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'Made in America' Janesville women design, sew clothing

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Marcia Nelesen
July 25, 2013

JANESVILLE--It's hard to find a piece of apparel today that includes a “Made in America” label.

Unless you shop in downtown Janesville.

In the retail section of Cy-Va at 222, you'll find clothes not only made here but designed here, as well.

Toward the back of the store at 222 W. Milwaukee St., employees busily snip, stitch, sew and iron fabric on a cluster of machines for designers across the United States.

Fabric is delivered to Janesville pre-cut, stitched into garments in the downtown shop and shipped back to the designers for sale.

“A lot of new designers and smaller (high-end) designers are coming to us because they want to keep their items made in American,” Cynthia Walker said.

The owners also sell their own lines of clothes and accessories in the front of the store and showcase the work of other local sewers.

Walker, 59, and her daughter Valerie Brinkman-Kampmann, 40, opened Cy-Va two years ago.

Their business bucks the trend in the industry, which in the 1980s began moving production to third-world countries where piecework is cheap.

The U.S. went from the largest manufacturer and exporter of apparel to the smallest, Walker said.

The future of the industry is anyone's guess. Garment workers all over the world are demanding better working conditions after well-publicized disasters killed thousands. New safety measures will add to the cost of apparel, as will shipping costs.

For now, Cy-Va has found a niche.

“That first year, it was a huge struggle to make ends meet,” Brinkman-Kampmann recalled.

The women used personal money to pay business bills.

“What kept our doors open is we have a lot of great customers who want something unique and that you don't find in the mall,” Walker said.

Then—it seemed like overnight—business tripled.

“We had really big customers just drop out of the sky in four months,” Walker said.

Now, the women have a waiting list.

A growing business doesn't come without pains, and the partners concentrate on taking baby steps.

They would like to buy four more industrial sewing machines to service more customers, but industrial machines are expensive, and the business has limited space. For now, they are discontinuing a line of clothing made in California and expanding the manufacturing section into part of the retail area.

Walker, a 1972 Craig High School graduate, has always been fascinated with sewing.

“My mother sewed, and I just wanted to be like my mom,” Walker recalled.

At age 12, Walker saved $60 from her quarter-an-hour babysitting jobs and bought a Kenmore straight-stitch sewing machine. She sewed her own clothes through high school.

As a teen on school breaks, she accompanied her mom to Jetset, a sewing factory in Footville that closed in the 1970s.

“It was fun to watch things from the cutting table and all these little pieces … go through the factory,” Walker said. “You have no clue what they are until they come out at the other end.”

Walker over the years has held various jobs, many in the arts and crafts area. She has taught sewing at Blackhawk Technical College for three years.

She tired of working for other people and started her own business quilting and designing western wear for horse shows. It was then she connected with a New York designer.

Walker and Brinkman-Kampmann—like mother like daughter—decided this was the time to start the business they always dreamed of. Soon, Walker's husband, Mark, decided the business should move out of the home. The couple used their retirement money to open the storefront.

“We wanted to help create jobs,” Walker said, noting her husband had been laid off at General Motors.

Today, Cy-Va has 18 regular clients, 10 industrial machines and six sewers, including another daughter, Angela Jass. Another woman, Geni Brown, does thread clipping and finish work. Walker's husband sews occasionally, too.

The workers, each with their own specialty, are mostly part-time and like the flexibility of the hours.

The atmosphere in the close quarters is not unlike an old-time sewing bee.

“I think all of us like each other enough that if we step on a toe, we'll forgive each other,” Walker said.

“We've bonded,” Brinkman-Kampmann said.

The women have a break room where they can get away from each other, “but we tend to all have lunch together, too,” she said.

Walker dreams of a bigger space where she can have a sewing and quilting museum and industrial training center.

“Our timing couldn't have been better,” Walker said.

“It's becoming just as viable to do the production work in the U.S.”



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