Going Organic Adds Value to Hand-Printed Clothing Line

Artists and serial entrepreneurs Jan and Gary Stephens have long taken pride in their ecological lifestyle. The couple lives “off the grid” outside Willits, Calif., in a passive solar envelope house that’s surrounded by an organic garden.

In the early 2000s, the Stephens started thinking about the cotton they had been using to produce and sell dyed and hand-printed clothing for the past decade. At that time, Jan (pictured) recalls, “I was eating organic, but I wasn’t wearing organic.” Her research suggested that by supporting companies using conventional cotton, they were contributing to environmental degradation.

Their search for organic cotton garments made in the U.S. didn’t yield the styles they sought. So, in 2004, the pair began producing a line of clothing called Organic Attire. Jan reports that their gross income has more than doubled in the ten years since, leading to a healthier bottom line, despite increased costs of production.

“It’s been quite the learning curve,” Jan tells the Intuit Small Business Blog. “I never took any classes, but the people I have worked with have been great.”

Made in the U.S.A.

The intricate process of production begins with a pattern maker in San Francisco. “I start with something that’s already been out there, and then I change it and make it my own,” Jan says. She then alters a neckline or change a sleeve length until she achieves the design she envisions. “I’m trying to create my own style based on what I like.”

Subcontracting garment manufacturing doesn’t mean the Stephens can sit back and relax. “We shrink-test everything,” Jan says. Gary draws a 10-inch square on a piece of the organic fabric in indelible ink, then puts it through a wash and dry and measures the square again. Jan plugs the results into a spreadsheet that calculates the percentage of shrinkage, so she can determine how the cotton fabric should be cut. “I definitely had to put my high-school math to service,” she says.

Jan gives those shrinkage percentages to a marker maker. A marker is a long roll of paper on which garment pieces are laid out like a puzzle, showing the sewers how to cut the fabric with as little waste as possible. “I have to figure out how much of each thing I need and how many layers [of fabric] to do,” Jan says.

The marker goes to a manufacturer in Los Angeles. Production runs can be an issue for a small clothing retailer like Organic Attire. “We have been able to find a company that has been able to work with us, so that we can actually have 30 of one size and style made instead of hundreds,” Jan says. “It definitely is more expensive making our own clothing.”

Business Challenges and Growth

Organic Attire does its biggest production run during the winter, which is its off season. The Stephens sell most of their clothing at the summer craft fairs. This year, Jan says, she bought 1,500 yards of fabric — most of what they will need for the year — so cash flow can be a challenge. “Last year, we actually took out a loan for the first time ever to pay for it,” she adds.

The investment in their own organic clothing has paid off for the Stephens. “Our business has grown constantly,” says Jan. “Last year, we did [20 percent] fewer shows and made more money.”

Organic Attire’s clothes cost more than mass-produced clothing, but the Stephens try to keep prices as low as possible, she adds. “I think people who realize that they’re buying organic cotton wearable art that’s made in the United States. They understand that they’re getting a good value.”

About Laura McCamy

Laura McCamy is a freelance reporter who has written about economic development, real estate, small business, and other topics for a variety of media outlets. As a longtime business owner, Laura is a firm believer in the power of small businesses to change the world for the better. Follow her on Twitter at @lmcwords.
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