From farm to fashion: textile manufacturing in North Carolina

CCA’s summer study trips introduce students to new cultures and experiences, and many programs also feature service to the host communities and reflections on issues that affect those communities: environmental and economic sustainability, social justice, immigration.

Sometimes it is important to define one’s community by shared interests and goals rather than proximity. Last May, several Fashion Design students along with program chair Amy Williams embarked on a memorable research trip to North Carolina, experiencing first-hand the production of fabrics from farm to mill; from fiber to fabric to fashion.

“The students heard directly about how their insights, interests, and dreams can and are affected by the bigger world story (recession, the import vs. export, local vs. international tale). The students, all visual and hands-on learners got it loud and clear by the end of the trip!” explains Williams. They visited companies with long-time roots in the Carolinas, many family owned and operated and many especially conscious of environmental impact, providing not only sustainable products and ecologically sensitive materials but also supporting the people that work for them.

Sustainable Practices

The trip began with a visit to North Carolina State University, which boasts an impressive textile engineering program offering both BS and MS degrees. The interaction with NCSU educators helped provide context before visits to the various factories, spinners, dyers, mills, and design firms in the greater Raleigh region. With an emphasis on sustainability, the students were able to gain valuable knowledge about ecology and manufacturing to help fuel their production sensibilities and their ideology as designers.

There were many parallels between the students’ design perspectives and the business practices of the places they visited on their trip. For example, Caitie Dodge (Fashion Design 2016) is interested in working with local fibers and creating her own designs. “To me, sustainability is about the people in the industry. Although there is a lot of emphasis on the environment, there sometimes tends to be a huge separation between the designer and the maker,” she says.

Raleigh Denim Workshop supports a similar outlook. Founded by DIY couple Sarah Yarborough and Victor Lytvinenko, they employ “non-automated jeansmiths” to create slow-movement jean clothing using fabric from Cone Denim Mills. Cone Denim has been the classic denim since 1905, and the company’s Selvage line has been produced on the same machines since the 1940s. Cone has also developed a Sustainblue ™ Collection that uses recycled cotton, polyester, and sustainable yarns. This commitment to reuse is also on the mind of student Nicole Adames (Fashion Design 2016): “Sustainability to me begins with creating textiles—but also being conscious of the aftermath of a garment; what is the afterlife of that garment, is it going to be wasted and not come back into the earth?”

Similar sentiments are echoed in recent Textiles graduate Laurin Guthrie’s perspective on working with slow and local textiles, particularly yarns for knitting and printing and dying with natural dyes. “It is important to get organizations such as the Farmer’s Market Association to recognize cotton as an agricultural product, and getting them to understand that fiber is an agricultural product in the same way that food is.”

Dirt to Shirt

TS Designs thinks so, too. It is a wholesale T-shirt manufacturing and printing company that practices a 100 percent “dirt-to-shirt” model, meaning they grow the materials and manufacture them on site, including their flagship line Cotton of the Carolinas, where the clothing starts by the company working closely with local organic cotton growers and using a patented water- based ink (REHANCE). They take special care to purchase cotton only from Carolina farmers, maintaining a carbon footprint within 700 miles, as opposed to working on a global scale that exceeds tens of thousands of miles in energy waste and disparate employment.

The CCA trip would not have been possible without the Fashion Program’s hard work to obtain two grants, first in 2013 and again in 2015. The grants were provided by Cotton University, a philanthropic wing of Cotton Incorporated, a national research and marketing entity that was prompted by the collective efforts of cotton growers to urge Congress to pass the Cotton Research and Promotion Act of 1966. Chair of Fashion Design, Lynda Grose, the 2013 grant recipient, worked with Williams on the 2015 grant content, and Williams programmed the itinerary in conjunction with course curriculum and learning outcomes. At the end of the semester the students mounted a fashion exhibition with designs focusing on denim.

The trip to North Carolina was a valuable experience that brought emerging designers and seasoned professionals together as a multigenerational, multidisciplinary fashion community. “I wish every single practitioner in our industry would have a chance to participate in something like this,” Williams says.