Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
April 10, 2018
by Sara Bauknecht

Ian Rosenberger knows a thing or two about job creation. Since the devastating earthquake hit Haiti in 2010, the 36-year-old Ambridge native has been working to clean up the country and put its people back to work, one plastic bottle and bolt of fabric at a time.

In 2011, he launched Thread International, which creates fabrics from plastic bottles retrieved from streets and landfills of Haiti’s impoverished communities. It employs locals to collect and recycle the plastics into flakes that are transformed into textiles. In turn, those fabrics were sold to other brands, including Timberland, Reebok, Kenneth Cole and even some Pittsburgh-based designers, to use to craft their own products. Some were featured in a showcase at New York Fashion Week last fall.

So far, a couple thousand jobs have been created in Haiti, and about 40 million bottles have been saved from going into the ocean. Now Mr. Rosenberger has his sights set on trying to make a difference in his own backyard, with Thread’s own products.

“We feel like the impact we’ve been having in Haiti, we’ve learned enough lessons that we can start to experiment with how we might leverage that in places like Pittsburgh,” he says.

In March, Thread relocated its Pittsburgh headquarters from a small office in East Liberty to multiple industrial-style rooms inside a 100,000-square-foot warehouse at 7800 Susquehanna St. in Homewood. The move was made possible through a collaboration with the Richard King Mellon Foundation, which also helped building owner Bridgeway Capital overhaul the space after purchasing it in 2013.

Rather than relying on other brands to turn its fabrics into products, Thread is shifting its business model to focus on developing and launching its own line of goods. To do that, it plans to hire Pittsburghers, particularly Homewood residents.

“We came into this neighborhood with one mission: to engage with the folks who are here as radically as we can,” says Mr. Rosenberger, noting Homewood’s 12 percent unemployment rate. “We want to put as many people to work in this neighborhood as we can.”

Thread has already hired six people from Homewood, bringing the total in its Pittsburgh office to about 20. He hopes to have about 30 people working there by the end of the year, with a third of them being from Homewood.

The company has been mulling over the idea of rolling out its own product line since last fall. While other brands were interested in using Thread’s fabrics in their designs, “they had their own stories to tell,” says head of product Sam Klein, who previously worked for American Eagle and Macy’s before joining Thread a year ago. “By the time our fabric made it to the consumer, Thread’s story was lost.”

By designing its own products, Thread hopes to take back control of its message, even if that means touching on some tough topics such as child labor, poverty and environmental issues.

“Brands don’t like to talk about things like this. We decided we were going to and that in part spurred some of the decisions to start making products ourselves,” Mr. Rosenberger says. “We feel like millennials and Generation Z … they want to experience a brand in a way that makes them feel like they’re doing something good.”

Thread has plenty of stories to tell, thanks to the thousands of lives it’s intersected with in Haiti and now also in Homewood. Coming up with a product people actually want to buy has been the tricky part. It spent about three months sharing early prototypes with more than 500 people locally and in other cities for their feedback. What Mr. Rosenberger describes as “a suite of products that makes every person’s work week more amazing” will be announced in May and sold online at threadinternational.com.

In the meantime, Thread’s recently hired team of stitchers has been at work cutting and sewing to get ready for the launch.

“There are people here who have never ever known anything about a sewing machine. They just saw a job,” says stitcher Dawn Surgest, a veteran designer who lives in Homewood. She has degrees in fashion design and merchandising and was trained in couture in London. “Then they come here and learn a skill that they’ll be able to take [with them] for the rest of their lives.”

She was attracted to Thread because its mission aligned with hers.

“Like Thread, I value where my fabrics come from and who they’e made by,” she adds. “I can’t believe I get paid and benefits to do what I love to do.”

While Thread is not the first brand to turn recycled materials into products — Gant, G-Star Raw, Stella McCartney and Adidas are a few that have, too — Mr. Rosenberger hopes what his team is trying to do in Homewood can be a model for other startups in Pittsburgh and beyond.

“I believe that a more equal Pittsburgh is a stronger community and a stronger Pittsburgh. As the community grows and we invite more and more talent here, everyone should be able to participate in that,” he says. “When we hire people from all walks of life to work in our startups, it sets an example that we can be really proud of as Pittsburghers.”