Recently, I had the privilege to chat with Norma Stockbridge, founder/owner of Stockbridge Sewing Works, to discuss the ins and outs of her storied career and learn a little more about the hands that make all of our baseball, 4-panel, and 5-panel caps. For those who don't know, Norma has been making all of our private label caps for nearly 6 years, including our classic throwback baseball caps.
EM: What has been your favorite project to date?
NH: The latest League of Their Own series on Prime Video stands out as one of my favorite projects recently. However, the day Meatloaf walked into my shop in Cooperstown, and watched while I made him a wool pinstripe cap, (size 7 5/8 in case you are wondering!) That cap does stand out as the coolest moment in my career of cap making. Over the coming years, he gave me backstage tickets with 13 of my friends to see him perform in Columbus, Ohio. That was a project that kept on giving!
EM: What machine is your favorite to use, and which is your least, and why?
NH: My new auto thread cutting eyelet machine tops rates right up there with my 16 needle embroidery machine. I chose the eyelet machine as it replaced my ancient Reese 101 eyelet machine that was wearing out after over its 75,000,000+ eyelet making life. The auto thread cutting saves a lot of tedious snipping 4 threads on each panel in a long chain of cap panels.
My embroidery machine is amazing and super fun to play with! My creative mind gets overwhelmed with all the possibilities it presents.
My least favorite machine? That's like asking to point out the bad kid in a lineup. I love them all!! ( I own a total of 12 industrial machines and 7 home machines - I like to say I am a collector, not a hoarder of machines)
EM: How many hats did it take you to sew one you thought was as good as it gets? When was that?
NH: I am always in a state of continuous improvement on my caps, materials and process making them. My first cap was sewn back in 1990, and definitely was not a beauty. Pattern changes and sewing sequences and material handling all helped create the cap styles I make today. Perfected probably 10 years ago?
EM: Can you speak to your experience in the apparel industry, what you've observed, and where you think it is headed?
NH: first job working at sewing, which had always been my hobby, was in Waterville Maine at Hathaway Shirt Co. They hired me after a manual dexterity test which included rapidly moving from one peg (of 25) at a time to another board with 25 holes, tracking squiggly lines from one side of paper to the other side, moving washers from one peg to another And more speed and accuracy tests. They told me I had beat all previous scores and hired me on the spot. They paired me up with an older woman named Edith who was my trainer and she stayed with me for weeks while teaching me to sew on an industrial Singer straight stitch. Training included how to sit, hold my hands, where to look and how to hold my feet on the petal.
My first job was a pocket setter, on plaid shirts. The words of advise that she told me that I will never forget: " Being a seamstress is a lifelong passion and career if you want it. Just know that a robot will never be able to replicate the human hand enough to handle fabric, you will always have a job" Back then I didn't expect NAFTA to change everything.
After Shirts, I worked in a woolen mill as an invisible mender in Massachusetts, Japanese owned Sanyo Coats in NY, Curtains in NC, and finally settled on ball caps in Cooperstown. A year after moving to PA, as a single mom, my cap biz was taken away by a bad partnership I joined. (Bad biz move) I was barred from cap making for 5 years in order for them to pay me out a one year wage. (Grrrrrrrr) So, I found a job at Danskin as a product development coordinator. After 4 years in that position, my job as well as the 250 other people who worked there lost jobs to Taiwan. No other jobs were available in my field anymore. I decided at the age of 41 to go to college to change careers. I decided on the IT field. Funny how NAFTA took my job, but the government has a NAFTA retraining act that paid for two years of college. I worked 9 years as a Database developer and Equipment Validation Specialist for a large Pharma co. I missed the sewing machine and was tired of the corporate office life. I bought a new Juki 8700 and started making plans to walk away. Started a website, Etsy page, and went to the annual Vintage Base Ball Convention in Long Island to show my caps. The rest is history!
Fewer and fewer job opportunities were available as companies moved offshore. I used to be confident in knowing I would be able to find work anywhere.
Now, there are very few American sewing factories, most have moved offshore. With the loss of the industry, so went the loss of seamstresses and skilled workforce in the apparel industry. If we can turn this around while some of the original workforce is still around to help train, we would at least have the ability to carry on Made in USA apparel into the future as long as people want to pursue that career.
EM: Who are three makers or artisans that you find inspirational from, and how do you follow their work?
NH: I like Troy O'Shea
's and his postings of the cap making process process and also how he makes a batch, then posts. Good Business model for production ease.
Michelle Li Murphy
- a silk painter who creates beautiful gowns, scarves and hanging. She was taught at the Baltimore school of design. We shared a work space for a few years.
My Mother, Shirley. She taught me to sew and even though she was an anesthesiologist raising 4 kids, she made most of her own clothes.
EM: What's your favorite flavor of ice cream?
NH: Mint Chocolate Chip in a waffle cone
EM: What's your favorite local place to eat where you live? Breakfast/brunch? Lunch? Dinner/Supper?
NH: There is a small family owned diner in Hanover called the Railside Diner, It is my go to for most any meal, I rarely eat out, preferring to make home cooked Whole Foods
EM: Favorite baseball team?
NH: Based on where I grew up, I have to say the Red Sox (sorry Yankee fans! :) My dad took me to see Carl Yastrzemski lead the Sox in the late 60's and I can only remember eating a hot dog and wondering what is it with everyone talking about the green monster.
EM: Do you even like baseball?
NH: Not the big money Pro baseball, but when I discovered the world of Base Ball, played by the late 1800 rules and uniforms, I was hooked. I now make caps for most of the teams that play Vintage Base Ball across the country!
EM: Ok, so how about travel... If you could go anywhere in the world for vacation, where would it be and why?
NH: It would be a toss up between an African Safari to see the elephants, tigers, and all the amazing creatures that inhabit the Serengeti, and a trip to Costa Rica and see the rainforest and all its amazing ecology and biodiversity.
I love all things nature.
EM: Can you give a small piece of wisdom someone taught you along the way that has helped you in life and your craft?
NH: When I was thinking of leaving the Pharma industry to go back to sewing caps, I mentioned it to my friend, and she said: 'If you can ($) swing it, go for it! It won't seem like work if you love what you do."
Thank you so much for taking the time to converse with us (even if it was over email!) and allowing us and our readers to learn a bit more about you, Norma. But more importantly, thank you for continuing to ply your craft, hone your trade, and for your efforts that result in the highest quality caps available. Our customers have thoroughly enjoyed the fruits of your labor, as have we!
Lastly, if you haven't already had a chance to check them out, all of the 4-panel, 5-panel deadstock/novelty fabrics and vintage baseball caps that we carry in-store and online are made by Norma exclusively for us!