We Made This | Artisan Products by Refugee Women

Fashioning Change

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Sasha KalcheffComment

Knotty Tie Co.

by Jamie Siebrase on June 9, 2015 on Company Week


Denver / Founded: 2013 / Privately owned / Employees: 12

Co-founders Jeremy Priest and Mark Johnson wanted to make something meaningful with their hands. The result is a whole new breed of necktie.

                                     Photos by: Kara Pearson

                                    Photos by: Kara Pearson

After serving in the military and graduating from Metropolitan State University of Denver, Jeremy Priest was volunteering with We Made This, one of the African Community Center's programs for refugees, when he noticed a need for ongoing workforce opportunities for Colorado's refugees and asylum-seekers. Many of the folks Priest met were having a hard time adjusting to life in America because of language and cultural barriers.

"Their credentials don't always transfer," explains Priest. Most of the refugees and asylum-seekers Priest encountered, though, had basic sewing skills. We Made This expanded on those pre-existing skills, but, Priest explains, "There weren't many jobs for them when they graduated the program."

Priest linked up with co-founder Mark Johnson, and the duo purchased textile-printing equipment in order to make an ordinary garment more impactful both to the sewers -- half of whom are refugees or asylum-seekers -- and customers.

At Knotty Tie Co., the customer really does come first. That's because clients are involved in all aspects design. After filling out an online form, new customers are paired with a designer who works closely with the consumer to create, well, anything.

"The customer supplies the idea, and we can take any design element and make it into a beautiful pattern," Priest explains. From a bowtie with your best friend's face to a necktie with robots and llamas, imagination is the one and only limitation when seeing your unique, certified organic cotton concept come to fruition.

Knotty Tie Co. supplies individuals, companies and wedding parties from all over the world, and the company will make a single tie or 1,000 ties, depending on the client's demand. Ties are customizable in terms of size, length, color and design. "Where our company shines," says Priest, "is in the customer experience."

Technically, Knotty Tie Co. isn't tie-exclusive anymore. Last winter, it added infinity scarves to its repertoire, and Priest and Johnson are currently prototyping such offerings as suspenders and socks. All products are handmade in a facility in the Denver's Art District on Santas Fe, and about half of Knotty Tie Co.'s staff is refugees or asylum-seekers.

This year, Priest says his company will bring in about $1 million in revenue -- that's up from approximately $45,000 during Knotty Tie Co.'s first year in business. "We've been adding staff and investing in improving operations and customer experience; we have more inquiries than we can handle right now," admits Priest.

Most of Knotty Tie Co.'s sales are online. "We also do really well at local flea markets, and our shop is open daily for retail, design and manufacturing," says Priest, adding, "We love the local presence."

Challenges: Being both a seller and a manufacturer. "Manufacturing and sales should be increasing at the same rate, but that doesn't always happen as smoothly as we'd like," says Priest, adding, "If we have a really good sales month, then the next month we have to increase manufacturing capacity dramatically." The flip also holds: "You can have one bad sales month, and then our manufacturing staff is way too big."

Opportunities: Knotty Tie Co. plans to add up to twenty new employees in the next year and a half. "We're excited to continue to employ refugees and asylees, and to help them improve their livelihood," Priest says. The goal is to introduce more products -- and possibly crossover into home goods (think: curtains). "We want to position ourselves as the most ethical manufacturer of awesome, custom goods," says Priest.

Needs: "We're really struggling to find space in Denver," says Priest, citing a specific shortage of 2,000- to 4,000-square-foot industrial spaces. "We're working with the city and our investors to get into a facility that allows us to grow."


International Women's Day - Women to Watch Awards

Allie BurrittComment

On this day, we want to celebrate! Here are excerpts from the Women to Watch awards honoring our WMT sewing teachers Tin Tin and Florence. The League of Women Voters will present these awards on March 22 to Tin Tin and Florence. (photo credit: Rose Dreisbach)

In 2015, WMT received the national award from Eileen Fisher Inc. for activating leadership. Through this grant money, we have grown to two staffed sewing teachers in the classroom. 

"Tin Tin Pyone is a woman to watch in Denver because she is actively fostering community connections that strengthen our city. Tin Tin’s leadership in the We Made This classroom as the lead sewing teacher is creating women who not only find empowerment and courage for success in themselves but the desire to build community among each other. Additionally, when the program is conducting outreach, fundraisers, sales, employment opportunities and other events, Tin Tin gracefully lends herself as a bridge between our students and the wider Denver public. As she said herself, “I always dreamt about helping WMT grow more than it has already. I want to welcome and provide opportunities for every woman who needs help. For those who do not speak English, know how to ride RTD, or have other challenges, I am here to help them. I am ready to help everyone.” In her own community of Burmese refugees, she is consistently encouraging women to step outside of the home and get involved. It is this passion for leading, teaching, and persevering that makes Tin Tin an influential Denver woman."

