It’s been just over 120 years since George Kromer first asked his wife to sew an earband on his favorite ball cap to keep his ears warm and the hat snug. That design marked the beginning for what is now known as Stormy Kromer — a clothing and apparel brand that I lead from our company headquarters in Ironwood, Michigan.

Gina Jacquart Thorsen is CEO of Stormy Kromer.

As Stormy Kromer entered a phase of growth and expansion in the 2010s, the need to augment our production capacity became apparent. Amidst the challenges of sourcing skilled sewing machine operators in our town of just 5,000 people, let alone Gogebic County’s population of under 15,000, we embarked on a quest to seek partners in the Midwest to support our growth.

In this pursuit, a pivotal introduction by former Gov. Rick Snyder led us to St. Luke N.E.W. Life Center, a faith-based institution in Flint. Instantly captivated by their mission — fostering life skills, education, and workplace training to empower individuals toward self-sufficiency — we found they had an industrial sewing training center that aligned perfectly with our needs.

Our alliance with St. Luke’s started in August 2015, when Sister Carol Weber, the center’s director and co-founder, and six seamstresses immersed themselves in a week-long training at our factory under the guidance of our sewing engineers and trainers.

A few years later, I had the opportunity to tour the St. Luke’s facility (the drive from Ironwood to Flint is over eight hours, making regular visits a challenge). The pride exuding from the sewers was palpable. They sought efficiency tips, expressed admiration for our designs, inquired about target markets, and above all, expressed gratitude for entrusting them with our work.

Witnessing their pride resonated deeply with one of our core values — “proud & passionate.” While this sentiment is ingrained within our Ironwood team, observing it flourish through this partnership was profoundly inspiring.

St. Luke’s steadfast commitment to learning new products, honing their skills, and embracing challenges has made them the cornerstone of production for two of our most-popular apparel items — the Ironwood Vest and the Ida Outfitter Vest — for years. Each meticulously crafted piece bears a special hangtag, a testament to our exceptional partnership.

With the growth we experienced in 2020 and 2021, our pursuit for manufacturing partners spanned coast to coast, resulting in new contracts with various entities. However, none of these new contracts could parallel the profound partnership and unwavering commitment to quality exhibited by St. Luke’s. Sister Carol’s openness marked the inception of our journey, and we eagerly anticipate continuing this collaborative voyage with the entire team at St. Luke N.E.W. Life Center for years ahead.

This partnership transcends mere production. It embodies a shared commitment to empowerment, craftsmanship, and community. Stormy Kromer is profoundly grateful for this enduring collaboration that extends beyond business to embrace shared values and a vision for a better, more inclusive future.