Alex Whitley, vice president of sales at Contempora Fabrics, shows a yarn package as he explains that it takes 90 of these to creel a machine that will feed one circular knitting machine.

Contempora Fabrics: TS Designs’  latest stop on supply chain tour

Posted February 11, 2021


By Devin Steele (DSteele@eTextileCommunications.com)


Part 4 of TS Designs’ supply chain journey occurred this week, when company founder and President Eric Henry stopped at circular knitting partner Contempora Fabrics in Lumberton, N.C.


As part of the company’s 10,000 Pounds of Cotton initiative, launched late last year, Henry is putting to action words that he speaks frequently – that is, having a transparent, traceable and local supply chain. This week’s iteration of TS Designs’ webinar series, “The Harvest: A Gathering of Conversations for the Future of Cotton,” featured Alex Whitley, Contempora Fabrics’ vice president of sales.


Burlington, N.C.-based TS Designs’ monthly Zooms are designed to update interested parties on the project it has undertaken through its brand, Solid State Clothing. The brand aimed to buy 10,000 pounds of cotton – enough to make about 13,000 T-shirts – from a local farmer, with investors receiving an ROI in the form of a T-shirt in the spring. The goal is to pay local farmers at above-market rate prices for cotton as “an experiment to see how flipping the power in the cotton supply chain can change the way farmers operate,” he said. It’s all about building a “domestic, transparent and equitable apparel supply chain,” one of Henry’s goals for many years, he said.


Previously, Henry and his team held online events at its cotton grower, Burleson Farms; its ginning partner, Rolling Hills; and its yarn supplier, Parkdale’s SpunLab Division – all based in the Carolinas.


Whitley offered some background on Contempora Fabrics, noting that the company was founded in 1972 and is 100-percent employee owned. At full capacity, the company is capable of producing more than 2 million pounds of fabric per month on more than 200 circular machines, he said. Operating under an employee-owned stock ownership plan (ESOP) allows employees to take extra steps to make a difference and have an impact on the company’s – and their – bottom line, he said.


He also went over the company’s sustainability efforts, noting that one way it has reduced its energy and waste is by investing in modern equipment.


“Our sustainability efforts go way back, maybe 15 or 20 years ago,” Whitley said. “We are in the outdoor retail market, and things were starting to change back then. We knew we had to take the necessary steps to be a good steward of our environment. We changed all of our lighting in the facility and reduced the amount of waste we sent landfills, among other measures.”


Also, Contempora in the past was sending used cardboard yarn tubes to the landfill because they were bulky and hollow, making them unattractive to recyclers, he said. But one of the company’s production employees suggested the company invest in a compactor, which it did, and now the company is able to sell them in bales to recyclers, he added.


“Over the past 17 years, we’ve recycled 5 million pounds of cardboard tubes, about 2 million pounds of cardboard boxes and 170,000 pounds of plastic,” Whitley said. “And our fabric waste also is sent to a recycler.”


Whitley also reviewed the company’s well-documented efforts to step up during the COVID-19 pandemic to produce fabrics for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).


“Since we’re 100 percent employee-owned company, if a need arises, we can make a decision very quickly,” he said. “And we saw that in March when COVID hit. At the time, we were running 350,000 pounds (of fabric) a week. That stopped immediately as orders were put on hold. And for the first time in our company history, we laid off our entire plant.”


He explained that after that Friday layoff, management met and the conversation quickly turned to the dire need for face masks. On Saturday, they met again, came up with a game plan, began having conversations with suppliers and industry colleagues and joined the Hanesbrands/Parkdale coalition to produce PPE during the national emergency. By Tuesday, Contempora was bringing production employees back and pivoted from producing fabric for multiple end uses, including Major League Baseball uniforms, to manufacturing fabric for face masks and isolation gowns. They would stay on that course mostly through June, when “regular” orders were beginning to come back.


Whitley went on to summarize the knitting process and some other initiatives in which the company is involved, especially around transparency and traceability. To wit: The company is one of the first textile producers to join the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol, which verifies U.S. cotton’s sustainability progress through sophisticated data collection and independent third-party verification; and its participation in the Cotton LEADS program, with similar aims of ensuring sustainably produced cotton.


He also mentioned that Contempora Fabrics has participated in the Americas Apparel Producers’ Network’s (AAPN’s) first two Carolina Mills tours, where representatives of brands and retailers visit various facilities throughout the supply chain to learn more about these companies and processes.


“We always welcome that opportunity to participate in that,” he said. “We’re completely transparent on these tours.”


To end the event, Henry said that now is the time to seize the moment as the pandemic forced many to reassess.


“For someone who’s been in the industry for 40 years, and going through what we did with COVID, I know that we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build a more resilient, domestic, transparent apparel supply chain,” he said. “But it starts with you. It starts with education. It starts by asking those other brands and companies who buy your clothes from, ‘why aren’t you doing it domestically? Why aren’t you doing it transparently?’


“Look at the situation in Bangladesh a few years ago, where an eight-story building that should’ve never been built burned, and 1,000 people died,” he continued. “And darn it, we’re doing it again with the Ugyhurs in China using slave labor so some brand can have a cheaper T-shirt. It’s got to stop and it’s got to stop with you. I’m not saying we’re perfect, I’m not saying we’re doing it the only way, but I am saying what we do is transparent. There are no secrets. We need your help to be a better company, to build a better product and to create more jobs here in the U.S.”

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