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Made in Fishtown

Mike Stampler - Norman Porter Co.

Patterns hang from the rafters

Norman Porter Co.

Old machines

Jeans in progress

Finished pair of Raw Selvege Denim Jeans

Mary Shlauter - Hilmarr Rubber Co.

Hilmarr Rubber Co.

Scraps trimmed to finish pieces

fresh out of the form

Safety rings at Hilmarr


old machinery is still used to great success

Mike at Diversified Metal Products




If you encounter something Philly-made, there's a good chance it came from Fishtown. This could include the furniture at your favorite restaurant, your friend's envy-worthy outfit or even the delicately-roasted coffee you enjoyed this morning.

Manufacturing has always been a part of Fishtown. The industrial glory days may have withered, but they left a sturdy skeleton. Foundries, warehouses, breweries, factories and mills abound. As Fishtown reemerges as a cultural mecca, those spaces, with their soaring ceilings and rugged aesthetic, have been reborn as lofts, studios, workshops and galleries.

Flying Kite recently visited a few of the folks continuing and expanding the made-in-Philly movement.

In the Jeans

Mike Stampler, founder of Norman Porter Company, learned to sew out of necessity. Six-foot-five and lean, Stampler had trouble finding pants that fit well. In college, he started making his own jeans, then canvas messenger bags for New York City couriers; he later worked as an upholsterer for BDDW Furniture in Port Richmond. 

Eventually, he returned to jeans. When he launched his brand in late 2011, Stampler decided on one basic style, focusing on high-quality denim and consistent fit. At $250 a pop, these jeans are an investment -- but that's the point. 

"We live in a world now where things are more or less disposable," says Stampler. "I never really agreed with that idea."

Stampler works with his brother Dave at their studio in the Hatchatory, an art and design community on Martha Street. They use raw denim, favoring a fray-proof material called selvedge (self-edge). Each pair is cut and stitched by hand, using six specialized, single-needle machines. They also offer leather accessories and denim repairs. Currently, their jeans are sold at Art in the Age in Old City and Trove General Store in Paoli. Norman Porter is also launching an e-commerce platform. 

Despite a growing market of late-twenties "denim nuts," only a handful of people do what Stampler does -- Norman Porter's closest competitor is in Chadds Ford. As an avid antique collector, Stampler longs to bring back the selvedge loom -- created in America but sold to the Japanese industry in the sixties -- and the jobs that left with it.

"It's kind of strange that I'm sought as a unique guy," he says. "Fifty years ago, I would have been just another guy who works on jeans."

Motor Mouth

In the U.S., "Biker Culture" has long been associated with on-the-run gangs -- think Hell's Angels. Yet, there are many ways to use a bike. In the 1950s and early-'60s, Americans mostly used motor bikes for commuting and racing. 

Hammarhead Industries -- founded by James Hammarhead, PhD, former head of a neuroimaging group at Penn Medicine -- is bringing those elemental bikes back. Their website features the instructive phrase, "Honor the past but never look back." The six available designs use a simple engine and minimal materials, making maintenance accessible. 

"When [customers] look at the bike, they can understand the technology behind it," says Hammarhead.

The company manufactures on a per-customer basis. Individual parts are designed using SolidWorks CAD software and fabricated by local machine shops. The company's biggest sellers are Jack Pine, designed for off-road use, and the V7 Wayward, produced with Italian makers Moto Guzzi

Thanks to the worldwide reach of online marketing and the precision of digital fabrication, Hammarhead has identified and served the right people. In Japan, people who buy their motor bikes are part of street culture and fashion. In Europe, where streets are narrow, these classic rides are considered a practical commuter vehicle. In America, young racers and 35-to-45 year-old riders are getting back to simple motorbikes.
"From the get-go, what we did was design the bike," explains Hammarhead. "We can be much more specific in our design and not focus on the broader audience."

Metal Works

Yes, you've probably sat at one of their tables, but Diversified Metal tends to go unnoticed. This custom fabricator has a prime locale -- across the street from Rocket Cat Café in the heart of Fishtown's arts corridor -- but lives in an unmarked, windowless building. They don't even have a website. 

When asked why he hasn't answered the siren song of internet marketing, owner Bob Phillips has a simple answer: He'd rather work for contractors. 

"My sales people are people who own or are handling houses," he says. "I can't have a website because I'd be competing against my customers. They've been my customers since before the internet." 

Philips inherited the fifty-year-old shop from his father in 2000. Diversified Metal specializes in handmade cabinets and office furniture. They've also supplied metal boxes for Comcast cable installers and aluminum dustpans for SEPTA. 

In his lifetime, Phillips has seen has seen demand for metal products give way to plastic. Still, despite the lack of visibility, Phillips continues finding new opportunity -- local restaurants are constantly calling him for furnishings and bar pieces. All the tables and chairs at Fishtown's high-profile Frankford Hall came from this easy-to-miss shop. 

Rubber Match

Hillmar Rubber Company still shapes rubber the way they did in 1969, their first year in business. For that matter, the process was likely the same in 1869 -- Hillmar's manually-operated rubber presses date back to the late-1800s. 

"There's updated equipment, but this stuff works," says Mary Shlauter, the company's owner. "Why get overly sophisticated about it?"

Rubber is used by a range of industry. Hillmar's products include nozzles that add sugar coating to pills, floatation devices for the Navy and joints for train tracks. They fabricate small orders – usually fifty units or less. 

To make these pieces, sheets of orange, yellow or black rubber are loaded into a mold and placed on the press. Heat is applied through hydraulic pipes, then a mass (weighing up to a ton) is dropped on the mold, casting the final product.

In 1986, when the former owner offered Hillmar to Shlauter, the specialty rubber manufacturer was barely surviving. Thanks to a friend's advice, she took on the business. Shlauter, who has a master's degree in chemistry from Drexel, was able to improve the basic formula for treating rubber. Overtime, she built a solid client base. At its height, the shop, which currently employs three people, had $250,000 in annual sales.

Shlauter -- seventy years old and a fast-talker -- says she has fun at work. To date, she can still be seen getting inventory the old-fashioned way: Driving down to suppliers in Newtown and Hatfield, and loading 500 lbs. of rubber onto the flatbed of her pickup.

Soaped Up

In the late nineties, Dave Beekman returned from a trip to San Francisco determined to join a growing West Coast trend: handmade soaps.  

Working with his wife and business partner Antonia Daly, Beekman experimented with 40 different plant oils before developing a signature blend. Beekman's C.O.P.A. Soaps -- named for their main ingredients: coconut, olive, almond and palm oils -- are a food-grade vegetable product blended with botanical-based essential oils. According to Beekman, their products are much gentler than commercial soaps which are often made from rendered animal fats.

The product first grew popular among the couple's friends. Then, in 2003, Beekman and Daly moved the operation from their home in South Philly to a commercial space at Fourth Street and Girard Avenue. 

"It started out as a cottage thing," says Beekman. "More people started asking for it and we needed more space."

C.O.P.A. makes small batches in a variety of scents including lavender, lemongrass and sage, selling the bars online and at New York City street festivals. The basic recipe is blended with hand tools and sets inside wooden bowls.  While the company offers over 40 different varieties, the manufacturing process requires only a 900-square-foot space.

"It's like making cake," Beekman says. "We're not using anything beyond simple mixers."

DANA HENRY is Flying Kite's Innovation & Job News editor.
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