Last month, we bid farewell and wished a happy retirement to Lisa, Co-Production Manager at TOM BIHN. We had a chance to sit down with Lisa for a Q&A before her sendoff party! Lisa is one of the longest-standing crew members at TOM BIHN, has seen the company evolve and grow over the years, and (not exaggerating) has been involved in making every bag that we've launched in the last 17 years. We're really grateful for all her hard work and contributions to the company and wanted to share some snippets of her story with you all!
Can you share how you came to work for TOM BIHN?
I came to work for TOM BIHN in November of 2005. Prior to that, I was working for Trager (a sewing company located on 1st and Dearborn St). Tom was a client who used Trager's services. He would bring in a bag design and we would then sew the design for him. That is how I got to know Tom.
Trager was in a 3-story building that would soon be demolished due to structural safety concerns. As a result, the Trager factory, which employed 100+ employees gradually scaled down its operations. During this time, many of Trager’s clients had also opted to carry out their labor overseas. As Trager was winding down, many employees were subsequently laid-off. June, my supervisor at Trager, had been approached by Tom to work for him. June then recruited us to work for Tom. It was a small crew of about 15 people who had agreed to go work for Tom, some of us are still at TOM BIHN today. We are so glad we made this decision.
The TOM BIHN factory was initially located on the second floor of the Outdoor Research building on First Avenue. It was a small space. As the company grew, Tom found a new space that could potentially grow into something even bigger. The warehouse space was bigger but dark and needed some work. Tom made some renovations to the space to make it brighter and more open. By late 2009, we moved into 4750A Ohio Ave S, our current factory.
How has the company changed over the years?
We started out very humble and small. In the beginning things were tough, especially the first year. Tom had a vision to grow the company organically, and that meant we didn’t always have work, but Tom was a very kind and generous boss. He always made sure we had a consistent paycheck, no matter the circumstances and regardless of whether there was enough work. It would have been much easier for him to contract overseas, but he has always insisted on protecting our jobs, having the factory stay in Seattle and keeping our products sewn in the USA.
As the company grew in the coming years, we eventually needed a bigger space, and we were able to hire more people. The designs also kept improving and getting more impressive over time. The materials we used also constantly improved. Tom always opted for the highest quality fabrics to maximize the longevity of the bags (while also minimizing fabric waste), even if sometimes that meant that we lost out on extra profits.
Can you tell us a little bit more about your background and how you came into the sewing profession?
I was born and raised in Hong Kong. After I graduated from school, I worked as a teacher and taught elementary school level children for about eight years.
My husband’s family was already in Seattle. We decided to join them in Seattle in November 1983 with our two young sons (6,3). It was very different from Hong Kong. Seattle has fewer people, space is much bigger, and the air quality is much better. While I really liked Seattle, I also missed Hong Kong, and all my family who still lives in Hong Kong.
I really wanted to go back to school and get an American college degree, but because I had only been in the states for a few months, I did not qualify for financial assistance. Tuition rate for college was also much more expensive since I was not yet classified as a WA State resident. It was an expense that we could not bear at the time, especially with a young family. Instead, I opted to take a free 8-month long English conversational program the college offered to immigrants like myself. I was a very shy student, and conversations with others in English was a challenge.
I somehow managed to make a few friends in school, and one of them introduced me to his wife who worked at Trager. The manager took a liking to me and hired me on the spot. I started as a Floor Work pre-assembly personnel. At that time, I didn’t really know how to sew. I had only learned how to do simple sewing from my mother who had worked from home doing piecework when I was a young girl growing up in Hong Kong. The manager really thought highly of me. She had given me many opportunities to learn new tasks: findings, bar tacking, zipper pull assembling, die-cutting, etc. I did that for a couple of years until I gave birth to my daughter.
When I returned to work after giving birth, I became the equivalent of an assistant to the supervisor, although we didn’t have official titles back then. The supervisor had her own workshop at home and invited me to work for her after work. She suggested I learn to sew on the industrial machines so I can help her out. There were about 5-6 of us, working from 4pm until 8-9pm in the evenings. She would leave me in charge and have me learn on my own. I did that for a few years.
Some of the friends I made from Trager in the mid-1980s are still working for TOM BIHN today. I have had a few managers over the course of my years at Trager with June being one of the last managers starting in 1994. Fong (Co-Production Manager) and I worked under June as unofficial supervisor at Trager. When the two of us started working for Tom, our titles became more official.
If you could change anything, what would it be?
I would not change a thing. I have been so lucky all my life. Everyone I have come across in my life for the most part have been kind. I feel really blessed to have the career that I have had. There are many opportunities that have been given to me and I am forever grateful for them.
What is your fondest memory at TOM BIHN?
I don’t really have a specific fond memory of TOM BIHN. I do however have a really fond collective memory of working at TOM BIHN. Not many people can say that they have been with a company since the beginning. I am really proud to see how it has grown to be where it is today. I feel so lucky to be able to work with so many wonderful people. It gives me great joy to know that I am a part of making a TOM BIHN bag, especially when I spot someone carrying it at the airport or on the streets. Especially now with social media, I feel that we are very well known worldwide. My family can see what I do from Hong Kong. I can share my joy and pride of working here at TOM BIHN with them.
You've sewn many bags, do you have a favorite (or least favorite) design from over the years?
I don’t have a particular favorite or a least favorite bag that I have sewn. Each TOM BIHN design comes with its own level of difficulty to sew. It is difficult to compare or pinpoint, as they are all equally challenging in the beginning, yet fun to sew. Once we learn the process and how the pieces are sewn together, we figure out how to do sew more efficiently and seamlessly. There are so many different colors and new fabrics, that part can post its own challenges as well. Often there are many sets of colors with their unique names and combinations — oh so many! We use a special chart to record names of colors, fabric types, and thread types used, to help us remember. My favorite color is Aubergine.
Which is your favorite TOM BIHN bag to use?
I can't just choose one favorite bag; I like so many TOM BIHN designs! Each has its own uniqueness in function and design; Brain Bag, and Techonaut for example. When I am going on vacation, I tend to gravitate towards the Brain Bag.
In your years of working as a sewing supervisor, what is your personal management philosophy?
I don’t feel like I am an expert on all the different types of sewing. I am constantly learning and getting a better understanding of each segment of work. Once I learn it, I can share it with others. I also learn from everyone around me. Everyone is an expert in his or her own right.
I normally try to get to know everyone on my team. I want to understand them as a person and interact with each person with fairness and kindness in mind. I try to cater to everyone’s learning style and train them or share knowledge of what I have learned over the years.
What advice do you have for future seamstresses and seamsters?
If you have a passion for sewing, make sure you continue to learn, pay close attention to details. They are important and matter. Ask questions to get a better understanding of processes and how each step relates to the entire piece of work. Ask your fellow experts and learn from them. Ask for opportunities to learn new skills related to sewing.
What are your hobbies outside of work?
I like to garden a lot! It makes me happy to see a manicured yard.
What are your plans after TOM BIHN?
I want to visit many places with my husband. I would like to go to China, Japan, Vietnam, Europe to name a few.