From the textile looms of yesteryear to the automation found in today’s industrial plants, the Upstate’s economy has evolved and progressed as a result of hard work, craftsmanship, management commitment, and a willingness to innovate. That work ethic – to do things well, but to also try to do them better – is one reason the area remains a hotbed of manufacturing, both big and small.
Ten years after he burst onto the scene as the founder of Billiam, Bill Mitchell, one of the Upstate’s current pantheon of artisanal manufacturers, is stepping on the pedal and stitching together a new look for his business.
Sitting among an array of new and vintage sewing machines in his shop at 205 Wade Hampton Blvd. in Greenville, Mitchell, now 31, recalled how he emerged as one of the leaders of the local makers movement.
He did so passionately and painstakingly, splitting his time between his parents’ basement and his college apartment in Clemson, tailoring T-shirts and sweatshirts before prodding himself to take on something more challenging.
He settled on jeans, specifically denim jeans using fabric woven on midcentury looms at Cone Mills in Greensboro, North Carolina, and a new made-to-order market was born.
“It’s something that people find their identity in, how tight their jeans are, how loose they are, what color they are, all sorts of stuff,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell found that “all ages, races, sexes, and all of those categories have a difficult time finding jeans” and that a steady stream of clients – “a majority of our customers is late 20s to mid-40s,” he said – were, and are, willing to pay $250 and up for the opportunity to collaborate with him on customized jeans from Billiam, a brand based on his nickname.
Mitchell has also found that jeans have become more acceptable in a variety of settings, creating more demand.
“It’s the thing that you couldn’t wear to church, you couldn’t wear in all these different business atmospheres, and now it’s widely becoming acceptable in all markets,” he said.
Billiam remains one of the few denim jeans makers in America that engages in every step of production in-house: designing, cutting, sewing, and finishing, all in one open space where visitors can peek at the action. The shop serves clients both in person and online, and while its apparel mostly finds its way into the wardrobes of local residents and tourists, it’s also sold in boutiques in the United Kingdom.
Mitchell was intrigued by a book he read detailing Toyota’s manufacturing process and “how lean and smart they are … but one of the things that really stuck with me was the idea of spending your money on processes that add value and automating everything else,” he said.
Within the makers movement nationally, “There’s the path where we are repeating the oldest, hardest way of work that they did in the ’40s. … As far as bringing in new technology that is cutting-edge technology into textile manufacturing, there are not many people at all that are doing that,” he observed.
Now, after denying himself pay in the early years and employing interns before shifting to a more sophisticated production team, Mitchell is innovating.
While he still uses 15 sewing machines to handle different aspects of production – a Singer makes waistbands, a Union Special sews in the round – Mitchell is switching out or adding equipment to widen capabilities and achieve greater efficiencies.
Moving around his production space, Mitchell pointed to a new embroidery machine and to several others that he’s purchased from Juki, a global industrial sewing machine company based in Tokyo.
“They’re the biggest. They’re the best. They’re moving forward with fully automated machines, CNC machines, really interesting things that people have kind of never seen before,” he said.
Toward the front of the store, Mitchell gestured to a new laser cutter used to produce leather goods that can, he said, “cut out a three-piece wallet in two minutes with an exact logo on it.”
“We are, as a company, broadening what is possible from service-based manufacturing,” Mitchell said. “I want to be able to say, ‘Here are three different colors of T-shirts. Do you want those to fit as well as your jeans fit? Would you like your belt to be custom-punched? Would you like your wallet to have your name on it?’
“And so, I want to figure out ways to increase our capacity with machines and then also with the products that we offer,” he said. Billiam already produces leather belts and denim and canvas aprons for both personal and commercial use.
As for denim jeans, Billiam’s signature product, Mitchell said that while his company has “fought for American-made” and had purchased selvage denim only from Cone Mills, the plant’s closing in late 2017 has led him to look to a plant in Mexico for supply.
“And it is a better technology, a newer facility. In many senses, it’s a better-quality material,” he believes.
Currently working with three full-time and three part-time workers, Mitchell will be adding more styles to his line of from-scratch jeans for both men and women.
Customization will remain his hallmark.
After a decade in business, he said, his goal is “to have this thing be a Ralph Lauren, be a Calvin Klein” and build Billiam into a brand that will be worn and appreciated over the next 100 years.