History of NW Embroidery/Custom Apparel

Northwest Embroidery was started in 1977. The original location was in Tacoma Washington. The business model was to manufacture emblems and attach them to caps which companies used as a marketing tool. Emblem caps in 1977 were the rage.
In 1977 Northwest Embroidery was the only company in the Northwest who was offering automatic embroidery services. We were the first company to purchase an automatic embroidery machine. It was a Barudan 11 head, 6 color, jacquard tape machine. The speed was 220 stitches a minute.
The original model was to manufacture emblems and attach them to caps. In 1997 emblem caps were very popular and the latest craze. Direct embroidered caps were not even an item in anyone’s imagination.
The market was very strong for embroidered caps. They were very popular with fishing and constructions companies. Fishing companies offered them to their boat crews and cannery workers. Business was very brisk for Northwest Embroidery. Northwest was very strong in Alaska because of the construction of the oil fields on the North Slope and the Trans Alaska Pipeline.
Marketing in 1977 was direct mail and cold calls on the telephone. 800 numbers were just becoming in vogue. Direct mail was primarily printing black and white copy and attaching typewritten labels. Personnel computers were unheard of. Every label for every mailout was typewritten. Fortunately we were ahead of the curve and it worked.
The company’s office equipment consisted of a selectric typewriter, a 10 key adding machine, and a telephone. Copy machines were non existent for the small business company. Internet and fax were unheard of.
Hats the company sold were all American made. Our primary supplier was Paramount Headwear in Bourbon, Missouri.  The company sold a very popular cap called the 816. It actually was a high crown Elmer Fudd looking cap. But it was foam lined and very sturdy. The Alaska market loved these caps.
In 1978 we were fortunate to obtain a new customer called Blue Ribbon Sports. Blue Ribbon was a shoe manufacturer who wanted to get into the apparel business. They had just opened up a new division to market clothes with their logo on it. They wanted direct embroidery and the only source was Northwest Embroidery.  The relationship was nothing but successful. Northwest actually enjoyed a monopoly for a short envelope of one year. Blue Ribbon paid premium prices for embroidery. They paid because they were actually a marketing company who wanted brand recognition. Their marketing name was Nike and the logo was a swoosh.
Nike was one of the first companies to recognize the value of offshore manufacturing and Northwest Embroidery lost a bellwether account. When Nike left Northwest was left with a strong cash balance and filling the void was left to the imagination. Northwest then sought to put its war chest to work and get into more direct marketing of caps.
In 1981 Northwest purchased a piece of property in Milton, WA and made plans to build a small manufacturing facility of 8,500 square feet. The facility was completed in 1982. It was felt that this facility was sufficient in size to meet the future needs of the company. The company relocated with 33 heads of embroidery, a mechanical die cutter, a electomechanical digitizing system, and a few oddball sewing machines. Northwest was now on its way to success.
Based on Nike’s success with brand recognition via embroidery other manufacturing companies in the Northwest sought to copy Nike’s marketing plan. Eddie Bauer, Mountain Pacific, REI, Union Bay, Britannia, and others teamed up with Northwest   Embroidery for their embroidery. The rage was on, logo wear was in, brand identity was in vogue. It was no longer the style but the brand which sold the goods.
From 1982 to 1990 Northwest was the leader in embroidery in the Pacific Northwest. The marketing budget was nil because name recognition was by word of mouth.  In a trade show in 1985 Northwest took home awards in 12 of 15 categories.  Jim Mickelson the company’s president was embarrassed to get up on stage to receive the awards.
In 1989 Northwest teamed up with a new company called Cutter & Buck to provide design services and embroidery.  C & B was new but had a vision to provide quality golf wear to the golf courses around the country. The company’s designer Joey Rodolfo created a line which was a knockout.  Cutter & Buck was on and was and Northwest was riding its coat tails.
During this period Northwest supported Cascade West which at the time was one of the largest outerwear manufacturers in the Northwest. Cascade manufacturing for Cabella, Lands End, Eddie Bauer, L.L. Bean, Timberland, Patagonia, & Columbia. Their expertise was they used Polar Fleece from Malden Mills and created a hot niche for a period of 3 years. Northwest again was along for the ride because the company could provide quick turn around, competitive pricing, and quality workmanship.
