing machines and stitchers.

In Lewiston, Pete “found this old-timer, Bill,” who’s been fixing sewing machines for 40 years. He “explained the different types. I became completely absorbed in learning about sewing machines,” said Pete.

Then Pete “found out they don’t make fabric” in the United States, Mexico, or Canada. Depressed, Pete sought advice from a successful Maine businessman named John.

Pete said the basic advice from John was, “You’ve got to be uncomfortable. Everything great takes 10 years to build. Go build it. Be committed. If you believe in it, you have to go all in. And if you gotta put up your house [for working capital], put up your house. You’ll work your way out eventually.”

Next day, Pete and his wife, Amanda, went to a bank and signed their home away for a $200,000 loan. “That was tough for her,” said Pete.

Eventually, Pete knew his company “wasn’t sustainable without weaving our own fabric,” he said. But, by all accounts the cost to do it was around $1 million. Another challenge. “Business, like jiu jitsu, is all about the angles. I had to step to the side and see THIS angle,” Pete said.

Remembering Maine’s weaving heritage, Pete returned to the sewing machine “old-timer” in Lewiston, asking if he knew of any weaving looms. One block away, the remnants of a loom sat in an old 1.5 million square foot mill. Executive Director Rachel Desgrosseilliers of Museum L-A kept that last loom “to preserve our heritage,” she told Pete.

The other looms were shipped to India by a company that bought out the mill. Pete bought the remaining loom for $3,000. He and eight friends spent eight hours moving the loom near a mill window, lowering it by crane onto a flatbed truck, and driving it to Roberts’s barn/factory.

Another Lewiston “old-timer,” Lenny, could make the loom work again. Pete asked Lenny, “How many people know what you know?” Lenny said, ‘Like, five.’ So Lenny passed his knowledge on to us: weaving, pattern making for textiles, all this stuff,”said Pete.

“I talked at our grand opening about Mainers. Generations of folks who put their hands on something. We’re known in Maine for being some of the [world’s] best craftspeople. [Origin Maine’s] ultimate mission is to resurrect our [manufacturing] heritage, build old-world level quality products, and stand behind them. Every stitch. We won’t compromise on that. Ever,” Pete said.

On the web:
Jocko Podcast #93:

Scott K. Fish has served as a communications staffer for Maine Senate and House Republican caucuses, and was communications director for Senate President Kevin Raye. He founded and edited and served as director of communications/public relations for Maine’s Department of Corrections until 2015. He is now using his communications skills to serve clients in the private sector.

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