Commonwealth Manufacturing

Andrew Doerksen
Words: Michelle Panting / Photos: Joseph Visser

On the other side of the ancient black doors hovering just beyond the entrances to Parlour and Berns & Black are the old, creaky wooden steps that ascend into multiple studio spaces. More often than not, this is also where Andrew (you may know him as Hoj) may be found labouring behind shelves stocked with coffee supplies.

Light streams in from the west-facing windows and Andrew tells us, depending on the time of day, you’ll hear snatches of the latest Woodbine gossip drift up through these windows. Sewing machines circle the outer perimeter of his workspace - all vintage, all impeccably designed. Neatly laid out on a large worktable in the centre is his latest offering: immaculately stitched chambray, short-sleeved men’s shirts.

Andrew’s perfectionism in regard to the shirts he makes becomes obvious through conversation. He’s spent years getting to this point, and he’s never rushed it. The shirts he makes today are the product of countless hours of practice, testing, research and apprenticeship. If you wear one you can be sure you won’t find a single flaw - not a hanging thread, not a misplaced stitch, not a loose button, Andrew simply wouldn’t stand for it. His Parlour co-worker, Brian, tells us, “It’s the best shirt I’ve ever owned.”

And although he’s never preachy about it, Andrew’s desire to be part of positive change in the clothing industry underlies every decision he makes. From the companies he consults, to the suppliers he selects, to the machinery he uses, you can be sure that wearing one of his shirts benefits every person who has come into contact with it - the fabric weaver, the button maker, the pattern cutter, and the sewer. When you wear one of Andrew’s shirts you know that every set of hands that came into contact with it belonged to a person who received fair payment for the work they do.

Muddy Water: How did you get into sewing?

Andrew: I started sewing four or five years ago, because I hated the way most of my clothes fit me, especially if I thrifted them. So I bought a really cheap sewing machine off Kijiji. Most of it was just taking in clothes that were too boxy. And then all the sudden I wanted to change the collar, and then I wanted to change the sleeve length, and all this stuff. And I was like, well, why don’t I just learn how to do this from scratch? That was more of a daunting task than I realised at the time. It took me almost a year from that point to get me to my first wearable shirt. I have a closet with about ten shirts that will never see the light of day.

MW: It’s awesome that you keep them though.

A: I do keep them, just to remind me of my failures (laughs).

MW: So how long would you say it takes you to make a shirt, start to finish?

A: It’s different for every shirt. For these [chambray short sleeves], maybe five hours a shirt, which is still a substantial amount of time. But it’s also a lot quicker than the 25 hours it took when I first started. Those were discouraging times.

MW: Wow. What made you keep going?

A: I just believed that I could get to a point where I could get better, faster. And I have definitely done that. These shirts, it’s a lot faster now that I’m doing them in small batches. Doing them one at a time has its limits in how fast you can make them because you’re constantly setting up machines. Like if I’m doing different threading for a button-hole, I have to stop and re-thread everything, and do a couple tests, and make sure it’s looking right, and then I do it on the shirt… Same thing with any sort of different stitching. This last run, I did 13 at a time, which is still quite small, but it makes it much more efficient.

MW: You’ve got a lot of different machines here. How do they contribute to the making of your shirts?

A: It was definitely ambitious buying five industrial machines all at the same time, because each machine here serves a unique purpose, and each one has its own learning curve. That’s why it took me many months of trial and error before I felt like I was ready to put out a quality product. I love being able to work with machines that were formerly used in apparel. I really pride myself on some of the machines that I have. Those three were a bit harder to get my hands on; all of them were from factory closures. Factories - to this day - still closing because of outsourcing. Two of them I got from Montreal, and one of them I got from Toronto. And those are pretty unique and fun to work with.

MW: It’s interesting too, given the history of the Exchange, where there used to be so many sewing factories. It’s kind of like a return. Except one person, instead of a bunch of employees.

A: Yes, people are being gracious with me, I can only produce so much.

MW: I saw that you posted your Juki sewing machine to Instagram with a short blurb on its history. Can you tell me more about it?