In 1992 Northwest expanded with a new building giving the company 8,000 square feet of manufacturing space. And investment was made in new embroidery equipment, which could stitch faster, and more pieces per run. The expansion was undertaken in anticipation of increased business from the outerwear-manufacturing base in the Northwest.
It was in 1992 that Northwest decided to develop a small line of clothing for the resort market. The company was strong is design development and used it strengths to develop a line of garments which were embroidered with a regional design and a location drop. The market was to market to small boutique stores, which sold destination specific gifts. An embroidered Tee or Sweat was a natural for these stores to sell. The benefit was that they did not have to order in large quantities. They were now able to offer a larger mix of designs in their stores with lower inventory quantities.
1997 forward Seattle had become a regional headquarters for a large number of companies whose executives received their training from earlier pioneers of the Northwest. The largest developers of executives were Britannia, Seattle Pacific, Schoenfeld Industries, and Pacific Trail. These executives became entrepreneur and venturing out to start their own companies.
However unknown in1994 was a bill in congress called the North American Free Trade Agreement. This trade agreement reduced all barriers and duties between countries in the Northern Hemisphere of the American continent.  This agreement marked the beginning of the end for the apparel manufacturing industry in the Northwest. The North American Free Trade Agreement was signed and  Mexico beckoned with lower wages and tax advantages for those companies who would locate south of the border.
Those that chose to remain suffered the consequences. Cascade eventually closed its doors and around 600 manufacturing personnel were left without jobs. The last major company Thaw industries, which was the apparel arm for REI in Renton closed its doors and let 200 people go in 2000.
Northwest was now in a very bad position that it did not have a garment-manufacturing base to support. The business model would have to take a turn to go forward or stop and close the doors.
The new theme in 1998 was that Northwest would become a marketing company who happened to do embroidery. The model was that we would become a value added company. Northwest would resource quality apparel, customize it with a company’s logo, and market business to business. Branding was becoming popular during this period of the tech boom.
Starting in 1999 Northwest developed a catalogue and started doing direct mail along with an aggressive print advertising campaign, The model was successful, sales increased, production volume decreased, and profits rose. Market share increased. The small preprint designs were holding there own.
The combination of contract embroidery, preprint designs, and business to business was keeping Northwest in play. The question is “Is the company loosing its focus by going in too many directions?”
In 1999 Northwest automated its data management. The old system of hand written orders, hand written control logs, and back pocket scheduling was gone. The company was now going forward with an automated order and data management system. The staff is now able to make decisions like larger well-organized companies.
The new system allows Northwest to target its customer base with offers based on their buying history and the size of their spending volume. The ability to manage mail lists is lifting Northwest to a level like their larger competitors.
In 2001 Northwest started importing more product which the company could add value to. The company brought in apparel and caps. The results were very encouraging and the future is spelled out that the company has to do more importing.
Starting in 1996 the embroidery machine distributors started to realize that the decline of the apparel industry in the United States was hurting their machine sales. They now had to search for new markets. Their new markets would be small entrepreneurs who wanted to go into business for themselves. Small embroidery companies were now surfacing everywhere.
In 1977 Northwest was the only automated embroidery company in Washington state, now there are over 600 companies listed in the yellow pages offering embroidery services.
The machine distributors marketing strategy is working. A small company with 2 heads of embroidery equipment has access to all the major apparel distributors. The basic marketing strategy is to put dad on the street selling, mom in the garage running the embroidery machine, zero overhead and pricing which is always 10% less than whatever Northwest Embroidery offers.
Facing this competition Northwest is redefining its business model. To survive and succeed the company will have to resource more in China. The China connection will eliminate the 10% marketing strategy of the small embroidery companies. It will allow Northwest to sell at killer prices.
Northwest in 2006 has invested in a web site will support this strategy. The old model of more feet on the street is going to be replaced by a direct sales force directing customers to the Northwest web site for value, ease of ordering, and faster turn around.