When I was getting ready to head over to Alexandra Ferguson’s pillow factory in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, with a few other members of the UncommonGoods team, I honestly had no idea what to expect. Not only was this my first studio tour – it was my first day of work, and the word ‘factory’ was emboldened in my head. The automatic image of a dingy, windowless environment I had cultivated growing up clashed with the sense of handmade authenticity and vibrancy I associated with UncommonGoods. Visiting Alexandra’s studio factory was initially an incredibly dissonant experience – but we’re talking a good kind of dissonance: one that adhered to none of my preconceived notions of what a factory was, and rather showed me what a factory could be.
Photo by Colin Miller
Just a few blocks away from the UncommonGoods office in the Brooklyn Army Terminal, Alexandra’s studio is lofted high up on the 6th floor of the massive Industry City complex. We made our way into the building, dodging a slurry of outbound shipments that left us frazzled by the time we reached the elevator. Yet when the doors opened, Alexandra’s head popped into view, and we were immediately greeted by her distinctive brand of inviting pep. She welcomed us in and led us down a short hallway lined with pillow fills towards her main assembly floor.
The space that unfolded around us was – in two words – collected and comfortable. Sewing machines and pinning tables stretched from end to end of the long, bright space, one side of which was almost entirely lined with windows boasting inviting views of the Statue of Liberty and the NY Harbor. The room was warmly decorated but economical, with little (literal) fluff for a pillow factory. As Alexandra walked us along the sunny assembly floor, she gestured towards the colorful walls and washed away the monochromatic filter I was still half-clinging to, saying: “My goal is for my factory to be a colorful place, where we make colorful things, and ultimately to change the way people think about factories.” Not only is this idea sustainable – so too are her exclusively recycled and eco-friendly materials.
Alexandra is a self-described “factory girl;” having toured assemblies all over the world, she emanated an almost infectious sense of pride as she talked excitedly about her set-up. We moved into her office – open and connected to the main floor – where she energetically floated over stacks of ‘I’ll-get-to-this-later’ mail atop tables and chairs, and decommissioned sewing machines encouraged closer exploration. After she showed us her camera and photo shoot area, she explained that, since locating in Industry City two years ago, she and her six full-time employees have been conducting every aspect of her business in-house.
What are your most essential tools and materials?
Our favorite material is our 100 percent recycled felt. It’s made from PET containers (i.e. plastic bottles). Felt is a matted fiber that cuts clean without fraying. This versatility is what allows us to cut out the letters and stitch them down in our signature applique technique. Of course, my favorite tools would have to be our hundreds of custom-made dies. They are like cookie-cutters for the fabric. We have the whole alphabet in several different fonts, as well as some very special scripted phrases like the Namaste Pillow.
What inspired you to become an artist, and where does this inspiration come from?
My mom was a patternmaker in London during the swinging 60s, and is an overall craft maven. Growing up, she made lots of our clothes, and some of my favorite memories are days when we would dream something up and spend the day bringing it to life.
How did you first develop the concept for your product?
I made my first felt pillows as a gift for a friend. The first pillows were all botanical-themed, and I cut the shapes of the flowers and leaves freehand, layering them on top of each other and using my sewing machine to add details such as the veins in a petal. I got carried away over the holidays and made about 40 more so I started selling the extras on the craft circuits. Which, of course, then meant I had an excuse to make more. I liked to have cable news on as background noise, and in January 2009 when I was just starting, Obama was being inaugurated. It was such an exciting and inspiring time that I thought to capture “yes we can” on a pillow. Turned out it was a hit and I was in business. I consider it to be my own little economic stimulus package.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced as a young designer starting a business?
Scaling up our operations from a small 800-square-foot studio space with one sewer to our current 4,000-square-foot factory with a team of seven was a pretty big deal. It was really important to me that we held onto the artisanal handcrafted manufacturing methods and nimbleness to make custom products in a short time frame even as we more than tripled our annual output. I’m happy to say that two years later, we have an awesome team and a really efficient production flow, but we certainly had our fair share of growing pains along the way.
