Plante Muse: Libby Mattern, Founder of Course of Trade
Meet Libby Mattern, Plante Muse.
Libby, who is a close friend of ours (and former classmate of Leah's!), has worked in New York's fashion industry for years. After searching for skilled sewers to join her team at Malia Mills, she realized that there was a lack of trained talent to keep New York's garment scene thriving. So, she started Course of Trade. This nonprofit provides free sewing training to New Yorkers to help meet the gap in demand for skilled labor, all while provide high-paying jobs for those in need. Read on to learn about how Course of Trade works, the challenges facing domestic garment production, and what Libby sees for the future of the program, herself, and the manufacturing community.
Explain how the Course of Trade non-profit began and evolved. Where and when did the idea behind it begin?
Course of Trade was born out of my desire to open my own factory. I started to do some of the legwork, in partnership with Malia Mills, and then I hit a roadblock. I was trying to find sewers to join our team, and the pickings were slim. So, I started to dig a little deeper. Over half of the sewers in the workforce are over the age of 45. The trained talent to replace them as they age out of the workforce simply doesn’t exist. I’ve been working in production for years and I absolutely love figuring out how garments go together — so I set out to teach sewing with the same type of problem solving methods I use in my day-to-day production job. I love the NYC garment scene so much. Training the next generation is my way of helping to ensure that it remains vibrant and viable.
You just began working with your first trainee, how did you scout the trainee and what is your role throughout the training process?
She’s made it easy on me because she is so incredible. It’s been a journey! We’re both learning from each other, which has been awesome. I’ve learned the kinks I still need to work out, and she’s learned an entirely new skill set. I have work to do to sharpen up the program, but we are off to a great start.
What are the primary benefits of domestic garment production?
Domestic garment production allows small businesses and emerging designers, like Plante, to thrive. Minimum order quantities for most overseas factories are high and quality control can be an issue when you can’t immediately oversee the process. Domestic production offers lower minimum orders, allowing designers to test new silhouettes and fabrics, and a more manageable quality control process.
What is the biggest challenge for domestic garment production growth? How does Course of Trade aim to overcome these challenges?
The biggest challenge has and always will be price per garment. Domestic production is certainly more expensive, but it allows companies to be nimble, which is a huge advantage. Thankfully, I think consumers are beginning to really understand that quality comes at a price. Buying domestically made clothing means that you’re supporting businesses that are offering good jobs at a fair pay. No matter what you pay, your clothes aren’t made by machines — they’re made by human beings. Take a $10 tank top: that means that the fabric needs to be purchased, someone needs to cut it, the thread needs to be purchased, someone needs to sew the garment, it needs to be packed up, and it needs to be shipped overseas and into the store — all while ensuring that there will be a little profit left. Even if the company selling the tank top makes only $1 in return, that means that someone probably got paid less than $5 to make that shirt. Being a conscious consumer whenever possible is so important.
"No matter what you pay, your clothes aren’t made by machines — they’re made by human beings."
What changes have you noticed in garment supply and demand in recent years?
Factories are moving ALL the time. The garment district is becoming so wildly expensive that factories can’t afford to stick around. At Malia Mills, we just brought our main clothing factory in-house in our HQ in Brooklyn because he couldn’t afford to be in Manhattan anymore — it’s a crazy real estate scene out there. Sad to see people having to leave the garment district, but Brooklyn is a refreshing environment!
In your opinion, does domestic production promote more ethically responsible and sustainable manufacturing practices?
Oh, for sure. At least at Malia Mills, the factories we work with are incredible. They pay fairly and have warm and inviting atmospheres for their employees. Fair wages and safe working conditions are not something that can be guaranteed in factories outside the US.
What are some core values Course of Trade is built on?
Empowerment through education and pride in trade — those are the core values of CoT. Sewing is incredibly empowering — really, any type of creation is empowering. Being able to sit at a machine and craft something you can truly be proud of is an amazing feeling. I hope we can help boost the confidence of every trainee that comes through our door and spread compassion and patience to every person we work with.
What does the CoT training process involve?
We pay our trainees through a grant partnership with NY Fashion MADE, which has really made this all possible. The training is three weeks at 4 hours a day, or 4 days a week for two weeks at 8 hours a day. We utilize a three-pronged approach to learning. We have a trilingual manual that corresponds to a video that takes the new sewer through every stage of the process. I’m there the whole time, so I do demonstrations and explain some of the more complicated steps. My goal is to take as much of the fear and anxiety out of the process as possible.
In the future, do you plan to expand factory partnerships to other parts of the US?
That would be amazing! The great thing about creating a learning system is that I could do it anywhere — all I need are some sewing machines. Hopefully I can teach someday in L.A. — maybe Salt Lake City? They have a burgeoning manufacturing scene that would be a boon to the garment manufacturing economy.
Tell us about some of the greatest challenges and rewarding moments while starting CoT.
I’m learning as I go! It’s been eye opening — there’s so much to learn about the non-profit world. Even just getting my 501c3 was difficult. The biggest challenge I’m facing now is fundraising — lots to learn! It’s been so inspiring to see how supportive everyone has been when I talk about CoT. We are currently running our very first fundraiser: our first one hundred bags. The bag is designed with the express intent of teaching the skills necessary to work in a factory.
We are currently running our very first fundraiser: our first one hundred bags.
We’re producing 100 bags and utilizing the proceeds to pay for training the next students! I tear up a little every time someone buys a bag — it’s really been so heartwarming to see the outpouring of support.
What is your primary focus and goal for Course of Trade now?
My goal right now is to find amazing factory partners. As I train, I hope to have an easy pipeline to places that I know and trust where I can place the graduates. I have a several phenomenal partners now, but the more the merrier on that front!
What are your hopes and plans for Course of Trade moving forward?
So many! I really would love to have my own teaching factory someday. I can do quite a bit in a few short weeks of training, but nothing compares to sitting at a machine on the factory floor. To get someone up to speed and moving at the pace of a seasoned sewer, they need to have an opportunity to acclimate. If I can someday open a factory that would allow that portion of the learning process to happen in a controlled, comfortable environment, that would be huge. In the short term, I’m focusing on training as many people as possible and building quality relationships with factories.
Who are your partners and how can people become involved with course of trade?
My day job is Production Director for Malia Mills, which means I am in and out of the factories and working with our in-house sample team and cutter to create our swim and clothing. Malia has been amazing. Three years ago, when I came to her with my dream to open a factory, she basically said “go for it — see what happens.” When I came back not too long after and explained the problems I was having with hiring, she helped coach me through it. Then when I finally came back to her in December and explained the non-profit I had created, so was so unbelievably supportive and excited. She’s been an amazing partner through all of this and has helped me really keep moving forward.
Ed note: Course of Trade is always looking to interview for factory partners and students! Head over to courseoftrade.org to sign up.