By: Justin Felisko
May 8, 2020
PUEBLO, Colo. – There was a pit in Megan Duckett’s stomach back in March, and it only got worse as she began to furlough every single one of her employees at Sew What?
Duckett, the PBR’s “Be Cowboy” recipient this weekend in Oklahoma, had grown Sew What? into a highly successful theatrical drapery manufacturer with her partner Adam over the last 22 years. Sew What?’s massively large backdrops and drapes have been seen throughout the entertainment and events world, including at select PBR events since 2008.
Here she was, though, telling her employees she was unsure of the future of Sew What? On March 6, she decided to close the company’s doors temporarily in Compton, California.
“I felt sick to my stomach that for the first time ever we would not be supporting our Sew What? staff households,” Duckett told PBR.com earlier this week. “It was an unreal feeling to consider that, after all the challenges over the years, a virtually invisible worldwide virus would be the end of us.”
Duckett was not naïve either.
She had been following the COVID-19 (coronavirus) outbreak closely, as well the possibility that it would seriously affect the music, sports and entertainment business.
The entrepreneur had heard rumblings from her clients about the situation as early as mid-February, but once Coachella postponed its festival on March 10, Duckett knew things for the industry were going to be bleak for at least the short term.
“We sort of saw it coming, rather like a wave that appears small and far off, but moves at you so quickly that you suddenly have to run,” Duckett said. “Really it all came down to a 10-day window when the bottom fell out of it. Once Coachella announced a postponement, that was pretty much the floodgates for the rest of the bands and events to cancel.
“Initially, we thought that a partial furlough (six-hour workdays) would be enough. But within a week it was clear that all the jobs were gone and everyone had cancelled. So for the next week we slowly furloughed the entire team and closed our doors.”
At home, Duckett was infuriated with the situation, yet the gritty business owner was determined to redefine her company and get her employees back to work.
“I was so incensed that all the work and effort by our staff over the years would go to waste, that I started to think about what skills we had and what vendors we had access to, and how that might fit into the current landscape,” she said.
Then it dawned on her:
Personal protective equipment and facemasks.
THE ORIGINS OF SEW WHAT?
When the Top 36 bull riders in the world take the dirt on Saturday and Sunday at the Lazy E Arena in Logan County, Oklahoma, for the Cooper Tires Invitational, presented by Ariat, they will once again be wearing masks provided to them by the PBR for the second time in three weeks.
The PBR-branded masks that have been showcased on CBS Sports Network and RidePass are a product of Sew What?
To understand how the PBR and Sew What? joined forces last month in an attempt to help protect the toughest athletes in sports, one has to look back at the cowboy grit and determination that is at the core of Sew What?
Duckett moved to the United States in 1991 at 19 years old.
The Melbourne, Australia, native boarded a United Airlines flight in pursuit of her own American Dream. She wanted to work in the rock and roll industry.
The Aussie was a classical dancer since she was 5 years old, and she had worked as a lighting technician and as a concert “roadie” in Melbourne for three years before packing her bags for the States.
“The arts was what I loved and where I felt most inclined to focus my energy,” Duckett recalled. “My dream was in fact to be a lighting technician for rock and roll concerts – and what better place to try and do that than Hollywood, California!”
Duckett eventually landed a green card sponsor in the United States with All Access Staging and Productions in Torrance, California, which led to her gaining more experience through various job opportunities.
Peanut butter and “cheap white bread” became the norm as she tried to make an impact in the industry and settle down in America.
There was no turning back either.
Duckett had a cowboy determination to see through her goals in the United States.
“I was pretty adamant that I was NOT going to fail,” Duckett said. “So going home didn’t feel like much of an option. Plus, without a college degree, my options were limited no matter where I was, so persevering until I succeeded seemed the better choice.”
Duckett’s life eventually took a fateful turn – a “small and unexpected fortune” when she received an odd request. Duckett was asked if she could sew some linings for a set of Halloween display coffins.
“You want me to sew what?” Duckett responded.
Despite not even knowing how to use a sewing machine, she accepted the challenge.
“With some red and purple satin and some ghastly pale brocade cloth I got to crafting,” Duckett recalled. “Lo and behold I actually was pretty good at it.”
For several years, Duckett began to accept more late-night and weekend sewing jobs. By 1997 she realized she could make more money sewing compared to her regular commuter event planning job.
Therefore, Duckett and her husband, Adam, began the process of launching her own company.
They had a roll-up garage, a table and one single sewing machine.
The company name would, fittingly, be called “Sew What?” in homage to her first sewing gig.
The Three P’s – Passion, Perseverance and Product
Sew What? slowly but surely continued to grow over the years, going from an 800-square-foot operation in Torrance to a 15,000-square-foot building in Compton in 2007.
The company eventually serviced accounts of all sizes, relying on word of mouth vs. a massive marketing or advertising budget.
Small community theatres and schools to massive arenas and sports complexes across the United States came to Sew What?
Sew What? has remained humble in its roots as it began to earn contracts from noteworthy clients in the past two decades.
Some of its more marquee clients over the years have included The Foo Fighters, Guns N Roses, Tom Petty, Aerosmith, Michael Jackson and Prince.
