Tillamook’s request, which the dairy co-op made last fall, was a welcome shot of sunshine. Howard, the Oregon manufacturer’s founder and owner, was working to get the second iteration of her factory off the ground. The original facility had been lost in a fire, the result of arson. For more than seven months, Portland Garment Factory struggled to raise itself from literal ashes with the help of its community, which raised $125,000 through GoFundMe. It had just stepped into a new space 20 blocks away from its old address when its former client came knocking.
“They were the first to call us and say, ‘Hey guys, we know you’re starting to get up and running, but can we make this happen?’” Howard told Sourcing Journal. “And we were like, ‘Yeah, we don’t have our machines yet, but totally.” Tillamook, a fellow Portlander, had worked with the factory last year on a limited-edition line of bags, lounge shorts and dog toys. Now, she said, it wanted to “go crazier,” with the marketing department asking, “How can we make eating cheddar fun?”
Portland Garment Factory, which played a hand in the designs, rose to the challenge. Howard and her colleagues dreamed up a pair of $35 party pants, which came with removable, insulated pockets that doubled as cheese-storing clutches. They brought to life a crew-neck sweater with a generous amount of fringe along its chest and arms, recalling thick-cut shreds. For the cheddar connoisseur on the go, there was a $15 cross-body bag that resembled fanned-out cheese slices and a $5 drink cozy with a detachable pouch for keeping a stick of Tillamook’s best equally chill. Everything came in yummy yellow.
“The concept was, you’re going to a party and you’re taking your cheese with you,” Howard said. The results, which were released on Feb. 13, a.k.a. National Cheddar Day, a.k.a. Cheddarbration, immediately sold out. For Portland Garment Factory, which officially opened its doors—and new orders—last month, this was a much-needed triumph.
“I was a bit worried when we first reopened,” Howard said. “There was a lot of stress—how much has the world changed since the fire and the pandemic? Will people still need stuff? How much has the pandemic ravaged the economy?”
She had plenty of reasons to be concerned. When Covid-19 first reared its head, the factory’s customers yanked roughly half of its orders in a panic, forcing the maker to turn to face masks to keep production humming. But the world has found a new kind of equilibrium. Orders, Howard said, have come back, including “one really big one that’s kind of awesome.” She’s also fielding regular inquiries, which has filled her with something resembling hope. Her all-female staff, now numbering 20, has grown, and she’s looking to hire more sewing technicians to fill the bigger space. There are even plans for an upcycling initiative to help it expand its zero-waste, climate-friendly ethos.
“I want to do more community stuff now that we have a big parking lot,” Howard said. “We have all this opportunity—there’s a women’s shelter next door, and it feels like such a blessing to be next to them and be like, O.K., let’s put positive energy in the world, in the community, in the street that we live [on] because it’s been hard for so many people, especially Portland. It’s not been easy for people to just even walk down the street lately, so I’m hoping that we can focus on that, too.”
Crimes, homelessness and gun violence are on the rise in Portland, which makes Oregon’s biggest metropolis sometimes feel like Gotham City, she added. But the last thing Howard wants is to feel disenchanted with the city whose name her factory shares. And these days, she has many reasons to feel positive.
“We didn’t even have everyone fully vaccinated in April last year, so a lot has changed since then,” Howard said. “We’ll soon be able to go mask-free indoors. The world is feeling more hopeful in general. I think we’re going to have our best year ever.”