A: It’s a bit of a rare machine, in that it’s something called needle-feed. [Jukis] are actually common, except for this feature where the needle doesn’t just go up and down, it actually moves forward, and punctures the fabric and tracks it along. So there’s less slippage, you can be more accurate with it, and the stitch detail ends up looking really clean.

I got it from Tyndall, Manitoba. They were using it for boat coverings, and there was a Winnipeg tailor that had it.

MW: And I think you said that the men’s clothing company Jack Knife recommended this machine to you? What’s your relationship with them?

A: Yeah, they’re amazing. They’re probably one of my favourite companies just because they make everything themselves. They’re primarily making denim.

I took a trip to San Francisco last fall - this was before I had this space - and I went to them because I’d researched their stuff online. They were super hospitable about showing me around. I went there and they gave up their entire afternoon to just shoot the breeze with me and talk about how they got into it, how I should get into it, the machines they had, the methods they had; it was the most helpful trip. They actually gave me a lead to one of the suppliers that I’m using right now. It’s pretty difficult to find out how things are done in the sewing industry. If you look online and in books, 90 per cent of it is home sewing, which is quite a bit different in the machines and the methods that are used. So [with industrial sewing] a lot of people are pretty hush-hush about it. But [Jack Knife] gave me a lot of good tips.

MW: Are there any other menswear brands you’re inspired by?

A: I am most inspired by any company that makes what they sell, especially if they make it in-house because that’s the hard part. That’s the labour intensive part, the part that’s pretty easy to outsource. Some of my favourites are Apolis and Oliberte. Knickerbocker is another company that I really admire. I actually took a trip to New York just over a year ago and visited them, and again, they were very hospitable and a huge inspiration in terms of how they made stuff. [They] took pride in where it was from, and the quality.

MW: You mentioned suppliers. Where do you get your fabrics from?

A: Currently, I’ve gotten all my fabrics from Japanese mills. Japan is highly regarded for its quality and consistency in weaving. They have a long tradition in that. I was inspired to go with a company like that also because it’s a first-world company. It’s important to me that I’m not sourcing a product that’s the product of sweatshop labour.

MW: Absolutely. So these shirts that you have laid out here - can you tell me about some of these fabrics?

A: The batch I just finished here is a chambray, there’s blue and maroon, both are Japanese-milled fabrics; it’s a nice summer weight. The one I did before that was a heathered-twill flannel. I love that that was my first fabric because it had a lot of depth to it. That’s the other thing I’m inspired by. There are a lot of people who are super into the details of denim jeans, for example, but you don’t see that attention to detail in other areas like shirting. You grab a shirt and you think “Oh, that looks nice,” but you don’t think, “What’s the weave? What’s the story? Where does it come from?” And that’s all there, that story.

MW: That’s a really interesting point. How do you find the fabrics wear?

A: Each fabric’s unique and each one has its own purpose. The flannel I got is great for a cool summer day or fall, and it goes through something called a napping process, which is what raises fibres from the weave. That’s what makes it really soft on your skin.

MW: I really love your name and the meaning behind it - Commonwealth, meaning common wellbeing. How did you land on that name?

A: I’m not sure how it originally popped into my mind, but I always liked the sound of it; it sounded classy. I looked into the meaning of it and felt that it was a really good fit, because this company aims to be benevolent towards and look out for the wellbeing of the product, the consumer and every stage in the process.

MW: What has the response been so far from your consumers?

A: People have been very supportive. Everyone I’ve talked to in the city has seemed really excited to have something local. I think there’s a strong local culture here. Winnipeg likes to take care of its own. There’s a spirit where people are getting a bit sick of having generic products filter in and out of their lives, so anything that happens that’s unique, there’s a really strong positive response.

MW: I think too, because the community’s so small, there’s a feeling of “We’re all in this together.” So that generates a lot of willingness to support.

A: And I think people just really like to know where and how their stuff is made. Like, if they can wear something and say, “Actually, I know this guy - he makes this just a couple blocks from here,” that really excites people. And that excites me. And that’s why I’m making it.”

