Between the mid-1800s and mid-1900s, the mines in Leadville yielded an estimated $512 million (about $5 billion in current U.S. dollars) of precious metals, mostly silver. But its last mine closed in 1999. Leadville’s population, which is said to have reached 40,000, has nose-dived to 2,595; workers toil for an average hourly wage ($15.33) that’s nearly $10 below the state’s mean. Leadville’s woes aren’t a rarity: Many of Colorado’s small towns have been stripped of the industries that once powered their economies. Without fancy ski resorts to support them, places like Leadville, Wray, and Rifle struggle financially. That could soon change, however, with a growing number of businesses helping sew together a new rural economy in the textile trade.
Not far from where silver barons made their fortunes, Melanzana mines the Leadville workforce to make fleeces. CEO Fritz Howard started Melanzana two decades ago, but sales have spiked recently as shoppers’ tastes shifted to higher-quality, domestically made clothes. Melanzana has 20 employees, which sounds small until you realize Lake County’s entire workforce numbers only a few thousand.
That’s the kind of difference Sadye Harvey hopes to make in Rifle with the Whole Works, a production facility she co-founded a year ago to provide sewing jobs to women transitioning off federal assistance. The company employs three sewers. “It may seem small,” Harvey says, “but I think it’s inspired our larger community to see that there is room for this kind of industry here.” The micro-workforce has earned commissions from Carbondale’s Shredly (mountain biking apparel for women), Aspen’s Corbeaux (stylish base layers), and Pagosa Springs’ Voormi.
For Voormi, an innovative outdoor-apparel company, working in rural Colorado is a benefit—an essential piece of the company’s brand. (Voormi’s website recalls a time when “the faint semblance of a tracked line meant you had finally made it back, not that you had gotten there too late.”) That’s why CEO Dan English operates from Pagosa Springs, where his 12 employees design, market, and ship Voormi’s clothes. But English has to make most of Voormi’s apparel elsewhere. “To bring manufacturing back here,” he says, “it’s going to require looking at manufacturing differently.”
Enter Julie Worley, former executive director of the Phillips County Economic Development Corp. In January, her brainchild, the Rural Colorado Apparel Manufacturing (RCAM) network, opened its first “sew center”—a small-scale production facility in Wray, a tiny farm town about 10 miles from the Nebraska border, with seven employees who will produce garments for Colorado companies. RCAM’s mission is to create a group of sew centers across the state (another will open in Julesburg in the coming months), making local manufacturing more convenient while filling vacant buildings in rural towns with new jobs. For starters, RCAM will handle orders from the Fashion Design Center Denver, a sort of incubator for burgeoning designers. Worley envisions different cities specializing in different things—knits from Berthoud or, say, cotton from Springfield. They would all, however, carry the same tag: Made in Colorado.