March 03, 2013 03:13 PM
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Growing up around her father’s Massachusetts leatherworking shop in the 1980s, Sara Tunstall had a front row seat for the decline of American manufacturing. The Gloversville, New York tanneries where her father would take deer skins were decimated. Her father sold the business, and Tunstall went to college with the idea of becoming a doctor.

After college, in 2001, Tunstall took a trip to Portland. “I came officially for the weekend and never left,” she says. She worked at a veterinary clinic for a little while, but soon soured on the health care field. “I realized working in health care was going to be like fighting a battle every day of my life,” she says. She eventually wound up as the shipping manager, and then production manager, for local bag maker Queen Bee Creations. “The funny part about being a doctor,” Tunstall says, “I decided not to do it because it seemed like a losing battle, and here I am doing American manufacturing, which is a struggle all the time.”

After working for Queen Bee for several years, and getting an MBA at Portland State University, Tunstall began to feel the draw of entrepreneurship. Thinking of various people who had approached Queen Bee over the years looking for contract sewing, she decided to fill the niche. First, she talked to Queen Bee founder Rebecca Pearcy. “Would it freak you out,” she recalls asking her boss, “if I started a contract sewing business? She said, ‘no, I’d probably be your first client.'”

The pair worked out a relationship that continues to this day, with Tunstall’s Spooltown subleasing space from Queen Bee, employing some of its former production workers, and manufacturing many of its products. Spooltown has grown to supply nearly fifty active clients, Tunstall says, with fifteen to twenty being regular production jobs and the rest prototyping, sampling, and product development. Her operation’s ability to work with materials like leather and waxed canvas, with no margin for error, has allowed her to thrive. Besides handbags, Spooltown has made wallets, napkins, lampshade slipcovers, and hats, among other products.

Tunstall attributes her success in an industry that has been widely outsourced to three factors. First, she is eagle-eyed about costs. “I’m not the kind of person that says, Yeah! let’s throw cash in the wind and see if it works out!” she says. Second, rising freight and labor costs are making overseas production less cost-effective than it used to be. And finally, Tunstall says, “there is a growing, palpable momentum for American manufacturing.”

Spooltown’s North Williams workshop, with floor-to-ceiling windows to the sidewalk, allows passersby to see the production, and Tunstall to see their enthusiasm. “When people see the manufacturing happen,” she says, ” it creates a connection that I think we’ve lost in a lot of ways in this country.” When the recession hit, she says, “somehow people realized that they should buy less, and they should buy something they give a shit about. Something high quality, that will last. And learn how to fix it. There’s a deep nostalgia for making things that feels like it had kind of gone away. Then, here it is again. You can just see it rebuilding in people’s faces when they see it happening.”

One response to “Spooltown”

  1. Sandy says:

    I camw here from a link on a blog I like to view. My mood for the Christmas holidays is close to shattered, as the labels on things indicate “IMPORTED”. Upon discovering that the many major excursions to find “locally” made, or produced goods increases my expenses, I am about to give up!
    when I discovered this site, it is inspiring to know that there STILL are some of the the good, old reliable names are still out there in other incarnations.
    There is HOPE, and I would like to encourage all of these places to go for it. Go for it in a big BIG way, and I will support you as my means allow.
    I live in New england and have been so dismayed at the closures of the many mills and factories, or the outsourcing of products with local names still attached!
    Keep up the good work and Best Wishes to all of you who persevere along this path.

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