Manufacture This

The blog of the Alliance for American Manufacturing

Made in America workwear aims to "fit, function and flatter."

Sarah Calhoun was raised in Cornwall, Conn., a small farming community in the northwest section of the Nutmeg State.  From the time she was a young girl, her days were spent playing outdoors and helping with the farm chores.

Calhoun grew into an adventurous, outdoorsy working woman, eventually settling in a small ranching town in Montana. But a problem from her childhood still persisted — the work and recreational pants she wore to handle her rugged activities were straight cut men’s jeans and work pants. They simply didn't fit.

Like most women, Calhoun’s body shape is different than that of an average man. Women have more curves and are simply built differently. Wearing men’s pants can create a host of problems (including the occasional and embarrassing flashing of a butt crack).

So Calhoun decided to do something about it.

The journey began one day at a coffee shop, when she was reading a book on how to start a small business. A fellow customer approached her and asked what kind of business she wanted to start. As luck would have it, he was a 20-year clothing production and design veteran. She told him that "we need workwear for women. We need it a lot." The textile man responded, "Why don't you do it?"

So she did.

In 2006, Calhoun founded Red Ants Pants, which sells comfortable, form-fitting work pants and other attire that is essential for active, outdoorsy women like Calhoun. All Red Ants Pants merchandise is made in the United States, in cities such as Seattle, Denver and even Calhoun’s small Montana town of White Sulphur Springs.

“Manufacturing in America just seemed right to me,” Calhoun said. “If I can’t do it in the U.S., I’m not going to do it at all. And I think everything being important first, sustaining local and helping to support U.S. jobs and helping to create that.”

She added: “It’s not only the major corporations with thousands of employees that are front and center when discussing offshoring. Throughout America, small town businesses can still thrive to create jobs with their Made in America products.”

The moniker “Red Ants Pants” is an appropriate one. Red Ants Pants are designed for women who are active outdoors, and Calhoun came up with the idea after thinking about red ant colonies, where the red female ants do most of the work.

“These pants were a real need for me and thousands of other women,” Calhoun said. “I do a lot of hunting, back-packing and cutting firewood and try to go on trips as much as possible. The Red Ants Pants are so perfect for women and we even have guys that buy our straight-cut pants.”

"We believe in putting our company dollars toward the local jobs. Because we know our neighbors. There are lessons learned from living in rural areas that we apply to our business practices." Sarah Calhoun, Red Ants Pants

Calhoun learned on the job. She studied at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania but never attended a business class. Calhoun has a small, storefront store but makes most of her sales from direct, online purchases. The company does minimal advertising, instead relying on word-of-mouth about its fantastic product, along with highlighting customer experiences on social media.

Calhoun originally wanted to manufacture Red Ants Pants in Montana, but found that there were not cut and sew factories available with the right equipment.  “There are not too many commercial seamstresses out here in Montana,” she said.

Instead, she found a mother and daughter team in Seattle with about 20 sewers who could produce the women’s workwear.

The fabric is milled and dyed overseas before being sent to Seattle for production. The team in Seattle then sends the pants to Red Ant Pants headquarters in White Sulphur Springs, where they are inspected before being shipped to the customer.

Red Ants Pants struggled for a few years, but has caught on to where the company’s profits have been in the black for the last two years. Further growth is expected, including in the company’s product line: The pants are available only in brown but could soon offer a line of blue and military green.

Calhoun attributes much of the company’s success to its small town roots.

“Moving to a small rural town, I don’t think it’s a drawback at all,” Calhoun said. “I almost think it has helped with the public relations, human element of the story of it being a woman-owned business in rural Montana making a U.S.-made product.

“It’s because we believe in putting our company dollars toward the local jobs. Because we know our neighbors. There are lessons learned from living in rural areas that we apply to our business practices. Build a community around your product, people and brand then the working relationships gain depth and value.”

The local comradery has also made Calhoun a player in community activities. She has been featured on several national news shows and was invited to the White House to attend a forum on jobs and economic development. Back in White Sulphur Springs, the Red Ants Pants Foundation was formed as the non-profit branch of the project in support of women’s leadership, working family farms, ranches and rural communities.

In 2011, Calhoun created the Red Ants Pants Music Festival, where thousands of fans came to celebrate rural Montana in a cow pasture. Headliners have included Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris, and Charley Pride. For Calhoun, it's one more way to bring people together to support local jobs and reinvigorate rural America.

Shop Red Ants Pants online