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Hear it hum: Spring training cranks up New Era machines

Alvin Williams is explaining just one of the things that sets New Era baseball caps apart from the competition.

“See this?” Williams asks, raising his voice in order to make it heard above the incessant hum of hundreds of sewing machines at work in the cavernous room. “This is called peak stitching.”

He indicates a machine sewing stitches into the peak, or bill, of each cap that comes through. Every New Era cap carries eight rows of stitching in the peak. It’s a small detail, perhaps, but a telling one.

“Other companies say this doesn’t add value to the cap, that it’s just a pride thing,” Williams says. “So they put only two rows of stitching in. Some of them don’t put any.”

Williams picks up one of the caps and admires the evenly spaced rows. Suddenly he frowns, perhaps trying to picture a New Era cap with fewer than eight rows of stitches in its peak. He shakes his head and returns the cap to the pile.

There are 22 individual steps that go into the making of each New Era cap. From quality materials to peak stitching to blocking, founder Ehrhardt Koch believed in turning out a quality product. The family-owned, New York-based company has carried on that tradition now for four generations.

For the last 10 of those years New Era has been the only company authorized to make caps for every Major and Minor League Baseball team. When you see a Major League Baseball player take the field, he’s wearing a New Era cap.

As manager of New Era’s Demopolis manufacturing plant, Williams oversees some 330 workers, most of them women. The plant occupies the same building that once housed Vanity Fair. Many New Era employees who now manufacture arguably the finest baseball cap in the world once made lingerie for Vanity Fair.

“Sewing is a very tough job,” Williams says. “No man has ever been measured the way these ladies are. They know just what they have to do in a minute, in an hour. It’s a very strenuous, a very difficult job.”

New Era opened its Demopolis operations in 1998 with just 15 employees. In contrast to other mills that have closed their U.S. operations and moved to countries where the labor is cheaper, New Era has chosen to maintain its presence on American soil.

Demopolis is now one of three New Era plants in Alabama. The company has since located a second manufacturing plant in Jackson and a distribution plant in the Mobile area. It recently combined its two remaining New York manufacturing plants.

Since late 2003 the Demopolis plant has cut back it operations to four days a week, but Williams says he is confident orders will pick up with the start of baseball’s spring training, traditionally the time of the company’s strongest sales.

“I want to say emphatically that New Era is not going to close,” Williams says. “We have had some four-day weeks and will continue to have some more, but we’re here for the long haul. I think all my people understand that, and I want the community to understand it as well.”

Williams credits a strong community presentation with luring New Era to Demopolis.

“When Vanity Fair shut down, at that point our city leaders went to bat,” he explains. “Our mayor, Austin Caldwell, Jane Gross, our Chamber of Commerce director, (former state Sen.) Rick Manley, Margaret Baty, who was the former director of human resources for Vanity Fair … they were all instrumental in convincing New Era to locate here.”

He also singles out Alabama Power with playing a key role in persuading New Era to locate here.

While the basic “59Fifty” style of cap remains New Era’s bread-and-butter product, the company has been successful in appealing to a broader, largely youthful, market. It has done so with a wide range of flashier, brighter-colored designs.

“We’re moving into NASCAR in a big way,” Williams confides.

Reuben Studdard of American Idol fame, and pop stars Britney Spears and Janet Jackson are just some of the celebrities who have been seen sporting New Era caps.

Says Williams, “A lot of that started when filmmaker Spike Lee contacted New Era. He designed a number of coordinated outfits that we made for him. If you ever saw him on TV at a New York Knicks game, you saw what I’m talking about. That drove a tremendous new business for us.”

But the hands-down favorite of all caps New Era makes continues to be those bearing the famous New York Yankees logo. The embroidered logo on the official uniform cap worn by the Yankees requires roughly 3,200 stitches. But the company also manufactures some logos that require as many as 35,000 stitches.

“Embroidery is the heartbeat of what we do,” Williams says. “It’s the only section that runs three shifts a day.”

The Demopolis plant manufactures 1,000 to 1,500 dozen caps a day, depending on the style. With the approach of baseball season, Williams is hoping to raise those figures considerably.

Waving toward several stacks of unfinished caps, he says, “Just so we don’t discriminate, we’ve got Mets in here too. We don’t just have Yanks.”

In the background, the incessant hum of the sewing machines never lets up.