MW: What direction do you see your business going?

A: Assuming this all goes well, I will need help at some point. I’m not totally sure yet, exactly how I’ll get help. The idea of training somebody to do all this is a little bit daunting, because it requires me to be a little more hands off on something I’ve been so involved in thus far. But at some point I’m going to have to do it. In some way, I would definitely like to see the growth of this in the future.

MW: Do you have plans for the next line?

A: The next is going to be a linen-cotton blend for summer. It’s going to be a horizontal-stripe short sleeve.

MW: Beautiful. What made you choose that material for this time around?

A: I’ve never worked with any sort of linen before. So anytime I get to work with a new fabric, it’s pretty exciting. This is going to be next, so after that I’ll do an oxford, maybe a denim. Going into winter, I’d love to get another flannel. There’s so many to choose from. The idea is that I’ll get one fabric in, usually in two different colour ways and then maybe I’ll never order from it again, because there’s just so much good stuff out there. It’s exciting to keep doing new stuff. And I think that’s exciting for the customer too.

MW: Definitely. How many shirts would you say you get from each batch?

A: Not many - maybe around 20. I made 16 of these [short sleeve] chambray. As I grow, I’ll start making bigger orders, but every time it’s going to be limited.

One of my biggest challenges has been finding suppliers who are willing to work with me. I’m really grateful to have this supplier, and they’re reducing their minimums by half and a quarter for me, just to help me out really. Buttons too, are incredible hard, because most minimums are 10,000 a button. And that’s insane. I have a bunch of buttons over there, and I’ve been using them, and it’s a sample that they sent me of about 400 buttons.

MW: And that’s all that you’ve used up to this point?

A: Yeah! I’ve just been using samples (laughs).

MW: Looking at the shirts, I’m also noticing this label on inside of the button placket.

A: Yeah, Jadyn Klassen did the logo on that. Each shirt has a unique I.D. It shows what number the shirt is out of how many have been made, the date it was made, and the batch.

MW: How cool! It also reminds me of a bag of coffee beans.

A: (laughs) I guess that’s true!

MW: I’m wondering about the emotional connection that someone can have to a piece. For me, if something’s made with a lot of attention to detail and care, and it’s made ethically by someone that you know or you can go see, you feel connected to it. Are there pieces that you have, outside of Commonwealth, that you’re emotionally connected to in some way?

A: The farther back I can track the story of a product, the more I love it. If a company won’t disclose, or has something to hide, I don’t feel as excited about it. So what I’ve purchased on my trips to New York and San Francisco, I love because I know the people behind the product.

I hope that awareness is rising in consumers’ minds. I think there’s a bit of a hypocrisy in how all of us consumers think about the products they buy. You’ll go into a coffee shop and demand fair trade coffee, but you won’t think about it so much with clothing or electronics, or all this other stuff that is off your radar. If we can promote awareness that ethically made things are important in all sectors, that’s a good thing.

I see a lot of parallels between what I do here and the coffee world - probably because I’ve been immersed in it for three and a half years at Parlour. But I feel like skills that I’ve learned in coffee are directly translatable into making shirts. I learned how to pay attention to detail working at Parlour in a deeper way than I had before. You’re pushing yourself to the edges of your senses to see how much you can experience, how much you can discern between two things. So now, I’m making shirts, and I’m trying to push myself to the edge of how much attention can I pay to this, how accurate can I be?

MW: That’s such an interesting comparison, I would never have thought of it that way, but you make a great point.

A: They’re different worlds, but the mentality is the same. It can drive you insane if you let it. I know if there’s the smallest flaw in something, I’m not selling it - that’s the shirt I’m wearing.

MW: So you’ve been at Parlour for three and a half years, but do you think eventually you’ll want to transition into sewing full time?

