Walter Vicente and Molly Hemstreet of The Industrial Commons/Opportunity Threads
TS Designs’ latest 'Gathering' occurs at Opportunity Threads
Posted April 22, 2021
By Devin Steele
Part 6 of TS Designs’ supply chain journey through the Carolinas took place at the Industrial Commons/Opportunity Threads in Morganton, N.C., where the cut-and-sew arm of its brand partner’s 10,000 Pounds of Cotton initiative was featured.
During the web event, TS Designs founder and President Eric Henry introduced attendees of the web event to Molly Hemstreet, founder and co-executive director of The Industrial Commons, founder and worker/owner of Opportunity Threads and co-founder of the Carolina Textile District; along with Walter Vicente, plant manager at The Industrial Commons.
Since late last year, TS Designs has hosted the web events, dubbed “The Harvest: A Gathering of Conversations for the Future of Cotton, at the headquarters of each partner involved in its Solid State Brand’s 10,000 Pound of Cotton project. Previous iterations included stops at cotton producer Burleson Farms, ginner Rolling Hills Gin, yarn spinner Parkdale, finisher Carolina Cotton Works and knitter Contempora Fabrics.
“I'm hoping what will come from is really underlying the importance not only of domestic manufacturing, but domestic manufacturing in a transparent supply chain because we do live in a world where most of our apparel is still made overseas in a very opaque supply chain,” Henry explained early in the program. “As we come out of COVID, we have an opportunity to rebuild an apparel supply chain that's domestic, that's equitable, that's transparent and is resilient. But it's going to take people like you and me to go out there and demand that we want it.”
He added: “Please, please, please, let's do not go back to where we've been – to a global apparel supply chain that chases and uses unsustainable cheap labor. And then we’ll end up in situations like we did last year with COVID and the breakdown of the supply chain. And then just recently, look at what happened with the Suez Canal – $10 billion a day was lost due to one part of the supply chain that got clogged up. And then we hear about what's happening with (slave labor-produced) cotton in China. We keep making the same mistakes because we keep focusing on price, and we keep forgetting about the people who make our apparel. And we are so fortunate in the Carolinas because we can grow, process and manufacture.”
Hemstreet and Vicente opened their segment with a live tour of the production floor, where they explained some of the processes and projects with which Opportunity Threads is involved, including Project Repat, where old T-shirts are repurposed and cut-and-sewn into a “T-shirt quilt.” The employee-owned Industrial Commons also operates Material Return, a platform for custom circularity that enables manufacturers and brands to transform textile waste into new products.
Later, Hemstreet offered background on the founding of Industrial Commons and its allied entities. She grew up in Burke County, where it is based, and return to the area after college to teach in the public school system, she said. During that period, NAFTA was beginning to decimate many communities, including the Morganton area, where about 40,000 jobs were lost and unemployment reached about 17 percent, she added.
“It was hard to be a teacher when the economic foundation had been pulled out under us,” she said. “So I became really interested in what rebuilding our communities might look like. And I became interested in ways to created rooting wealth here with this amazing infrastructure still here and hundreds of years of knowledge here. Thus, I became interested in the idea of employee ownership.”
Hemstreet added that she “didn’t really know what she was doing,” but was encouraged by a good friend and mentor, and she became interested in starting a production plant.
“I knew some of the wonderful people from the Mayan/Guatemalan community that have a deep, rich history of textiles,” she said. “Those were the sewers that I knew. So we started with one little used sewing machine in a small room. But I think there was a lot of appetite for people wanting more of a relationship with their garments, and off we went.”
The company grew from one used sewing machine about 10 years ago in a small room to its current 30,000-square-foot plant, where 70 people are employed, she related.
“We're very selective in who we work with,” she added. “We don't want to just make anything. We want to make the right things with the right processes and be sure that that is rooted in our community. And from that, we built out the Carolina Textile District, which is a network of small producers such as TS Designs who are working together to rebuild our value chains, and we built out a 501(c)(3) to try to help incubate more and more companies like Opportunity Threads, where we could have hundreds of people working in the cooperative economy. And one of those, for example, is Material Return, which is helping drive the pickup and the processing for our circularity.”
Vicente then related his story that led him from Guatemala, where he had experience as a sewing machine operator, to California and then to North Carolina. Even though he was working three jobs, he said it was hard to make ends meet – until he discovered The Industrial Commons/Opportunity Threads. With his experience as a sewer, he said he was hired the day he walked in.
“My life changed that day,” he said. “I quit my other jobs, came here and have been able to spend more time with my family.”
Vicente added that by working for an employee-owned company, everyone is treated fairly and with dignity. “As an owner, you have a voice,” he said. “People are treated well and the benefits are great. I’m so excited and blessed. There is no other place where I could work and have this.”
Later, when asked by moderator Courtney Lockemer, brand manager for Solid State Clothing, a question about environmental sustainability and ethics seemingly being two sides of the same coin, Hemstreet answered, “If there is any hope for us as a species, we have to be good to this planet and we have to be good to each other. I think, too often, companies feel like they have to make a choice. We want to combine those two things. And we can also make good business decisions. We can be profitable in the modest sense of profitability, not in the Amazon sense of profitability. I think of profitability more as sustainability. Our profitability drives our sustainability from a financial perspective.”
She added: “And we make really good choices about the companies we're working with. We don't want to work with companies that are just making product to make product. We want products with a purpose, like those from TS Designs.”