• Arizona Stitch Lab is a free job training program housed in the Sonoran Stitch Factory, a cut-and-sew factory in the Old Pascua neighborhood of Tucson.
• These are well-paying manufacturing jobs, not hobby-level home sewing projects. An industrial sewing machine operator may start at minimum wage, which is $15 an hour in Tucson. A worker who additionally trains to be a patternmaker or a 3D modeler can expect to earn twice that.
• The Stitch Lab graduated its first class of 10 trainees — all citizens of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe — at the end of February.

Andy Flores had never seen a sewing machine before.

For 27 years, he worked for his Pascua Yaqui Tribe. Part of his work meant caring for the resource center building in Old Pascua. It was his job to unlock the doors to the classroom, where he saw his people drawing on their cultural traditions and learning new ways to sew. 

One day, Flores decided to join the class. He thought it could open doors to new opportunities after he retires from the tribal government. 

The training is providing economic access to sewist jobs for tribal citizens, he says, holding fabric in his hands, guiding the pieces of a class project through a serger machine. 

“It’s an honor to be part of it,” he says.

The class is part of a colorful patchwork of local groups collaborating to create new apparel manufacturing jobs and businesses in Tucson.

The threads of this collaboration include a tribe that wants to thrive. A city that wants to grow its economy. A nonprofit organization that wants to help entrepreneurs, and local business owners who want to hire more workers. 

The heart and hands of the project are local workers who want training for better jobs.

The group is sewn together in the new Arizona Stitch Lab, a free job training program housed in the Sonoran Stitch Factory, a cut-and-sew factory in a sky-blue building with a fading mural on one side just across the street from the Pascua Yaqui Tribe Resource Center in the Old Pascua area of Tucson, near Grant Road and Interstate 10. 

The large rooms are filled with industrial sewing machines, specialty machines, and cutting equipment, including a high-tech cutter that uses software to maximize production. Rainbows of thread spools and fabric rolls line the walls. 

These are well-paying manufacturing jobs, not hobby-level home sewing projects. An industrial sewing machine operator may start at minimum wage, which is $15 an hour in Tucson. A worker who additionally trains to be a patternmaker or a 3D modeler can expect to earn twice that and will have remote work options. A senior technician can earn up to $100,000 a year.

The Stitch Lab graduated its first class of 10 trainees — all citizens of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe — at the end of February. The student sewists took classes, learned to operate three types of industrial sewing machines, and practiced weaving their traditions and their new skills. 

Student sewist Shana LaRock and instructor Marie Teemant discuss a project at the Arizona Stitch Lab in Tucson. LaRock was graduating with the first cohort of students in the new job training program. Photo by Becky Pallack.

A new trade, old traditions and opportunities for the tribe

Rebekah T. Lewis recruited tribal citizens to join the training program and quickly found herself making a waiting list. 

The collaboration is an “amazing, one-of-a-kind opportunity,” says Lewis, the Associate Tribal Planner for the Pascua Yaqui Tribe.

The tribe has a long history of sewing and embroidery, so there is a lot of interest, she says. Plus, it’s different from other options like healthcare labor or construction labor, she says. These are jobs right in their neighborhood.

Shana LaRock says she didn’t know about the industrial sewing industry and didn’t know about the factory in the neighborhood before she heard about the Stitch Lab and became a student. She’s a Pascua Yaqui tribal citizen and initially thought she could learn to sew her tribe’s traditional regalia. Then she became impressed with the job opportunities for sewing as a new career. 

Now, the previously unemployed sewist says she’ll have an option to work at the Sonoran Stitch Factory. She and the other students have been touring other work centers and meeting potential employers.

Kendall Foster, an economic development executive with the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, says the training is flexible and employers arrive ready to hire trainees.

With some factory jobs starting at $45,000, these jobs can be a solution to poverty for some people and can lead to Indigenous people starting their own businesses. 

The tribe is opening an entrepreneurship resource center soon, and Foster imagines creative people moving from kitchen-table sewing projects to growing small businesses.

Dress forms stand ready for student sewists at the Arizona Stitch Lab in Tucson. Entry-level industrial sewing jobs start at $35,000. Photo by Becky Pallack.

Putting the pieces together

Maybe, for Erica Yngve, it all started with learning to sew when she was 9 years old in the 4-H program. 