A: In my mind, the first step is to make this my full time occupation. I want to see where that leads me. And afterwards, I would love to employ people one day. That’s actually one of my passions in this whole thing, is to create a company that benefits the people that are a part of it. So often that’s not the case. That’s also one of the reasons I started sewing in the first place - right around that time I became aware of some of the shadier sides of the global apparel industry, and that motivated me to start being a conscious consumer. And now if I can be a conscious manufacturer and help people to buy something that they’re proud of - not just of the product, but of the process - that’s awesome. That’s amazing for me.

MW: Do you see yourself always selling within Winnipeg? Would you supply another store, or would you always keep it close to home?

A: I’d definitely be open to selling my stuff abroad. I’d love to sell to Winnipeggers first and foremost because that seems like [where] the connection is the closest. I love it when a customer can come in here and see what’s going on and then [will] buy something, because they’re fully informed. To me, that’s what it means to be a transparent company - you have the right to see where and how your clothes are being made. That’s the downside of selling online to people abroad, but I’m still open to it.

MW: Who would you say are some of your favourite makers locally and internationally?

A: In Winnipeg, Wilder, and not just because Brendon’s my roommate. I’m genuinely inspired by their holistic model of design, production and retail. They encompass the whole process, which is really rare.

Jack Knife is probably my favourite company, overall. Just look online, and look at their jeans and they will give you a list of twelve points of differentiation between a generic pair of jeans to their pair of jeans. It’s completely overkill, but it’s the best thing you’ll ever buy.

MW: I think when people are really intense about something, you honestly just have to respect it because it’s clear they love what they make.

A: Yes. They’re completely fanatical, and that’s what makes them great.

MW: Of the shirts you’ve made so far, is there one that really stands out to you? A particular fabric that has been your favourite?

A: That’s a tough one, but if I had to choose, I’d say the dark green, flannel long sleeve, because it wears so nicely and it was the first shirt that I sold. That means a lot to me. That was a big milestone for me to be able to sell something with confidence - and to see people buy it and love it and wear it well was super encouraging.

MW: Absolutely. Do you have a tool or tools that you really love working with?

A: One of them is these scissors I just bought, which sounds super basic, but these are crazy. They’re twelve inches long, made in Brazil, they’ll cut through a brick; they’re awesome. The other two would have to be machines. I love that button-holer right over there. It’s incredibly fast, it sounds like a locomotive when you turn it on, and it makes me feel like I’m doing something really legitimate when I’m using it. And then the double-needled flat-felled machine over there with the extended arm. It’s actually the most difficult machine in here to use. Even during this last batch, I had to pay the most attention to that process when I did the side seams. You have to be holding it at just the right tension, at just the right angle, at just the right speed, and if you don’t get it, it’s a redo. So it’s not really forgiving at all. I love and hate it for that. But the thing is, when you get it right, it’s so satisfying because you know it’s not easy to do. And it just looks really sharp when you get it right. It’s what’s been used in shirting for decades.

MW: So from modifying thrifted shirts, to making your own shirts, what made you think, “Maybe I could sell this, maybe I could make this for other people”?

A: That was a mental battle. People told me I should do it for a long time, but I didn’t believe them until recently. I just always had a standard in my mind that it had to be not just as good as a department store shirt, but better. That meant having the proper machines, the proper method and doing it in a reasonable time. So that took a long time.

And lots of people have helped me learn - especially Nate and Brendon from Wilder. I actually took over a little corner of their space for six months, and they were gracious enough to have me. Brendon taught me a lot about machines and what to look for and what to buy. All stuff I was banking in my mind for a time when I got my own space. And Nils [from Parlour] has helped me a bunch with lending me this back workspace.

MW: Do you see yourself making products beyond shirts in the future? Exploring other areas of menswear?

A: I’d love to expand my product offerings. I’d love to do jeans, jackets, even getting into knits - long sleeves, t-shirts. But for all these things, to do them well, you have to have the right machinery. And to do that means having a bigger space. I think I’m best off to keep specializing this a little bit, but I’d be really excited to expand my offerings one day.

Commonwealth Manufacturing is located at 468 Main St. To arrange a visit, or for any other inquiries, you can reach Andrew at commonwealth.wpg@gmail.com, or check out http://www.commonwealthmfg.com/ to shop online.