Advertisement
Baltimore City

A century ago, Baltimore had a thriving sewing industry. This company is trying to revive the trade.

The pleasant hum of a sewing machine fills a busy work space in Johnston Square, just off the corner of Greenmount Avenue and Preston Street.

It’s an industrial sound that once reverberated all over this neighborhood when commercial sewing businesses thrived here and in other parts of the city.

Advertisement

Jeremiah Jones and his wife, Cecilia Grimm, are on a mission to restore the sewing trade that is part of Baltimore’s working heritage.

They founded SewLab USA, a teaching workshop for the fiber arts. They also manufacture specialty products.

Advertisement

“Our SewLab was built to rebuild the sewn trades in Baltimore City,” said Jones who would like nothing better to see people employed making garments, bags and accessories.

“I want to build jobs,” he said.

He and his wife led a tour of their workroom adjacent to the Jones Falls Expressway. There are bins of completed orders — well engineered caps for the Wet City Brewing in downtown Baltimore on West Preston Street, sturdy canvas tote bags for WYPR radio station and custom designed chest rigs for anglers.

They also make a Velcro product, Hold Fast, which allows bicyclists to affix their feet to a pedal. It is called “the original foot retention system” in an online advertisement.

He works alongside his wife, a Connecticut native who is a painter and graduate of the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. She runs the business and finance operation of SewLab.

SewLab also makes a line of tote bags, canvas backpacks, dopp kits and bike baskets.

Jones and his wife own more than 30 operating machines, the oldest of which was made in 1951. They hail from places such as the Howard Uniform Company and drapery manufacturers.

They work with heavy canvas, cotton twill and nylon.

Advertisement

“We do a lot of recycling too. We take the old banner signs from display poles downtown and make them into tote bags,” he said.

His mission statement says, “SewLab USA is a Baltimore-based manufacturing company that creates unique, customizable soft goods proudly made in America.”

Jones, 44, grew up in northern Baltimore County and is a Hereford High School graduate. He learned the sewing arts from his family. His mother taught him how to sew and his aunt helped him “build” his first pair of snowboarding pants made of ballistic nylon, a fabric also used in bulletproof vests.

His grandfather showed him how to stitch and work leather for a knife sheath.

Jones is fascinated by what he calls the uncomplicated mechanics of a commercial sewing machine.

“They are built like a car of heavy steel industrial components,” he said.

Advertisement

Jones has also built up a side business fixing industrial sewing machines in what remains of Baltimore’s sewing industry — a handful of uniform companies and military uses.

Breaking News Alerts

Breaking News Alerts

As it happens

Be informed of breaking news as it happens and notified about other don't-miss content with our free news alerts.

It’s nothing like Baltimore of 100 years ago, when the city was making a name in sewing history. Beginning in the 1880s through the 1920s, men’s clothing production was the city’s leading industry as measured by numbers of people earning a paycheck.

There was a temporary boom during World War I, when Army uniforms were made at Pratt and Paca streets in the epicenter of the downtown needle trades district.

Immigrants from Europe often went right into jobs in these loft buildings, some of which have been converted into downtown apartments adjacent to the University of Maryland campus.

Jones realizes his goal to revive this industry is not easy.

“It’s not digital. It’s not medical. It’s not tech. It’s slow and steady,” he said.

Advertisement

He also teaches at the Baltimore Sewn Trades Training Program at Open Works, a maker space, around the corner at Greenmount and Oliver streets.

“Baltimore was once home to the cotton canvas industry,” said Jones. “In the 19th century, we were the largest manufacturer of the canvas used in ship sails. That’s what the mills along the Jones Falls made.”


Advertisement