"Florence is originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

It takes a strong woman to survive a life like Florence’s, but an even stronger one to survive with hope and faith intact. Florence has strength, hope, and faith but above all she has courage. In the WMT classroom she has taken on leadership and responsibilities that would be intimidating for most. She has done this with incredible success. She has helped to create a community of women who are more empowered in their lives. As a mother, she teaches her children to continue their educations so they can both hope for and achieve their dreams. She may be faced with the challenges of supporting her family, learning a new language, integrating into a new city, and more,but she works every day to meet those challenges with courage and hope so that the future will be brighter. Florence is an inspiration and example to all who meet her. She is always setting an example for others that it is possible to overcome hardship and achieve greatness."



Tin Tin: Sewing Teacher and Classroom Supervisor

Allie BurrittComment

Our We Made This paid staff is comprised of two individuals: Rachael Cox (Program Coordinator) and Tin Tin Pyone (Sewing Teacher and Classroom Supervisor).  With your tax exempt donation, your support helps to maintain a steady income for Tin Tin and also provides a Teaching Scholarship opportunity for another graduate of WMT: Florence Bilombile.  Please consider donating or attending a Sip and Sew Event (next event Oct. 23 6-9pm) in order for our initiative to continue providing these leadership positions within our program.

A little bit about Tin Tin: (interviewed by Kara Davis)

Where are you from?

I was born in Burma and resettled in the United States through Fort Wayne, Indiana, where I lived for several years before moving with one of my daughters to Bowling Green, KY for 3 months. There, my daughter works as a case manager for a resettlement organization. I have four daughters and one son, including 5 grand children. In April of 2011, I moved to Denver, CO where I first began to volunteer at We Made This.  In 2013, I began working as the sewing teacher and started to contribute to the designs and lessons we use in our classroom.  

Why did you decide to start volunteering at We Made This?

I started sewing as a teenager in Burma, making clothes for friends and family and running a small business out of my home. Sewing is my favorite job, ever since I was young. I also worked in a sewing factory in the United States when I lived in Fort Wayne, IN. Most of the women at We Made This do not know anything about sewing, so I am happy to use my previous experience and my knowledge to teach others. I also learn many new things from the other artisans and just from being in the classroom, like new English vocabulary. We work hard together to help eachother.

What changes would you like to see happen at WMT?

I believe that if WMT could reach more customers it would be great to help increase the profits for the women. I wish the ladies could use WMT as their only source of employment.


A Movie About Refugees

Stacia DenhartComment

The Good Lie, a movie starring Reese Witherspoon, is currently showing in select theaters.  It tells the story of the 1980s-1990s Sudanese conflict, the journey of the Lost Boys', and the realities of resettlement in America. Go see the movie – you'll laugh a little, cry a little, and learn a lot!

Coinciding with the movie, the United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants has launched a campaign, called Refugees In America.  Using social media and multimedia, this campaign shines a light on the challenges faced by refugees while also celebrating the ways these new Americans enrich our neighborhoods, our culture, and our nation.  Check it out at refugeesinamerica.org.



The History of We Made This

Stacia DenhartComment

Beginning in the fall of 2009, Kristen Damron, an MSW intern, and four women from the African Community Center began a sewing program using donated machines and volunteer sewing teachers.

The program’s first funding opportunity was making fabric coffee bags for a local coffee shop, Pablos Coffee.  WMT began making more items and all were tagged with a photo of the sewer and a short biography connecting the buyer to the sewer.

 In 2010, Ashley Nemiro (MSW 2010, currently pursuing Phd at UNC) started as Program Coordinator.  WMT grew in participants within the classroom and in the community by selling opportunities and increasing in our products.   We moved locations, increased in volunteers and funds were donated to purchase new machines and industrial equipment.

In Summer of 2011, Rachael Cox (BFA Textile and Costume Design, Fabric Designer and Product Instructor for Amani Ya Juu in Nairobi, Kenya, and Sales Manager at Anthropologie) began a succinct sewing curriculum that pairs the technical skill-sets to our product line, incorporating signature foundation fabrics and dyed materials. Financial Literacy training was added to our curriculum that provides guidance and financial education for artisans.  In June 2012, our Etsy Store (WeMadeThisDenver) was re-launched and a WMT Boutique opened at our ACC Safari Thrift Store in Aurora, CO.