Why Build Community?

David Billstrom
6 min readJul 4, 2021


Kitsbow Staff in the Pandemic

[A version of this post was originally provided at Kitsbow.com. I’m the CEO at Kitsbow, and there is an important component of what we do every day: we create jobs. In the sense that we train people to do the work that they initially are not qualified to do, and we build our community as we do it. Read on to learn why.]

It’s become default messaging for companies to label ‘Community’ as one of their pillars or core values.

We’re supportive of this enthusiasm in a fractured world, but a tiny bit cynical. At Kitsbow, we’ve approached this not as an aspiration, but as a necessity.

We don’t just want to build and support a vibrant community, we have to.


When we decided to bring jobs back to the U.S. to make (almost) everything we supply to our customers, not only did we confront doubt and skepticism, but we had to admit the critics were right. There are very nearly no people with experience in apparel sewing left here in our country, since the jobs were cancelled in the 1980s and 1990s.

When Kitsbow took this bold step, we knew we’d have to start over and create a new workforce of skilled artisans. Making our premium apparel isn’t easy or for the faint of heart.

The popular Icon shirt from Pendleton wool is essentially a premium dress shirt in quality, yet constructed to survive hiking and riding in the woods. Each shirt involves more than 40 different sewing machines and 90 discrete steps in construction. One of the many reasons why we call our sewers “Makers”

Very few companies founded in California move away, let alone to a declining, economically-depressed former manufacturing town in the rural South. It was a radical choice, but obvious to us.

We chose Old Fort, NC from several viable candidates because of the proven work ethic, the resilience of families in place for generations, and the stunning natural beauty with trails and vistas.

Yet if we were going to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in training our workforce to sew and manufacture apparel in a new way, we wanted — no, we needed the talent to stay with us for years.

So from the first day in Old Fort we have invested literally and figuratively in this community. We help host public street and trail clean-ups, public art projects, provide food and apparel for the needy, advocate for affordable housing and civic projects, work on clean water and sanitation, contribute cash and apparel for trail-building, encourage more food choices, buy almost all of the food we offer in the Old Fort Ride House from local purveyors and chefs, raise money for the new Fonta Flora State Trail (right out our front door) and above all, passionately defend and advocate for the groups in Old Fort that have been systematically excluded from almost everything for more than a century.

We believe that the people who live here must have more than “a voice” in local politics — we believe that they should be the leaders in the political change to rebuild and reopen this town after thirty years of decline.

This is good business: we want our employees to love this town, own this town, and stay here forever. And thus: The stakes couldn’t be higher for Kitsbow.

Creating Jobs Out of Thin Air

When we chose Old Fort, NC as our new home, the average hourly wage in the county was $18.10 (2019) with no or minimal benefits. We knew we could do better, even though we would be competing with our former manufacturing partners in Vietnam.

Apparel manufacturers in Vietnam have their choice of talented sewers from a pool of 2.7 million skilled workers in apparel (their third largest industry) earning an average of just $2.91 per hour.

As of December 31, 2020 Kitsbow paid an average hourly wage of more than $20.00 with 100% health benefits, and less than 20% of our team had any prior experience with apparel manufacturing.

We paid their wages while we taught them to sew to premium standards (think complicated dress shirts, not sheets and pillows).

It is a steep hill to climb, with a combination of constant and continuing expensive training, but if we can succeed we will have established long-term steady employment… above the average wage. A profession, a home, a place to build a family and thrive financially for years, if not decades.

We are currently making 42 different styles of apparel in Old Fort, NC. Each piece is made one at a time by artisan Makers.

We also quickly realized that the manufacturing workforce in rural America is challenged by their health, and often do not have health insurance, even if “employer provided” they cannot afford the 50% employee contribution — relying upon emergency room visits and other stopgap measures.

Absences arising from health issues erodes the integrity of the team work that is inherent in how we make our apparel — every team member has a vital role in lean manufacturing. Production suffers when just one person is absent.

And working in apparel requires visual acuity close up to the material, and so corrective vision is a must for the team members.

So we created our new jobs with 100% company-paid health insurance (Silver-level), 100% vision benefits, and optional dental benefits.

We also subsidize healthy food options for snacks and lunch (which in turn we buy only from local vendors, to further buttress the local community). We even pay for healthy stretching instruction (don’t call it yoga) during the work day, while employees are on the clock.

But above all we invest between one to four months training each production team member on their specific job — thousands of dollars of investment before they can make apparel for less than we charge for it. We spend money on them, their instructors, and sacrifice profit until they develop their skill.

Now you know why 98% of the clothes purchased in the U.S. last year were made somewhere else. It is expensive labor. Unless you’re wearing Kitsbow (or a handful of other brands such as American Giant) almost everything you’re wearing right now as you read this… was not made in the U.S.

When American apparel production started moving offshore in the early 1980s, 70% of the clothes purchased in America were made here. 40 years later only 2% are made here and in that 40 years, the skilled sewers have exited the workforce. There are simply no skilled workers left, even here in the South where textiles were once the biggest export.

When you wear Kitsbow, you are directly supporting not just the company, but you are directly supporting each of 60 people making a fair wage in an affordable rural environment. And indirectly, you support an entire community that is rebuilding itself, one job at a time.

You are helping us rebuild thoughtful, sustainable manufacturing in the U.S.

Join Our Cause

Get connected to our journey: Sign up for email here. Buy a product or two here.

Visit us in North Carolina at the Old Fort Ride House for a factory tour and to see the magic for yourself. Ride our trails, hike the ridges, and fish in the streams of the Other Pisgah; plan your trip here. Meet our community.

Above all: use the power of your purchasing to employ Americans crafting premium quality products that last for years, sustain the earth, and employ awesome people.

And we’re always looking for more talent and artisans. Send your friends, family, and best promising candidates to join our team here.

Help us change an industry, build a community, and save the world.