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March 4, 2019 Focus: Manufacturing

Three niche textile manufacturers hit their stride, set their sights on expanded growth

Photo / Tim Greenway Flowfold, known for its durable, lightweight wallets and other outdoor gear made out of composite materials, was founded in 2010 by Charles Friedman (left) and Devin McNeill (not pictured), childhood pals who were also at University of Maine together. James Morin (right) has since joined the company.
Photo / Courtesy of Hyperlite Mountain Gear The Hyperlite 2400 Windrider weighs only 1.87 pounds.
Ben Waxman and Whitney Reynolds at American Roots in Westbrook, with the factory in the background File Photo / Jim Neuger Whitney Reynolds and Ben Waxman, co-owners of American Roots, at the company's Westbrook facility last year.
Photo / Jim Neuger Stitchers at the American Roots production facility in Westbrook.
Photos / Courtesy of Hyperlite Mountain Gear Dan St. Pierre, left, CFO of Hyperlite Mountain Gear, and Mike St. Pierre, CEO.
Photo / Tim Greenway An automated fabric cutter cuts recycled windsurfing sailcloth for Flowfold wallets at its Gorham facility.

“These walls, if they could talk,” Whitney Reynolds says at Westbrook's renovated Dana Warp Mill building that's home to American Roots, the blanket and apparel maker she and husband Ben Waxman founded in 2015.

Spread out over 14,000 square feet, it's more than triple the space of the textile company's original Portland location. On a lower floor, Ben's mother, Dory Waxman, runs Old Port Wool & Textile Co. and a sewing school that trains mainly immigrant women as stitchers for American Roots and other employers. Photos in the corridors of a bygone manufacturing era add to the ambiance.

“We set out to bring something back, an industry that was all but dying in this country,” Reynolds says, “so to end up in a building where textiles were originally being made is a pretty special thing.”

“And to actually provide healthy, safe, work conditions, because the people that worked in this mill 100 years ago did not have that,” adds Waxman. “My mother calls it the magical mill. You've got a lot of makers in this place.”

American Roots, along with Flowfold in Gorham and Hyperlite Mountain Gear in Biddeford, lead Maine's new crop of niche textile makers. As traditional manufacturing struggles to attract young talent, the three are hitting their stride as they invest in technology, expand their reach and create jobs.

Typically, for Mainers, they're also rooting for one another.

“Our friends at Flowfold and Hyperlite are incredible and awesome,” says Waxman. “If there's one common theme for all of us, we're all a little nuts.”

From discarded sailcloth to high-tech wallets

Flowfold, known for its durable, lightweight wallets and other outdoor gear made out of composite materials, was founded in 2010 by Charles Friedman and Devin McNeill, childhood pals who were also at University of Maine together.

Friedman, who grew up on Peaks Island, learned industrial sewing during a high school summer job at a Yarmouth sail loft, when he made bags and wallets from discarded sailcloth — initially for himself and then as gifts and custom orders from people who wanted to buy them.

After graduating from UMaine with a civil engineering degree, he teamed up with McNeill to start a business. Though the name Flowfold came to Friedman in a dream, it's a geology term for a type of rock formation. “Luckily,” he says, “the URL was available, which is the biggest hurdle to cross for a short word.”

Today, they run the company with their UMaine classmate James Morin and employ eight people at their new headquarters in Gorham. They also work with independent designers and sales reps in three U.S. territories and with contract manufacturers in Chicago and Tennessee.

The brand is well-known in Maine and even internationally (with Japan as its fastest-growing market outside the United States), owing in part to relationships with retailers L.L.Bean and REI it doesn't take for granted.

“It took years to build up enough credibility to get the trust of these big retail companies,” says Morin, whose recent trip to Japan included visits with L.L.Bean executives. “Once you have that trust, you have to do everything in your power to not lose it.”

As Flowfold relies on its outside manufacturing partners for expertise and production help with larger purchase orders, it's streamlining its own processes with a new 25-foot-long automated cutting machine Friedman says will be five to 10 times faster. It will also waste less fabric than traditional methods. The machine was financed in part from a $95,300 grant from the Maine Technology Institute, on top of an earlier $4,700 TechStart Grant to help with plant layout optimization and inventory management.

“They're a great example of what a group of smart young entrepreneurs can do when they put their resources together and seek assistance where available,” says MTI investment officer Shane Beckim.

What's next for Flowfold

As Flowfold expands its geographic and product footprint, it plans to bring on more full-timers and farm out bigger jobs to its partners in Chicago and Tennessee so that it can focus on innovation and a move into customization.

Within a few months, the plan is to launch a product personalization page on the website that lets customers have a say in designing their own bags. Options would include choice of color and the addition of a waterproof zipper.

Depending on the response, it may add options later like monogramming and screen printing, with Morin underscoring that “we're going to walk before we run.” He also says they'll keep the strong lifestyle focus for their target customers, mainly 18- to 35-year-olds, though it's more about attitude than age.

“A lot of people say millennials are an elusive customer, but when you do get their attention, they stay as long as you're authentic,” he says. “We just need to make sure we stay true to our word of trying to do better by the environment and get more people outside to enjoy the world around us.”

Hyperlite goes after larger pool of consumers

While Flowfold hasn't patented its designs, that's an area that Hyperlite is starting to look at more seriously as it seeks to broaden its reach.

Founded the same year as Flowfold, by brothers Dan and Mike St. Pierre, it's up to 80 employees at Biddeford's Pepperell Mill Campus. It makes ultralight outdoor gear, from backpacks and tents to stuff sacks and trail kits. It regularly launches new products, including a new backpack every year or two.

Hyperlite grew out of Colorado's Telluride Venture Accelerator and has received $550,000 in three tranches of venture capital funding from CEI Ventures, the venture capital arm of Brunswick-based Coastal Enterprises Inc., which has several textile manufacturers in its portfolio. Its latest contribution to Hyperlite was a $100,000 convertible note to help prepare the company for growth in 2019 and set it up for a larger financing later in the year.

Like Flowfold, Hyperlite has been investing in automation and research and development, devoting a lot of attention in 2018 to streamlining production with standard times for every product it makes.

That will assume greater importance as it aims to appeal to a larger pool of outdoor enthusiasts beyond the so-called “early adopters” who hike the Appalachian Trail or scale Mount Everest.

“We need to inform the broader consumer base that the ultralight philosophy is an option, and that products exist to make your lives easier,” says Dan St. Pierre.

American Roots regroups after costly 'gut check'

American Roots is also gearing up to launch a new product line this April after recovering from a costly lesson last year Waxman calls a “gut-check moment.”

It involved a shipment of bad fabric that it received from a supplier. They were unaware of the problem until a client sent a text on a Friday night with a photo of hoodie with a giant hole in it.

Though they could not have prevented the problem, it turned out that the vendor was trying to keep up with orders and drawing on a variety of yarn sources, which Reynolds says can compromise the integrity of the fabric.

The client, which had ordered 4,500 pieces, stood by American Roots. American Roots, in turn, halted production for two weeks, while still paying employees, to find another supplier.

The error cost American Roots $250,000 in a year that generated $1.1 million in sales.

Now they vet vendors better and put greater emphasis on relationships with reputable, established ones. This April they plan to launch a line of T-shirts and other items that will expand American Roots' offering to all four seasons — and its product price range. It's shooting for $1.7 million in sales this year as it raises equity for new equipment on the heels of a loan from CEI.

“We're getting there one day at a time,” says Waxman. “Or as my mom says, one thread at a time.”

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