|Eric Henry and Ronnie Burleson, photo by Natalie Saragusa|
Despite what you may have heard, the textile industry in North Carolina is not dead. Indeed, Eric Henry of TSDesigns is breathing new life into NC textiles with his Cotton of the Carolinas project. My husband and I went on a farm tour in Stanley County on Saturday. North Carolina is the 4th largest producer of cotton in the US, but we export about 80% of what we grow overseas. That’s true of all cotton production in the US, yet we consume 120% of what we grow! And contrary to popular opinion, it’s not the cost of labor that is at issue here, it’s other production costs and exchange rates, according to Henry.
I learned enough to bore some of you to tears, but here are just a few of the exciting things I learned:
- The average t-shirt logs about 16,000 miles from the cotton field to your back. Sourcing entirely in North Carolina, TSDesigns is making shirts that go “from dirt to shirt” in 750 miles or less. Fifty years ago, you could have bought a shirt that traveled less than 50 miles. Local is not the be all-end all, but living in a region that has seen a decline in two of it’s major cash crops (tobacco and cotton) even since I moved here seven years ago, I can’t help but think about whether or not my neighbors can send their kids to college or retire with money in the bank. For Eric, who also prints shirts on imported organic cotton, it’s all about transparency and encouraging the consumer to ask questions! So, please, start asking questions when you buy.
- Why not organic? North Carolina has a great climate for growing cotton, but it’s not as well suited to organic cotton. There’s not a single organic grower in NC. Almost all the organic cotton production in the US is done in the Southwest, especially in Arizona. Why? No bugs. That’s the upside. Here’s the downside: cotton can’t grow in a desert without heavy irrigation and in NC farmers are blessed with enough of that from Mother Nature. I'm not saying one is better than the other. Remember—every choice has trade-offs! And, please, ask questions and be an informed consumer.
- The cotton gin is really one machine in a long chain of other machines that dry the cotton and remove waste product. Wes Morgan’s gin in New London processes about forty 500 lb bales per hour. The gin is the machine that separates the cotton fibers from the cottonseed. What was most interesting here was finding out how little they waste. Much of plant material that is not used for textiles is actually used by farmers. Cows love cottonseed (see photo, right)—Wes compared them to M&Ms. Just like M&Ms, too many give a cow an upset stomach (or stomachs, I guess). He said that he sells to dairy farms as far away as Michigan and Wisconsin. Buy Wisconsin cheese! (oops! Did I just type that? Try the baby swiss--the recipe is from my hometown.)
All in all, it was a great opportunity to learn about some of the other exciting things going on in the Piedmont and I hope to share more stories with you about green building, food coops, and biodegradable beach toys very soon. To round out the day, I took the most expensive ride of my life on a John Deere cotton picker that cost $600,000. A great way to spend a sunny autumn Saturday.