After a career as a project consultant, the Tucson businesswoman decided to start her own company. In 2019, she researched and launched her own apparel line using resources at FABRIC Incubator, a nonprofit fashion entrepreneurship program in Tempe. 

Her brand, Bralessly, is for women who want to go without a bra to be comfortable and still be modest. Her idea won a major pitch competition in Tucson.

Ynvge found a producer in Tucson to make the clothes and decided to buy that production business in 2020. Then she bought another located in the same building in 2021 — a 90-year-old Tucson company that makes mattress covers and pillow covers for hospitals, hotels, universities and cruise ships.

She tacked those pieces together to make the Sonoran Stitch Factory, a full-service cut-and-sew factory. Yngve sees the demand. She gets a lot of orders from new entrepreneurs but also from established brands that want to produce in the U.S.

But she didn’t have enough workers to meet the demand. She noticed other employers in Tucson couldn’t find enough workers either. She needed a way to train people.

Then she connected with Moonshot, a nonprofit organization that connects entrepreneurs and cities to work on economic development. 

“This was a niche that really needed filling,” says Scott Hathcock, Moonshot’s CEO.

Moonshot contracted with the city of Tucson and the Pascua Yaqui Tribe to provide a job training program and open the Arizona Stitch Lab in January. 

The Tucson City Council approved spending $150,000 per year for two years to support the Lab. The program can train more than 100 students in industrial sewing, design and entrepreneurship each year, according to a city report. That’s an investment of $1,500 per trainee.

“Tucson is one of those great cities that has so many great connections,” she says. “They’re full of people that are entrepreneurial, that are innovative, that are willing to work together to get things done.”

“I really want to give back and get everyone working together. I feel honored to be part of it.” 

Demand for workers

Apparel manufacturing is a small industry in Arizona. There are 1,770 sewing machine operators working throughout Arizona compared to 17,510 working in California, mostly in the Los Angeles fashion sector, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But times are changing in the apparel production world, Hathcock, the Moonshot CEO says. Companies are leaving California and looking for labor in places like Tucson that show promise for growth, so if Arizona can create the workforce, companies and jobs will follow, he says.

More than 50 companies in Tucson already employ industrial sewists, Yngve says. 

The local sewist workforce appeals to local entrepreneurs, too. The factory can do custom or small-batch production to help entrepreneurs produce their first goods and design and test new items.

Tucson business owner Alec Laughlin launched a clothing line this spring, with shirts made from sustainable fabrics like Tencel, bamboo and hemp. 

Localism is important to him. In fact, at the retail store he opened in July, everything is local. When he cuts a check to a Tucson business, that money stays in the community, he says. “These people live here. They’re our neighbors, our community,” he says.

At the Sonoran Stitch Factory, Laughlin can submit a pattern and have samples made. After adjustments, the garments can be produced at the factory and sold in his store.

A new chapter

“Any time someone invests in us, they invest in all of us,” says Peter Yucupicio, Chairman of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe.

At an open house and graduation ceremony at Stitch Lab, Yucupicio shook the hand of each graduating student. He gave a speech and offered blessings in English and Spanish at the start of the Yaqui holy season.

He reflected on the tribe’s past and future.

Photo by Chris Richards/University of Arizona

Pascua Yaqui people have had roots in this neighborhood since 1500. The factories have seen a variety of businesses, like a bottling company and a distribution center.

He recalled a job picking cotton, where he would think, “Everybody else made it, what happened to us?”

Now he sees these highly-trained factory jobs among the many professional options available to his community.

“When you look at our origins as a people, I hope more and more Yaquis and people of all faiths come here and make this business thrive,” he says. “It’s a blessing for us.” 

He grew up down the street from the factory in a time when the houses were made of adobe, tin and cardboard. Kids used to wait for the garbage to be thrown away behind the distribution center, so they could pull out the Batman and Superman magazines. 

“We learned how to read with those books,” he says.

Now, standing inside the factory, addressing his community and Tucson business leaders who have come to Old Pascua to celebrate the job training program, the Pascua Yaqui leader sees a new chapter.

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Becky Pallack is the Operations Executive at Arizona Luminaria. She's been a journalist in Arizona since 1999.