With deft hands, Rose Sloan guides pieces of material through the foot of the heavy-duty sewing machine.
Nearby, 10 other women repeat the sewing process as they work toward finishing an order for fireproof shirts for the Gas Co. of New Mexico.Although Sloan's operation isn't the biggest Utah business by any stretch of the imagination, it nevertheless is providing employment for several people in this tiny Navajo hamlet near Monument Valley on the Navajo Indian Reservation.
Five months ago, Sloan called Barrier-Wear Inc. in Durango, Colo., and asked if she could sew for them. Company owners remembered Sloan when she was the sewing plant manager for Utah Navajo Industries. They sent her three sewing machines and a contract to sew 500 jackets.
Other orders started coming in, and Rose hired more workers. They just finished an order for 1,000 clean-room garments for Morton Thiokol, and they want another 2,000 next fall. The women also sewed 500 lab jackets for Xidex, a computer-chip manufacturer.
Sloan said some of her other orders are for 4,400 jackets for the U.S. Navy and 1,000 fireproof items for workers at a Hercules ammunition plant in Virginia.
Sewing high-tech garments is nothing new for Sloan and her crew, having sewn some of the clothing worn by U.S. astronauts. After working on some flight suits for the women astronauts, several of them were invited to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, "and it made us feel important when we saw how carefully they treated those suits," she said.
Later, their joy turned to sadness because they were listening to the radio when the Challenger space shuttle exploded Jan. 26, 1986. "We were all shocked. The teacher (Christa McAuliffe) was wearing one of our suits," Sloan said.
Sloan started her sewing career when her husband was attending the University of Utah. She found a job as a shipping clerk for a women's apparel plant, later trained on sewing machines and soon was stitching women's polyester pants and jackets.
When she left two years later, she was a supervisor and had learned about the sewing business.
In 1982 she joined Dine' Apparel in Halchita, soon became plant manager and learned of Barrier-Wear and high-tech clothing. Dine' Apparel closed in 1986 and Sloan spent one year traveling with her husband to construction jobs in Nevada and Arizona. When he landed a job near Kayenta, Ariz., they returned to Halchita.
Sloan said she tried to keep busy with auto upholstery jobs from local residents but found the work monotonous. That's when she called Barrier-Wear and her business career started.
Her operation is in an abandoned dormitory that once housed uranium mill workers. Since the mill closed in 1965, little industry has come to Halchita, and Sloan is the first Navajo in Halchita to start a sewing business apart from the large companies like Utah Navajo Industries.
If the orders continue coming in, she wants to expand her operation.