Passion. Perseverance. Product.
The three P’s, as Duckett calls them, have remained at the core of Sew What?, and they became instrumental in her finding a way to reinvent the business during a worldwide pandemic.
“My experience is with manufacturing. And I have dedicated my energy to balancing ‘the three P’s’” Duckett said. “That is PASSION, PERSEVERANCE and PRODUCT. It is my experience that only when we dedicate equal amounts of time to each of the three P’s that we experience success, growth, measurable profit and a sense of achievement. When it gets out of whack something suffers. Not concentrating on the product? Quality will slip and you will lose market share. Not feeling passionate? Your entire team will be drained of energy and the morale will suffer. Sick of persevering? Well, guess what, your competitor isn’t, and they just passed you by.
“It’s a 33.33/33.33/33.33 world in manufacturing.”
Duckett was sitting at home last month trying to plan the future of Sew What? amid the pandemic, when she thought back to those three P’s in trying to determine if the company could divert its operations toward PPE products and facial coverings.
The owner knew they had sewing machines, an extremely talented staff, and access to cloth.
“In short, we had the three P’s and there was no stopping us,” Duckett said. “We had a product. We had a passion to survive. And Lord knows we were ready willing and able to persevere.”
Duckett began to call her employees, who were all willing to help out in any way possible, as well as some other local contacts to jumpstart the business.
Beth Nikodem (Orange County Web Design) helped provide a website redesign for Sew What? and its COVID-19 efforts.
Cat Landry (Cat Landry Design) donated materials, and others such as Sara Wilson (SaraWilsonPix) and Paul Spriggs offered help with photography, fashion and branding.
Even local artists offered to help out, including John Rios (John Rios Designs), Tony Solgr Tovar (Dolorosa Tattoo) and Stacey Taucon (Skully Anne).
The local collaborations have been influential, but so too has been the overall effort by Ducketts’ employees, rising to the challenge as the company roared back to life.
“Funnily enough, there were some serious hidden talents buried within our sewing team,” she said. “All these years of making backdrops and drapery, it turned out that many of our talented stitchers in fact had spent time in the apparel industry and know all about production lines and how to pass this type of item through a sewing room with the least amount of wasted time.
“It was so awesome for me to be guided by the team. Shop Manager Araceli and Production Manager Michelle ramped us from making 80 pieces in the first day to quickly turning out in excess of 1,000 pieces per day. The equipment that we had was mostly adequate – we just needed to redevelop what needles, what thread, what stitch size. Also cutting was completely reconfigured so that it would be stack cut with an electric cutter. Something that we had never done before, so there was a learning curve on the cutting for sure. The teamwork was amazing to witness. Our General Manager Lynda Vaughn whipped the front-end office processes into shape for the new venture with her usual efficiency. Our Warehouse and Logistics managers Rick and Chris quickly changed gears and went from packaging and shipping 100-pound drapes with FedEx to 1-ounce masks with USPS overnight.”
Sew What? originally was focusing on just plain solid color and a few unique designs to offer. Yet as the process grew and they perfected their prototype, Duckett and her team saw a bigger opportunity.
The company sent out an email to its clients asking if any had a need for PPE equipment or masks, and the PBR was one of the companies that expressed interest.
“We realized that we were able to produce a very personalized mask, and that we could in fact help clients by personalizing and developing brand aware cloth face masks,” Duckett said. “We started with an email outreach to our existing customer base, and PBR was one of the first to respond with an interest in learning more about what we were proposing."
Sew What? sales associate Andrea Fraser then worked with the PBR to create a branded mask, and the official face covering of the PBR was born.
The PBR has since ordered more than 1,000 masks, partially because of fan demand, and it has been a huge relief for Duckett.
“The orders from PBR have helped significantly to fill out our manufacturing schedule, allowing us to keep our sewing staff on full time,” Duckett said.
BE COWBOY IS BEING HANDS ON. HARDWORKING. TIRELESS
Under normal circumstances, Duckett and her company would receive the Be Cowboy award in person, but that will not be the case with this weekend’s event being closed to the public at the Lazy E Arena.
Sew What? will instead be recognized on the PBR’s broadcast and social media outlets.
The lack of a ceremony on the dirt does not diminish the importance of the award or its significance.
It still means a lot to her company to be identified as a group that represents the Be Cowboy mantra, Duckett explains.
“For the team and I, receiving the PBR Be Cowboy honor gives us real reason to take pause,” Duckett said. “In the daily bustle of doing our individual jobs, we often overlook how impressive it is that so many moving pieces come together seamlessly each day to achieve a well-oiled and productive operation. This reward reminds us all to appreciate our success and see in ourselves what PBR has recognized in our company.
“To Be Cowboy is about being one with your surroundings. Alert to every movement beneath you. Aware of the hazards that could come at you. Hands on. Hardworking. Tireless. Committed. And ready to rope in the catch when you see it. Being in the saddle is not unlike being in business. For Sew What?, to Be Cowboy is for us to face each day knowing that, no matter what obstacles block our path, we will jump them. No questions asked. With grace, passion, perseverance, and in our case, product.”