Hats off in the Crowell Garment District
By Jennifer M. Latzke
It might not look much like New York City, but yes, Crowell, Texas, has a Garment District.
It's located in a large one-story white building near the intersection of two major highways in this town with a population of 951. And its lead design house--its only design house--is one of the small town's largest employers.
Welcome to the American Made Cap Company, where Texas-sourced cotton fabric is turned into ball caps and visors of every shape, color and hue.
Co-owners Greg Bednarik, president, and Ricky Eavenson, vice president, look more like Texas cattlemen than cutting-edge fashion designers. Truth be told, that's what they are when they aren't working at the factory. You see, when this local cap factory was in danger of closing in 2011, these two ranchers really didn't know anything about baseball caps.
But they did know that their community needed that factory to stay open.
"It's always been a cap factory, since 1970," Bednarik said. "And at the height of the 'Gimme' era the factory was making 6,000 caps a day." But, he added, American made caps were eventually pushed out by cheaper competition from foreign manufacturers. And that's one of the reasons why in 2011, the Crowell cap business came up for sale.
Eavenson knew that the cap factory was a major employer for the Crowell area. With 21 neighbors in danger of losing their jobs, he approached Bednarik with a crazy idea. What if the two farmers went into the cap business, but using Texas grown cotton that was spun into fabric at a Texas mill? They could help not only their neighbors keep jobs in the community, but also create a new market for Texas cotton growers.
"When we bought it we already had a base of customers, so it was almost turnkey," Eavenson said. After some training in the cap business from the previous owners--"We called it Cap 101," Eavenson said--the two were on their way.
Their first step was to source fabric made in America from American cotton, an initiative they call "Cottonseed to Cap." Fortunately, the answer was just down the road in Littlefield, Texas, at the American Cotton Growers textile mill, a part of the Plains Cotton Cooperative Association.
"The cotton in our caps is grown in a 150-mile radius of our company," Bednarik said. To save on shipping, Bednarik drives his pickup truck to Littlefield once a month or so to pick up bolts of denim and cotton fabric from the mill.
The other parts of the cap are also sourced from American suppliers, he added. The visors come from a company in Georgia, the buttons from Chicago, the polyester fabric from California and more.
Bednarik and Eavenson knew that they had to offer customers service and quality in order to compete with cheaper foreign imports. "So, we offer customers the opportunity to order caps by the gross or half-gross," Bednarik said. A minimum order from American Made Cap Company is 72 caps, whereas a minimum order from a Chinese factory might be 566 caps, and even then it takes upwards of two months for delivery.
"We can have an order to our customers' doors in 12 to 15 days," Bednarik said. "We have overnighted orders to as far away as Manhattan, N.Y." And, at each step in the process--from sewing to embroidery to final shipment--employees check for quality.
The emphasis on service and quality has paid off for the company, which has reversed sales trends since the change in ownership. Bednarik estimated that from May to until about August this year, the company made and shipped 14,000 caps, with more orders coming in every day. And, they've added three more positions to the staff.
"We have the ability to tag our hats for our customers so that they can go from the box straight to the shelf," Bednarik said. This makes their caps even more appealing to retailers. They have received orders from several minor league baseball teams in Texas, including: Fort Worth Cats; McAllen Thunder, Abilene Prairie Dogs, Edinburg Roadrunners and Harlingen WhiteWings. Their caps have been picked up by the regional farm and ranch supply chain Gebo's. And they have a contract with the American Quarter Horse Association.
They even contract with several cotton gins for their giveaway cap business, completing the circle from cottonseed to cap. More gins are signing contracts every day, because it provides a market for the cotton fabric from ACG that's made from cotton from their gins.
The two continue to look for more business for the cap factory, but it's difficult for some to look past the price difference between their products and those from foreign competitors. Bednarik and Eavenson even approached a national, pro-American-company cable news commentator to see if he'd be interested in contracting with American Made Cap Company for the "American Patriot" hats he sells on his program. They spent weeks sewing up mock-up hats and matching the detailed specifications given to them by the commentator's staff. Yet, despite their quality and their American story, they just couldn't match the extremely cheaper prices from overseas manufacturers.
And, while they shake their heads at the irony of the whole situation, Bednarik and Eavenson still have hope that someday the climate might change and they might get that contract. In the meantime, they continue to tell the story of their quality caps, made in America, from American cotton, and hope that others will find the added value.
Because, while this may have started out as just another business venture for the two, it's turned into a passion to rebuild Crowell, Texas, one cap at a time.
"We made a commitment to our community," Eavenson added. "We have the labor force, we are growing the volume to keep it busy." That growth means looking into other uses for their embroidery machines, whether that's contracting with nearby oil companies to embroider their fire retardant coveralls, or working with local businesses to embroider polo shirts for sales staff. They've even approached the Texas Tech University Department of Design to offer apparel design and manufacturing majors opportunities to learn at the company as a way to benefit future cotton users.
"Keeping the business here means our neighbors are employed," Eavenson said. "A payroll of 21 is big for our town of 951. And these are good jobs."
"We want to grow this business and keep it in Crowell," Bednarik said.
No, these two Texas cattlemen may not look like the typical fashion icons from glossy magazines. But make no mistake, the Crowell Garment District is alive and thriving thanks to them.
Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807 or firstname.lastname@example.org.