A Shrinking Industry -- Seattle Garment Workers Wonder Where They'll Fit In As Factories Close And Jobs Move Elsewhere

Dressed in a long blue work apron overstuffed with pencils, Don Mixon spends much of his day hunched over a drafting table papered with spreadsheets, calculations and sewing patterns. But he stands taller when he speaks of Sam Roffe, his former employer and founder of the Seattle ski-wear company, Roffe Inc.

"Sam was the last of the good guys," said Mixon, who worked side by side with his old boss in the cutting room until Roffe's death in 1994. "He treated me like I was someone special. I got to know him so well, he was more to me than a boss man, you know. I miss him every day."

Now after 27 years with the company, Mixon says he owes Sam Roffe one last favor - helping his family close down a company that has been a cornerstone of the Seattle garment-manufacturing industry for 43 years.

Last week, Gerry Sportswear Co., a 50-year-old company, purchased the Roffe label and rights to produce Roffe-brand ski wear. Gerry, headquartered in Seattle, is owned by Chicago entrepreneur Jeff Anderson. Roffe was owned by Robert Roffe, Sam's son, who referred all questions to Sonny Jones, Roffe president.

At the end of the year, Gerry will close the downtown Roffe factory and lay off approximately 100 workers - including Mixon. Gerry will move 30 percent of Roffe's production work to Hong Kong.

Roffe is the latest in a long line of Seattle garment makers to disappear from the local scene.

Seattle was once one of the largest apparel-manufacturing centers in the country, and enjoyed a reputation as the nation's leader in outerwear. But cheap overseas labor - some Chinese sweatshops pay sewers as little as $1 a day - has lured business and jobs away from the United States.

In the last decade, many local garment manufacturers have come and gone, some shutting down completely, others selling out to larger companies:

-- Roffe itself in 1987 purchased the Demetre Sweater Co., which employed 60 to 80 workers in Ballard. Those jobs moved to factories in Hong Kong, Colombia and Canada, said Jones. In its heyday in 1985, Roffe employed 300 people.

-- In 1994, Source purchased McConnell Knitting, founded in 1991 by Robert McConnell, a former Demetre employee laid off by Roffe. Source changed the name to McConnell Knitting. That company folded in 1995.

-- Sunset Sportswear Inc., which had 450 workers at its peak in 1975, closed in 1981.

-- Black Manufacturing Co., which had 160 employees in 1980, is now out of business.

Workers like Mixon will try to find jobs at smaller area factories, where some production of Roffe clothing will be parceled out.

But changing jobs will not be easy.

Sam Roffe, as Mixon said, was the last of his kind. Mixon does not expect to find such an employer again.

Mixon has worked for Roffe for "pretty near my whole life." At 59, he is too young to retire or collect Social Security checks but is much older than most job seekers.

"There's one thing I think about a whole heap," Mixon said. "When you look for a job, they think about your age and they discriminate. But I'm not giving up. I'm moving ahead. I'll think about that later," after the factory closes.

Roffe, which once dominated the ski-wear industry, suffered because it did not keep up with fashion trends, said Shannon Myrin, director of marketing for Hot Gear Skiwear.

In addition, demand for ski wear has declined in recent years, although the market for other outdoor gear is growing, Anderson said.

Gerry itself has a long history of acquiring smaller sewing companies. But while it used to employ 425 people 10 years ago, it has only 60 employees now. Nearly all of its work is now subcontracted.

"Our strategy is to add on acquisitions of well-known brands with high-name recognition," said Anderson, who bought Gerry from Chicago-based Eagle Industries last year.

"We think it will help us grow our business."

Contractors may be hiring

In the end, this could mean more jobs for former Roffe employees, Anderson said. "Our contractors are already telling us they will need to hire more people to keep up with our orders," he said.

So far, Gerry has not offered jobs to Roffe factory workers.

Roffe's factory will close at the worst possible time to look for a new job - late October, when production of ski wear typically shuts down for the winter. Few factories will be hiring; most ski-garment manufacturers lay off factory workers from November to March.

Roffe pattern maker Karen Ma said she expects to collect unemployment checks when the factory closes. Ma, who immigrated from Hong Kong in 1975, has worked in garment factories since she was 13. She has two teenagers; one is preparing to attend the University of Washington this fall.

Kim Wong, a Roffe supervisor, is no stranger to changing jobs. Like many sewers, she has worked for most of Seattle's major apparel manufacturers - many now closed. If she had her way, she would stay at Roffe until she is old enough to retire.

"Put it this way: we don't like change," Wong said. "But we have no choice. I don't know what they are going to do, if (Gerry) will take us or not."

Pay not likely to be as high

If Roffe workers are hired elsewhere, chances are they will earn less money.

Unionized sewers at Roffe earn between $7 and $12 an hour based on productivity, Jones said. Seamstresses making similar garments for Gerry's contractors earn as little as $6 a hour. Most of those companies don't have labor unions representing workers.

But even Roffe jobs are not what they used to be. Sewers once were paid by the hour; now they do piece work, said Roffe factory supervisor Annie Chin.

Until last year, Roffe had never shut down production in the slow season, giving workers stability and job security, Mixon said.

"I used to work over at Sunset Sportswear, and I'd be off and on, off and on, until I couldn't make my car payments," Mixon said.

"But Sam took care of us. I learned the majority of what I know here. I tell everyone I work for Roffe, and that I worked with him. How many people can say that?"