"A single conversation with a wise man is better than ten years of study." ~ Chinese Proverb
This past week, I got to spend time with two masters I admire at the dress rehearsal for Much Ado About Nothing: Lucas Ashe and Vicki Olsen. Lucas is my old boss/head designer from my Tactical Assault Gear days and Vicki Olsen is the head designer at Raleigh Little Theater. Theater teaches you how to turn collections quickly. Manufacturing teaches you how to scale. Both designers taught me how to think on your feet. Reflecting on my own career growth, I thought I might offer you advice to help find your own mentors.
First off, above all, a master must do.
If you remember nothing else I say today, remember masters do the dreams that others only talk of for love.
I learned this lesson the hard way by experience. I'd been working for almost 4 years on factory floors and design shops when I met a patternmaker named Armando. Armando was by most measures, running what would be termed an underdog operation for the area. The bigger, better funded design shop I did work for up the street named Techshop had all the money, the fancy equipment, cool computer programs, public support, and "smart" people in it. It was a hive of "cool" and remains to this day a place full of the shiniest equipment I have ever used. Probably more phDs and Masters in the place too. I mean I learned 42 different CAD design programs in the 4 years I was there...honestly. 42. The number still boggles me. We built 3D printers for fun in our spare time.
In contrast, Armando ran the operation based on one CAD system, an entry model Gerber, and the shop had only converted over less than a year before so the vast majority of the place was still using hand-cutting with old school equipment from the 1960s. Every single pattern was still on oaktag paper, "in the process" of being digitized. Not a single straight needle sewing machine had one auto-feature on it, and a fair number those machines could probably traced back to the 1960s as well. The rivet machine looked closer to 100 years old. I only took the job working thinking I'd stay a few weeks until my husband and I qualified for house loan. I stayed over a year and TAG remains one of my favorite work experiences. And each week I watched Armando beat, easily beat the numbers with a fraction of the equipment and manpower that Techshop for over a year.
You see, Armando had a secret weapon Techshop didn't: 25 years real experience in the business. He was on loan from one of the major airline industries to my boss at the time, David, to work in this start-up operation K-5 Sewing out in Spring Hope, which would eventually lead to me getting promoted after 6 months into Tactical Assault Gear. I will forever remember him walking by my machine telling me I wasn't seeing the problem clearly, he'd sit down and show each step in sequence telling to break it apart into the motions my hands needed to do. Always telling me to "watch his hands" as he sewed. Then later after I'd done it a few times walk back by and tell me to quit thinking and let my hands do the work. He was a BIG believer in the power of using one's hands to get work done.
In production, a stitcher will move between 600-1600 hundred passes a day on average depending on what they are making. So it's important to take the time to first learn an operation, and then internalize it so that it's as easy as riding a bike. The goal is not just to think or not think, but to do so in the right order. A stitcher/cutter/finisher must first stop and think about how their hands are moving to reduce mistakes, and then they must trust themselves enough to let their hands do the work after 3-4 tests to get the speed necessary to scale.
Armando busted my chops for 6 months while I sweated bullets, then surprisingly helped get me promoted one day up to the design shop with David the factory owner. Studying under Masters can often be like that. A constant race to polish skills with thousands of repetitions daily when I averaged 600-800 pieces/year before. I did more a week, sometimes a day, than I'd done the prior year. Cutting, patternmaking, stitching, packing...you name it. More than any of my colleagues I knew at Techshop. It was humbling.
And it changed my perspective on a fundamental level as to what being a master means in the business. If you want to be successful, you need to find not just intelligent people to give you good counsel, you need to find people with the experience to be masters to surround yourself with what you want to accomplish. So where are these masters? They are out doing the things daily you are thinking about. And based on what I've seen, here's my short list of traits of masters to look for when searching for people worth learning from.
1) Do. The mark of a master in patternmaking is the ability to translate an idea on paper/sketch into reality on demand. I think there's a lot of universal truth there for what being a master means.
2) Have experience. They're not afraid to get their hands dirty.
3) Think, then act. At the beginning of the day or task, they often take 5-10 minutes to lay out the project or task to be executed. Then they do it. People tend to underestimate the value of focus.
4) Use clear speech to drive action with others. Effective automated forms are life-blood in a shop. Too much paperwork kills. So does too little information. Never underestimate the value of a clear one-page form or memo to quickly communicate what needs to be done. Effective memos will list the necessary ingredients, steps required, and many include sketches or pictures to clarify visually so the entire project can be grasped in 1-2 min or less. If you are reading a book, many of the older masters will include these forms in the book themselves to give you a leg up.
5) Study. They seek to improve their craft by learning. I have yet to meet a master who wasn't curious in nature.
6) Treat their tools and time as valuable. A master may not have newest tools or fanciest operating system, however they will care for what they have. There is no perfect plant, factory, or shop. There is however respect. And respect is a two-way street. Many older people in the trades stop 5-15 min before the end of shift to clean up before leaving for the day.
7) Put their money where their mouth is.
Alright, hope that helps you. And to the masters in our business, thank you for all you have given me. I look forward to many more years of friendship, working together, and mutual respect. You all rock.
Dara and Nash are two happily married craftspeople who love making practical beautiful things.