TS Designs supply chain train stops at Carolina Cotton Works

Posted March 11, 2021


By Devin Steele


TS Designs’ journey through its Carolinas supply chain took company President Eric Henry to Gaffney, S.C., home of textile dyeing and finishing partner Carolina Cotton Works (CCW), today.


Part 5 of its online series, “The Harvest: A Gathering of Conversations for the Future of Cotton,” featured CCW Sales Manager Stacey Bridges, who joined the company when it was founded in 1995.


As part of TS Designs’ 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 – and putting the “power” into the hands of the farmer.


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.


“What we want to do with the 10,000 Pound Cotton Project is bring the farmer to the table,” Henry said, in introducing the program. “If you know anything about commodity agriculture, the cotton farmer has zero say in the price that they will get paid for their cotton – zero. So the person who has the most investment and the most time involved, the most important person in this conversation has no say-so in price.”


TS Designs’ longtime supplier, Burleson Farms in Stanly County, N.C., produces cotton on about 3,000 acres of farmland.


“When I was talking to Andrew Burleson, who is third generation, this time last year when COVID was hitting, he was literally putting seed in the ground at 25 cents under his costs, and he kept saying, ‘I hope for good weather, I hope for a better price, I hope, I hope, I hope.’ The most important person in the conversation is depending on hope? So the purpose of the 10,000 Pound Project is to meet the farmer in the field before the seed goes in the ground and also go through the supply chain, from the farmer, the ginner, the spinner, the knitter and now the finisher to bring awareness to the people who make our apparel.”


Henry, who saw his business along with many others precipitously decline after NAFTA took effect in 1994, also returned to his important soapbox with respect to the U.S. textile and apparel supply chain.


“Apparel brands are chasing a cheap price for a big box store – the race to the bottom, as I like to describe it – which is why 98 percent of the clothes you buy are made overseas as they seek that unsustainable, cheap labor,” he said. “But with this project, we aim to educate buyers and consumer about the supply chain, because if it wasn't for those people, we wouldn't have a product. So we want to talk about a transparent supply chain in a local economy, ultimately to build a more resilient future, because somewhere in the future we're going to face another global disruption. And we can grow, process and manufacture cotton here in the Carolinas. People need to know that.”


CCW: ‘Made to finish’


Bridges opened the discussion about CCW with a brief history of the company and how it has evolved and grown every year since its founding 26 years ago. The company was formed by Page Ashby and his two sons, Hunter and Bryan, to bleach and scour fabrics prior to garment dyeing. Shortly after its founding, CCW began piece dyeing, he added. As the garment dye business began to drop off, CCW decided to invest more in fabric dyeing and bought a number of machines in its first decade of business, he noted.


In 1995, as the knitted mattress ticking business started to rise in popularity, CCW added a tenter frame, allowing it to enter the open-width business while adding customers such as Contempora Fabrics (also a TS Designs partner) to dye polyester performance fabrics, Bridges reported. The company continued to invest in horizontal dyeing systems made to run performance polyester and polyester/spandex and stayed on that trajectory for a number of years. Then about three years ago, as they cotton market began to come back, the company bought another machine to dye cotton fabrics at a lower liquor ratio, he said.


“We’ve been fortunate to be able to grow over the years,” Bridges said. “When people ask us if we can do this or do that, we normally find a way to do it. Most of the time, when someone gives us a challenge, we go for it. And for that reason, we've been able to keep growing every year since 1995. Even last year, we added new equipment and just last week we bought another dye machine.”


Asked by moderator Courtney Lockemer, brand manager for Solid State Clothing, to dive deeper into the company’s survival tactics – particularly having started as NAFTA was taking root and sending U.S. textile and apparel companies offshore or out of business – Bridges said that is a question he hears a lot.


“The best answer I can give is that we missed the glory days,” he said. “Most of our competitors that were running in the ’70s and ’80s were used to having business come to them and turning away orders. When we first started, we had to fight very hard for every order we had, and we considered every customer we had to be very important. So when you miss those glory days, you have to work a little bit harder. We actually outworked our competitors, in my opinion, and in doing so we became faster, offered better quality and established a reputation of having high integrity.


“When competitors would say ‘no’ to programs (business opportunities) as they were tamping down U.S. production, we said ‘yes,’ and we were able to diversify,” he added. “That allowed us to expand into a lot of different fabrics as we watched many of our competitors go out of business or leave these shores.”


Bridges also was asked about the company’s efforts around sustainability, an important consideration in the textile industry, especially for a water-hungry dyeing and finishing operation. He informed that, in an effort to be competitive and environmentally responsible in a global market, CCW has invested in production equipment that saves energy and water and reduces carbon emissions and landfill waste.


“As a U.S. textile company, we're competing not only with other domestic companies but also with companies in Mexico and Central America, so cost was very important,” he said. “When we first started, we were always trying to reduce the amount of water and energy used in order to reduce cost. So we feel like we were sustainable before sustainable was cool.”


For instance, CCW’s equipment enables hot “exit water” to be used to heat incoming water from the city, which adds 15 or 20 degrees to the water without using any additional energy, he said. Likewise, its state-of-the-art dyeing and dye-dispensing systems waste minimal water in the dyeing process, he added. And a pH neutralization system is used before wastewater goes back to the City of Gaffney for treatment, he said.


“We are very sustainable because it’s important, and it also helps reduce our costs,” he said.


Asked what he wished more consumers and brands new about the American textile industry, he answered that he wishes they knew it still exists.


“A lot of companies may move production from Asia straight to Central America or South America, forgetting that we have a strong, thriving U.S. textile industry here in the Carolinas, and that can help with speed,” Bridges said. “A lot of companies are learning now that speed is just as important as cost. We've been fortunate that some brands and retailers realize that you can lower inventory by using manufacturing closer to home.”


Bridges added that he is happy to be a part of a domestic supply chain and to participate in TS Designs’ communications efforts as it relates to raising that awareness.


“We're excited to be a part of this because you're explaining the process from start to finish, from growing to ginning to spinning to knitting to dyeing and finishing to cut and sew,” he said. “A lot of people don't realize that that industry is here – and not just here, but is growing.”


A participant asked what the weak links are within the Southeastern supply chain that need more investment, especially given the growing wave of made-in-the-USA demand.


“There is always West Coast sewing vs. East Coast sewing,” Bridges said. “There is a larger West Coast labor pool. No doubt we need more sewing on the East Coast. With the customers we work with, the bottleneck is sewing. We’re all having our staffing issues right now.”


Henry then chimed in: “We want to make sewing cool again. That is our bottleneck. We’ve made more T-shirts on the West Coast than we would like to make. We are making even a further commitment to bring it back here. We want people to have a great living-wage job and make it a career. There could be some potential federal help to provide for that. It needs to be a big, long-term investment. Because what is happening, people are becoming more aware of the issue. Now we’re putting pressure on the made-in-the-USA system.”


Henry added that the U.S. government already has the tools for a made-in-America supply chain through the Berry Amendment, but they need to expand that program to include more products beyond military goods.


The next “Harvest” gathering will take place April 14 at one of TS Designs’ cut-and-sew partners, Opportunity Threads in Morganton, N.C.

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