July 6, 2021

Q&A with Irma

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Irma laying out fabric to be cut.
Irma examining a marker that she's preparing to cut
Irma evaluates a marker that she's about to cut.

Can you tell us about the work you do here at TOM BIHN? 

I’m responsible for a variety of work here at TOM BIHN. My primary role is that of main Fabric Cutter and Cutting Department Manager — I spread and cut multiple plies of the fabrics we use to make face masks and bags using industrial fabric saws. 

A lot of my work is collaborative — I coordinate with Candi to spread the fabrics and prep my cutting process, inform Ben of upcoming cuts so he can supply me with the fabric I’ll need, and, when I’m not cutting fabric, I’ll assist Fong with production floor work — tasks such as trimming threads, cutting zippers, or, during the pandemic, inserting nose pieces into our face masks. 

I’ve memorized all of our fabrics and colors — and there are a lot! I also provide the final visual quality check on the fabric before it's cut.

Most recently, I’ve begun training Trung to be my apprentice in the cutting department.

Nik builds the markers that Irma cuts; if Irma sees opportunities for improvement in the marker, she'll ask Nik to make changes.
Nik builds the markers that Irma cuts; if Irma sees opportunities for improvement in the marker, she'll ask Nik to make changes. 

Where did you first learn how to cut fabric? 

I learned to cut fabric at a company called Hi-Five Sports Wear; I worked there for eight years and started out learning to spread fabric. Later on, I did minor cutting of apparel collars and cuffs. Apparel fabric is much different than the fabrics we use at TOM BIHN — it was mainly jersey fabric and thin, stretchy materials. 

I’d say that my cutting skills were truly developed here at TOM BIHN — I began my career here in 2005 and the work was challenging for me at first. The materials we use here — such as ballistic nylon — are a lot thicker and stiffer than the apparel materials I had been used to cutting. Cutting stiffer fabrics requires more concentration and strength; the materials we use are very expensive, so it’s critical that everything is cut properly. 

It was actually so challenging for me that I quit after my first few weeks here at TOM BIHN! It was Tom who convinced me to stay — he isn’t like any other boss I’ve had. He’s always been really kind, encouraging, and he believed in me. He’s really patient. If it wasn’t for Tom, I would have given up.

Not everyone can cut fabric, and very few can cut fabric as skillfully as you do. Can you describe some of the particular skills it takes to cut fabric? 

There’s many things I’ve learned over the years about cutting fabrics, and it’s usually a combination of different things. For example, the ability to focus and concentrate while cutting fabric is probably the most important factor — the industrial saws I use to cut are extremely sharp and can be dangerous if they’re not used correctly. It’s important to learn the particular saw that’s being used and to feel into how it moves and the particular way it cuts different fabrics. Some fabrics are easier to cut than others. Some of our fabrics can even melt if they’re cut too fast or with too much pressure. 

Everyone develops their own style of fabric cutting. You have to start by learning for yourself and getting to know the particular fabric saw you’re using. It’s really a combination of experience gained over time and knowing how to use the fabric saws.

Irma cutting at the Seattle Factory

Irma cutting using the Eastman Brute saw.

What's the most complicated bag to cut? 

For sure, the Synik — it’s a complex marker to cut with a lot of smaller pieces and curves. I have to be very focused and careful when cutting the Synik. Generally speaking though, it’s actually smaller, simpler items like the Cubelet that can be most challenging to cut. 

You've been the Lead Fabric Cutter and then Fabric Cutting Manager for over 15 years. What do you know about cutting now that you would have liked to know when you were first learning about cutting?

Yes! It was 15 years on December 28th 2020.  There are so many things I would have liked to know back when I started — I would say everything that I know now! I learned on the job here more than I did anywhere else. 

Recently, Trung was promoted to become your apprentice/assistant fabric cutter. What has it been like teaching someone else how to cut fabric? 

It’s been really easy to teach Trung — he’s very smart and a natural at cutting. When I was learning how to cut, I learned a lot on my own — it took a lot of time, a lot of trial and error. But that’s good because I know what works and what doesn’t.

One of my goals in teaching Trung is to pass on the knowledge I have gained over the years to him — for example, there are certain methods to make cutting more accurate and efficient. I’ve asked Trung to observe me first when I cut, and I’ll show him things like how it’s easier to cut smaller pieces first and move onto bigger pieces. That’s because, if you cut that way, you have greater control on how the fabric holds. 

Part of the training process is recognizing that what and how Trung learns is partly up to him — each person has a different comfort level and skill level when they’re learning how to cut.

Trung cutting at the factory

Your sister Candi (Sewing Professional) and your longtime friend Lulu (Quality Assurance Professional) work here at TOM BIHN too! What's that like?

It’s fun and feels like family: Candi, of course, is my sister and Lulu is our childhood friend from Mexico. We’re really close and have known each other all our lives. 

Halloween 2017: Left to right Kat, Matt, Irma, Lulu, and Candi.

Halloween 2017: Kat, Matt (holding Lucy!), Irma, Lulu, and Candi.

When we first started offering fabric selvedge for free for DIY projects through our website, you Candi, Lulu, and Edelmira braided each other's hair with the selvedge ribbons and shared that this was a family tradition in Mexico. Can you tell us more about that? 

Oh yes, that was fun. I think it was Candi that had the idea to braid our hair using the selvedge. We’ve even used it for hair ties and headbands — the various TOM BIHN colorful fabrics match different outfits.

I also use our fabric selvedge to make jump ropes at home! I use the fabric to wrap the jump rope string to make it more durable. The variety of colors adds a lot of fun to it. I also use the selvedge as plant supports for my indoor and outdoor gardens.

Tell us about yourself outside of work! Everyone would love to learn more about you. What are your hobbies and what do you like to do for fun? Are you working on projects outside of work? 

I love to plant and garden — my house is full of plants and I have a large outdoor garden. Some of my indoor plants are from the factory — little plant starts that I took home from larger plants at work have grown so big over the years. I enjoy caring for my plants — watering them, cleaning or dusting them, watching them grow. It's peaceful. 

I also just love to watch shows with my family and relax — we gather in the living room and eat and watch shows together. Some of our favorite shows are Love It or List It, Property Brothers, Naked and Afraid and National Geographic Wild.

Irma's plants. Notice the selvedge from work used as ties on stakes!
Irma's outdoor garden. Notice the selvedge used as plant supports!


John M - July 12, 2021

It’s really cool getting a peek behind the scenes to get a look at how the TB magic is made! It’s nice to see people take pride and a sense of committment in their work. Thanks Irma and keep up the good job!

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We're the TOM BIHN crew: we design bags, make bags, ship bags, and answer questions about bags. Oh, and we collaborate on blog posts, too.