Where does down time fit into your day? Is it ever tempting to take a nap on your own product?
I’m really disciplined about ending the work day by 6 or 7, which I can get away with by being hyper-focused when I am on the clock. I’m a big believer that even the busiest person can make time for the things that are important, and for me it’s having evenings at home with my husband.
Ha – I get asked all the time if my factory full of pillows ever tempt me for a nap, but for me when I see that I just think how much work has to be done!
You’ve mentioned before that you hope to redefine how people perceive factories. Can you elaborate more on how your factory deviates from this stereotype?
I love factories. I love watching all the different machines in action, and listening to the sounds they make. And I love the pride that I see in a workers face when you admire their craftsmanship. There is something so innately satisfying about the visual of a pile of product at the end of the day and knowing that you produced that – a real sense of purpose. Over the last 10 years, I have worked with factories of nearly every scale and specialty, from managing sample rooms for top designers and local NYC garment center work rooms to some of the largest mass production factories in southern China. I’ve seen cut and sew lines, fabric mills, metal stamping, plastic injection molding.
So you can imagine that opening my own factory two years ago was a dream come true. I remember being so struck though at the visceral reaction I got from some people when I used this word, “factory.” It evoked dark and dingy spaces, overcrowding, mindless work, and child labor. Yes, in my career I have certainly made a bee-line out of some foul spaces with questionable work ethics, but in my experience it was by no means the norm and the opposite of what I intended to build in Brooklyn.
As a response, I set out to build a factory as beautiful and exciting as I believe it can be. Our loft space in Industry City is lined in wall to wall windows and overlooks NY harbor and the Statue of Liberty. I installed 150 feet of custom turquoise industrial shelving, and painted accent walls with chartreuse and fuchsia. And obviously we are in full legal compliance with all local laws and labor practices! But more than that, I want to show how the economics of domestic manufacturing CAN work. Yes, our labor and overhead is more expensive than our overseas competitors, but we have many other advantages such as no minimum order quantities, fast turn around time and no risk of my goods getting held in customs indefinitely. All in, this means that we don’t tie up our cash in materials and inventory, and can capture a ton of business making custom items such as the Zip Code and Family Name Pillows on UncommonGoods. Not to mention, of course, creating jobs for our local community and supporting the national economy. So we’ve got some big advantages. Not to mention that I get to listen to sewing machines click away all day long. Music to my ears.
What advice would you offer the you of 5 years ago?
The best thing for me was to just take it one day at a time. Otherwise it can get pretty overwhelming.
Where does collaboration fit into your day and your craft?
I love working on custom pieces with our customers. Maybe it’s a nickname you have for your significant other, or the punch line of an inside joke. I love knowing what huge smiles will be on the recipients face when they open that perfect present made just for them.
Please elaborate on the sustainable materials you’ve incorporated into your product.
We work with all eco-friendly materials. Our felt and pillow inserts are made from 100 percent recycled plastic bottles (PET containers). Our cream canvas is a hemp and linen blend, and our other canvas bases are all 100 percent organic cotton.
What inspires you to keep designing?
My customers. I do a lot of listening to their needs, and then try to design into it.
What do you think people appreciate most about your product?
We make an effort to curate phrases that are part of our common lexicon – things we collectively are saying and thinking all day long – boil them down to their absolute essence, and write that on a pillow. When we’ve done it right, it’s something that you can immediately relate to, almost like we’ve lifted your thoughts right out of your head! Or maybe it reminds you exactly of your sister-in-law who is always saying that thing. Either way, our products tend to create this very intense emotional connection with the buyer. It’s not just a pillow anymore, it’s a piece of you.
What is your favorite product design (pillow), and why is it special to you?
It changes all the time depending on my mood. Right now it’s “I Love This Place” – it lives on the set of the TODAY Show, and they recently posted a photo to Instagram of Snoop Dogg posing with it. We have it taped to our refrigerator at the factory. Totally epic.