The Eleven Percent: Meet Bella Weinstein, Founder of Handyma’am Goods
Bella Weinstein talks about greening the clothing industry, her inventive Drapron and what's in her tool bag.
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This FH series introduces readers to a few of the women who make up 11 percent of the construction workforce in the U. S., spotlighting stories of their careers in the field. Know someone we should feature? Email us here.
When Bella Weinstein picked up woodworking as a hobby, she had a hard time finding clothes to wear to the shop that were durable and fit well. So she decided to make some for herself, as well as for other women who work with their hands.
Admittedly, her background as a professional hairstylist and art director didn’t give her the ideal qualifications to develop and market a line of clothing. But living in New York, she found help from a friend who worked as a pattern maker.
“I was naive enough to think that I could do it,” she says. “But I’m a collector of skills. I had the drive and wanted to learn something new.”
So in 2014 she started Handyma’am Goods, a line of functional clothing for tradeswomen and artists. But her goals don’t end with practical, artful clothing. She also works hard to embrace holistic business practices, including partnerships with American manufacturers who pay their employees a living wage, provide good working conditions and share her concern for the environment.
“I guess I could call myself a designer at this point,” she says with a laugh. “At least I know how to run a clothing business now. But the best part is the relationships that I’ve gained through it. The connections are more satisfying than designing a garment.”
She profiles some of those connections with her ever-growing nationwide community of handy ma’ams on her web site. She’s also moved from New York to Richmond, Virginia, where she lives with her partner, young son and two cattle dogs.
We asked Weinstein for her thoughts on the state of the clothing industry and the trades.
Q: What is the difference between women’s and men’s work clothes?
A: I think female forms have more variables, and so designing for those is important. It’s a constant struggle thinking about, “Is this going to fit someone with a big bust and a smaller waist, or a bigger waist and a smaller bust, and also be flattering?” It doesn’t necessarily have to be men versus women. It’s just taking the time to pattern for different variables.
Q: Have you had any challenges being a woman in manufacturing?
A: Initially it was challenging being so green, not knowing the lingo, and having to talk to what felt like a good ‘ol boys club.
The first couple of factories I went to didn’t get what I was doing. One guy showed me a sample of super poorly constructed polyester coverall they made. He said, “Why don’t you make something like this? It’s so much more simple.” I was like, “Because it’s ugly and fits terribly.”
I had my sample next to his and said, “Okay, this is not going to work, because if you don’t see how and why these are different, then that’s a problem.” It wasn’t until I found a women-owned factory that I felt at home and in good hands.
Q: What other challenges have you faced along the way?
Farrah Fox/Courtesy Bela Weinstein
A: Between COVID, supply chain issues and my baby, it’s all been a challenge. But it’s been a fun adventure just trying to figure out how to be a working mom. I tend to be a little bit of an overachiever, so it’s been tough trying to balance the two. Ultimately, my son is more important than anything.
It’s also a struggle to keep production domestic, finding someone who can create a quality product who’s also willing to take on our smaller volume. COVID really put a strain on the small production houses that were already struggling to make ends meet.
I have a real love-hate relationship with the process of getting something made. So many ideas I have had for garments over the years have been killed at the sampling stage because of the cost of production and materials. The challenge isn’t having the good idea, it’s balancing making a good product and figuring out how to make it for a price the market will bear.
Q: What is your most popular piece?
A: The Drapron. It’s great, and it’s our most unique garment. It’s like a smock. It has snaps on the shoulders, so you can get in and out of it really easily. It’s got a kangaroo pocket, so you can adjust the size for what goes in it. It also comes all the way down, so you can clean it out really easily.
I wear it a lot. I originally dreamed the idea. That’s how it came about.
Q: What are some high points since starting the company?
A: When I started this almost 10 years ago, there wasn’t much in this field. Now Carhartt has finally started improving their women’s wear, and Patagonia has a new women’s workwear line as well.
So one of the successes — and obviously I’m not the only part of this — is, brands like mine are bringing more awareness and representation to women in trades and women who are working with their hands. A lot of brands are finally paying attention, and I hope that I had a small part in that.
Q: Any advice for young women or non-binary people looking to start their own company?
Alex Welsh/Courtesy Bela Weinstein
A: Don’t be afraid to start, or to mess up, because you’re going to mess up a lot. Do all the research you can, talk to people, ask questions, and get advice that will build your confidence.
Also, figure out your business model early. I hired a financial coach, because I’m such a creative and hands-on person that it took me a while to not be scared of the numbers. Get help in the areas you might have blind spots so you don’t waste time and money.
Q: What changes have you seen in the industry over the last decade?
A: The representation of women in the trades has very much changed for the better.
Also, people are becoming more aware of the clothing industry being a huge contributor to greenhouse gasses and other nasty stuff like microplastics. I want to be part of that group pushing the industry in a more positive way, by being aware of issues like how much water we’re using and the need to move toward more regenerative agriculture.
Unfortunately, I don’t know if it’s happening fast enough. A lot of the smaller brands are thinking that way, which is great, but we’re not going to make a big impact unless the large companies also move in that direction. Handyma’am has a lot of room to grow in this area, but I have high hopes.
Q: What are your pro-specific tools?
A: At shows and around the studio, I always have my “fancy” flexible tape measure, in case someone needs help with sizing and so I can measure them for my bank of sizes, which helps us develop products.
I always have my Leatherman, because you never know. I always have snips for loose threads, because I’m a little OCD about loose threads. I don’t know if a Sharpie counts as a tool, but I always have one for pricing and labeling.
And then, honestly, my Drapron, because what you’re wearing is a tool, and I always want to make sure I have enough pockets. I like to have places for things.
Bella Weinstein Bio
Bella Weinstein started Handyma’am Goods in 2014 to address a lack of durable clothing for tradeswomen and artists. She has grown the company with an eye toward innovative design and fairness, partnering with manufacturers who pay a living wage and strive for environmental ethos. She lives in Richmond, Virginia with her partner, young son and two cattle dogs.
Writer Karuna Eberl Bio
Karuna Eberl is a regular contributor to FamilyHandyman.com. She’s spent the last 25 years as a freelance journalist and filmmaker, telling stories of people, nature, travel, science and history. Eberl has won numerous awards for her writing, her Florida Keys Travel Guide and her documentary, The Guerrero Project.