Written by Megan Van Beest (Marketing and Member Services Manager) for the Chequamegon Food Co-op Grapevine Newsletter, Spring 2019
The whir of sewing machines fills the air in Luci Daum’s workshops at the old Wilmarth School in Ashland, Wisconsin. They’re pumping out a variety of handsewn goods for Luci Daum Design, a company that emphasizes being both environmentally friendly and fun.
Growing up in the 70s, Luci learned how to sew starting at the wee age of three. Her mom made all the family’s clothes with a well-used Bernina sewing machine. When Luci showed an interest in the process, her mother taught her how everything worked. Since she was too young to read, Luci developed her own process for designing and constructing.
Entrepreneurship came into Luci’s life out of necessity. Her family struggled financially, and she felt motivated to help as best she could. Luci developed tiny hand-sewn ponies (affectionately dubbed AppaLucis) that were all quickly snapped up by Kay Sera, an upscale gift shop in Madison, Wisconsin. It was 1980. Luci was 8 years old.
That first sale yielded not only money to help the family, but also a bit leftover to buy more fabric. Which led to buying more fabric and designing more fun, quirky products. Luci quickly became a bona fide seamstress, sewing whenever she could and exploring idea after idea in fabric.
In 1990 Luci was making costumes at the Renaissance Fair in Shakopee, Minnesota, when a Northland College student approached her booth. Molly, the young woman, told Luci about a bunch of old school buildings in danger of being torn down if someone didn’t step in. Immediately after the fair ended, Luci convinced her family to make the trek up to Ashland. “This sparked a year-long process to save the Wilmarth School from certain demise,” Luci says. “Thanks to the efforts of a few key people, the building was given a new lease on life during its 100th year: 1991.”
Since then, Luci has slowly evolved and expanded her business to use the entire building. Her current crew is 15 people strong and she plans to grow her Team Awesome even more. “Pretty sure if I had 500 extra helpers,” she says, “I could still keep them busy with projects!”
The atmosphere at Luci Daum Design is light and laid back. Team members pick and choose from a laundry list of jobs each day. The team relies on a fleet of Juki sewing machines, but beginners start on a trusty Bernina, just like Luci did. Luci encourages people to focus on the tasks that bring the most joy and best utilize their personal skills. Still, everyone is encouraged to cross-train to keep growing and learning.
What does product creation look like? After the idea is fleshed out, the hands-on work begins. Luci explains, “There is a multi-step process for each product, but most start with the fabric. There’s cutting, ironing, stacking, drawing patterns, more cutting…even before the sewing starts! Then onto the organizing, layering, stitching, flipping, stitching again, snipping the final threads, and adding the finishing touches!”
Luci has designed and market-tested well over 100 products. They range from slouchy hats to practical pouches. Still, none have caught on nearly as well as Party in My Pants reusable cloth menstrual pads.
In the late 90s, Luci made her first cloth pads for herself and loved them. She began churning out samples to give to friends and family. “My hope was that other people might experience the same revelation and comfort from reusable cloth pads,” she explains. Fortunately for Luci, everyone loved them. Eventually they collectively convinced her to sell them in stores.
Production keeps the team busy, with an estimated 60,000 individual pieces completed each year. But that’s just the beginning. After products are finished and inventoried, they get sorted between online retail, wholesale accounts, and a free pad sample program called “Cloth Pad Curious.” Luci estimates that they have gifted over 200,000 pads to people all over the world.
Luci and her business have weathered some tricky times over the years. Each time, she and the company have bounced back, stronger than ever. Now, with a solid foundation and creative vision, she plans to keep growing and expanding.
The designer sees sharing her dreams as her life’s purpose. “Designing and creating products became a type of meditation, and my need for contribution spread further into the world, becoming a way of life,” she explains. “We vote every day, in every way; with each purchase and each decision, and how we choose to communicate. We have much more power than we sometimes realize!”