By Gregory Daurer | Aug 26, 2020
Letterman jackets, PPE, and other apparel
For several generations of Utah youth, donning a letterman jacket, cheer wear, or club sweater made by Coleman Knitting Mills has signified being true to your school. "Coleman is where I got my letterman jacket when I grew up," says Dalebout, citing his time playing baseball against a Coleman family member on their respective high school baseball teams.
To this day, students are often fitted directly at their schools, in order to obtain their very own handmade Coleman items, tailored directly to the students' measurements, and boasting the team's colors. The company was founded in the late 1940s by William C. Coleman, who capitalized on the manufacturing experience he'd acquired during World War II: "Some of the original patterns that we're using for letterman jackets are actually from original bomber jackets made during the war," says Dalebout.
Coleman Knitting Mills subsequently passed through two more successive generations of the Coleman family's hands before family friend Dalebout and his wife, Lisa, bought the business in 2017. The Dalebouts still offer screen printing and embroidery services, which they were doing previously, as part of their current business.
In 2010, the company acquired some unexpected street cred when rapper Jay-Z ordered jackets made by Coleman for his Artful Dodger clothing line. Word has it that Jay-Z discovered a vintage Coleman letterman jacket within an East Coast thrift store and was wowed by its quality. When contacted about who wanted jackets made for him, then-owner Richard Coleman replied, "Jay-who?"
According to what he's heard, Dalebout says, "The next weekend, after all this went down, on the answering machine there were like 400 messages." Thanks to Jay-Z, so many people wanted jackets that Coleman had to turn away the extra business.
But it was a phone call that Dalebout received in March 2020 that has significantly broadened the company's size and reach during his period of ownership. His sister-in-law, who works for a nursing home company, made an inquiry regarding personal protective equipment (PPE): "We're completely out of masks and gowns. Is there any way you guys could [make them]?"
The company took the design for its club sweater, reversed the back to the front, and made it longer, creating its own gown, made using polyester microsuede. "The fabric actually repels [liquids better than what the nursing homes] had been buying," says Dalebout. And the company designed a polyester mask that Dalebout calls comfortable and easy to breathe in, yet which fits tightly on a person's face. Dalebout says of the new business, "In two days, [we were] making literally upwards of 30,000 gowns and 100,000 masks." Subsequently, the number of employees at Coleman has practically doubled.
And the orders for the PPE wear kept coming in from "hospitals, clinics, businesses." Hill Air Force Base. The State of Utah. Schools districts. And additional nursing home companies. Coleman products are now being worn all over the country -- not just along the Wasatch Front, with a smattering of additional markets in California, Nevada, and Wyoming, like with Coleman's school wear.
Dalebout estimates the company has made over 300,000 gowns and over a million masks. He says local epidemiologists have rated the effectiveness of the company's single-layer masks as meeting Level One and Level Two standards; the double-layer ones could potentially rate higher.
The State of Utah not only designated Coleman Knitting Mills an essential business during the pandemic, the company's status has allowed partner companies to remain open in Pennsylvania and California due to their important work with Coleman. Dalebout says, "It was multiple states, multiple businesses. Everybody benefited from it. It was quite the blessing."
Dalebout reflects on what the business has accomplished, just this year: "What we have done over the past four months has been a huge undertaking, and the people here have done an amazing job. I mean just a phenomenal job -- especially our seamstresses." Dalebout credits them with employing their decades of experience to improve upon designs.
At its facility in Ogden, workers knit wool using the three machines made by the German company Stoll, they cut patterns out of leather and microsuede, and they sew pieces together. (All the fabric is US-made, except for the wool, which is dyed to specific school colors in Mexico.)
Dalebout has been told, "You would rather take compliments about how [good your] products are than take any bit of money." That's true, he says: "I love to hear when people say how nice their jacket looks. Or how well their mask fits. Or any of those types of compliments. I love it." His greatest joy is "knowing that someone received their product -- and they're happy with it."
Challenges: Dalebout says it's getting harder to find seamstresses. He fears the "art of sewing" is losing "steam and ground," as the vast majority of the work is contracted overseas.
Opportunities: "To be self-sustaining here in our own country," says Dalebout. "We want products that are made in the USA." He adds, "American products have a better quality. You will pay more for quality but it will last longer."
Needs: "Expert sewers," says Dalebout.
Dalebout cites Jerry Moyes of Swift Transportation, who started Swift Driving Academy to train truckers, thus ensuring that his own company had a qualified pool of individuals to hire from. "We are going to start a school for seamstresses," he says. After paying trainees to learn the skills, Dalebout would offer them jobs at Coleman.