Meet the women who helped build Carhartt into an internationally-recognized Detroit brand

Posted at 11:15 AM, Mar 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-22 14:16:15-04

(WXYZ) — Carhartt is a brand rooted in Detroit’s history.

Launched in 1889 and founded by Hamilton Carhartt, the company had a focus: men’s workwear. But where the journey began is not entirely about the men, it’s actually about the women.

Photo courtesy Carhartt

“Carhartt had an idea for purpose-built overalls for railroad workers. So the first people literally that he recruited were women with sewing experience to work in what was at that time just a loft in Detroit, experimenting, coming up with the idea,” said Dave Moore, Carhartt’s historian. “In those early years of Carhartt, about 80 percent of the workforce of Carhartt was women working in the factories, sewing those overalls that Hamilton developed.”

The women, Moore said, not only helped build the foundation of this legacy company, but they were also very much involved in charitable work and other causes in the city.

Photo courtesy Carhartt

“There was actually a club called the Carhartt Club. It was an industrial club at the time that advocated for workers' rights, would participate in forums on labor issues — and that was actually made up completely of women,” he said.

There was also a Carhartt Ladies’ Band and Drum Corps that would perform at factory functions, charity events and other happenings around the city.

Photo courtesy Carhartt

And soon, the first women’s workwear piece from Carhartt emerged in 1917, a coverall.

Photo courtesy Carhartt

“It was a relatively simple thing … so essentially it was a piece you could put on over whatever you were wearing in order to do work outside,” said Moore.

Over the years, Carhartt has offered a variety of pieces for women — launching their first official product line in the 90s.

Debra Ferraro, Carhartt’s vice president of product development, has been with the company for 28 years — she says the women’s products continue to evolve, adding that there’s a strong emphasis, as it was in the beginning, to get out there in the field and see what really works.

“We still get out and we talk to workers, we go to job sites. And so one of our most popular items is the the women's Force Utility Legging,” said Ferraro. “And that came to be from a team being on a horse farm, talking to women, and they were wearing yoga pants. They're like, 'we want the comfort of the yoga pant, but the durability of a Carhartt work pant."

It’s an effort that Ferraro hopes women can see when they look at the Carhartt brand.

“To feel like they're empowered … to work just as hard as men, and the same functionality as the men's product, but really developed and built for women,” she said.

And people may also feel empowered knowing that behind this iconic brand of strong workwear — there has been and continues to be equally strong women.