“We got you something,” my friend Julia said and smiled slyly. She and her husband, Ken, had gone on vacation in the mountains. We had been catching up on their adventures.
“Oh, you shouldn’t have done that,” I parried.
“Well, we did,” she responded and handed me a yellow gift bag. Inside was a sage green—one of my favorite colors—soft T-shirt that said “Made in the USA.” North Carolina to be exact.
“Look, you can track your shirt to see where it was made!” Julia said, pointing to the tag inside.
“We saw it and thought of you,” Ken chimed in.
I have to admit I was touched. After years of writing the Live Local column, it is nice that someone noticed. The shirt was made by Cotton of the Carolinas, a company dedicated to producing NC textiles with cotton grown and processed in NC. The “track your shirt” phenomenon that Julia was pointing out is the company’s online map of everywhere your shirt went from the time the cotton came into their possession until it went to the place of purchase (in this case Mast General Store).
According to www.CottonoftheCarolinas.com, my shirt passed through nine locations in North and South Carolina on it’s “dirt to shirt”road to me: Hemingway Apparel, Hemingway, SC; Carolina Cotton Works, Inc., Gaffney, SC; Professional Knitting, Inc., Clover, SC; Rolling Hills Gin, New London, NC; Thomas Burleson and Sons Farm, Richfield, NC; MoCaro Dyeing and Finishing, Statesville, NC; Hill Spinning, Thomasville, NC; TS Designs, Burlington, NC; Mortex Apparel Manufacturing, Middlesex, NC.
I was enchanted.
It exemplifies a phenomenal example of entrepreneurial push-back against the exodus of the garment industry overseas.
According to The Social Science Research Institute at Duke University: “In 1992, the U.S. textile and apparel industries employed over 1.8 million people in 53,754 establishments. By 2012 this number dropped to 575,990 workers in 35,206 establishments, a decline of 69 percent and 35 percent respectively over the last two decades (1992-2012).” In 2012 North Carolina had about 52,000 people employed in the textile industry. The average wage was $40,454. Apparently income in the artificial fibers industry were almost double that of apparel manufacturing. The Social Science Research Institute notes, “The highest wages are in the artificial fibers and filaments industry ($55,060) and the lowest are in apparel manufacturing ($25,805).”
In 2008 Cotton of the Carolinas completed its first Harvest to Shirts, with over 700 North Carolina employees involved in the project from start to finish. The materials traveled a total of 700 miles in the process, which compared to the more than 16,000 miles that apparel made in the third world can travel, is a huge reduction in fossil-fuel expenditures. My shirt came from a later batch, which was billed as “500 Jobs in 600 Miles.”
A few months later I strolled into the Port City Java on the corner of Front and Grace for an emergency morning coffee. In a basket near the counter was a collection of Port City Java T-shirts that were clearly form the same Cotton of the Carolinas group! I asked a few questions because I have been contemplating getting some of them for the bookstore, but right now I can’t afford to place a T-shirt order. My curiosity about the shirts at Port City Java was piqued. Megan Mullins, marketing director of Port City Java, seemed like the place to start asking questions.
encore (e): When and how did ya’ll learn about Cotton of the Carolinas and “Dirt to Shirt”?
Megan Mullins (MM): I found the Cotton of the Carolinas line produced by TS Designs in the spring of 2012 at the Weaver Street Market in Carrboro, NC. We’d been carrying some branded T-shirts in our cafes for a few years at that point but were on the hunt for something different.
e: What made ya’ll decide to work with them?
MM: Supporting the communities and neighbors that [maintain] our company is a priority for all of us here. We can’t positively impact the economy in NC by purchasing green coffee locally because it just doesn’t grow here. We try to find other ways to support North Carolina businesses whether that be by procuring the grapes we use in our Mighty Muscadine Smoothie from Cottle Farms in Faison, NC, or selling South ‘n’ France’s hand-dipped bon bons in our cafes.
Cotton of the Carolinas is a supply chain that produces T-shirts, dirt to shirt, right here in the Carolinas. North Carolina is the United States’ fourth largest producer of cotton but 50 percent of that cotton is shipped overseas to be manufactured into finished products before [it’s shipped] back here to be sold to consumers. Low labor costs in third-world countries and cheap transportation costs make this possible.
The farmers and manufacturers involved in Cotton of the Carolinas represent over 700 North Carolina employees. Each harvest travels approximately 700 miles from cotton field to printed/dyed shirt. A globally sourced T-shirt can travel more than 16,000 miles before being sold. At www.cottonofthecarolinas.com, you can enter a unique number printed on the tag of your shirt to find out where the cotton was grown, ginned, spun, knit, finished, cut, sewn, printed, and dyed. It’s completely transparent supply chain with maps, pictures of the farmers and the story of how your shirt was made. Working with TS Designs and Cotton of the Carolinas was a no-brainer for us.
e: How long have the shirts been available in the cafes?
MM: Since November of 2012
e: How has the experience been? Are they easy to work with?
MM: TS Designs has been a great partner for us. Eric Henry and his team are super easy to work with.
e: The shirts are a bit more pricey; has there been any push back?
MM: We are selling the shirts in our cafes for $19.95 each. I think once people realize that they’re not only made in the USA but made right here in the Carolinas, they understand why they’re priced a bit higher. We did lower our usual margin at the café level to keep prices in line, too. Most of the T-shirts we sell are at our Lumina Station and 21 N. Front St. cafés where we have more out of town guests. They make for a great way to remember your trip to NC!
Personally, I love finding products like this to send as gifts for my out of town friends and family to show them how great North Carolina can be! Just about everyone I know has received a Freaker from me by now.
e: What sort of customer feedback have you received?
MM: Guests love them! Once people realize it’s a product made totally in the Carolinas, they’re very excited.
e: Have you met any of the people who made the shirts—growers, finishers, seamstresses, etc?
MM: Not yet! They do organize tours of the farms during harvest, but I haven’t had the time to visit just yet. Maybe this year!
I am hoping to go on a farm and factory tour with Cotton of the Carolinas, if anyone would like to join me, let me know and we will car pool. Until then, take a look at what they are doing because it is a wonderful project that brings together many different threads of our economy and weaves them together into something truly greater than the sum of the parts. [It’s] local companies supporting each other and making our great state flourish again. I am so very proud of their work, and that it is happening right here.