This week as many people gather together to celebrate Thanksgiving, I always think of 2 main things: 1) The things I am thankful for and 2) How many people don't actually get time off to spend with family and friends largely due to the toxic overconsumption Americans have gotten used to.
Three years ago I worked at a mainstream retailer and Thanksgiving evening I had to go in for an overnight shift - from 10pm to 7am. It was one of the most exhausting and needlessly stressful nights of my life, and I would much rather have been spending it with family. Please keep in mind that participating in the over-hyped shopping sprees at this time does not benefit the workers at corporations and choose to either shop locally or not shop at all.
Now, as for being thankful. This year I am incredibly grateful that I have the ability to spend the next few days with family and with my new husband. I am looking forward to eating way to much good food and actually taking the time to connect with people. I am also continuously grateful to be a part of a growing community committed to responsibly-made goods, including apparel. A few weeks ago I was able to visit TS Designs, a custom-printed t-shirt company based in Burlington, and go on their Harvest Tour, a chance to see where Cotton of the Carolinas comes from.
TS Designs is much more than just a t-shirt printing company and President Eric Henry is an inspiration for companies like Redress Raleigh as he's built this company into a well-respected local community builder and made an impact nationally as a leader in the sustainable textiles movement. Eric entertained me with great conversation, yummy food, and an insightful tour of the TS Design facilities. I greatly appreciate his time and encouragement.
We had a yummy lunch at the Company Shops Market - whose motto is 'local food for local people'. As an owner of the co-op, Eric is one of the rare people who understands how connected everything is - how access to good, nutritional food is just as important as access to responsibly-made goods and employment at a company with strong values.
The TS Designs building not only has gardens for different seasons, they also have live chickens to supply eggs for their employees. Eric takes food scraps from the hot food bar at the Company Foods Market to feed the chickens. Learn more about the sustainability initiatives throughout their workplace here: Virtual Tour.
This picture sums up so much about TS Designs - the personal connections, the real investment in each person's piece of the manufacturing process, and the pride inherent in the Cotton of the Carolinas - it is grown, made, and sold here - in our own local community.
One of the differences between TS Designs and other t-shirt companies is that their shirts are printed and then garment dyed - so there is no sticky raised lettering, it is all soft and the lettering doesn't start wearing off as it is a part of the shirt. They also will print shirts they didn't purchase, such as the example shirt being printed on the right. On the left is a pile that is ready for printing.
Getting a shirt from TS Designs is a 2-week process of printing, dying, sorting, and inspecting. Each shirt is personally inspected for defects before being sent to the customer. Fun side note: the blue shirts on the right are for Greenbuild, an annual green-building conference that was part of the impetus for Redress Raleigh's creation.
TS Designs has developed quite an organized system over the years for printing graphics for their customers. You can send your own artwork or work with one of their in-house designers to create your custom-printed shirts. Your clients can also in turn track their shirt - each Cotton of the Carolinas shirt comes with a number printed on the inside that they can input into the website to learn more about the process of "dirt to shirt".
So, speaking of the the "process" - how does cotton from the field become this t-shirt? My husband Jeff and I got the chance to find out more on the Harvest Tour - a great opportunity to learn more about TS Designs' work in the community as well as the local farmers they work with. It was incredibly fun and enlightening - farmers are often at the mercy of Mother Nature and have to problem solve on the fly depending on a lot of factors out of their control.
Our Harvest Tour started at the Rolling Hills Cotton Gin in New London, NC, with Wes Morgan. Wes explained the processing of the raw product of cotton and converting it into 500 pound bales that they then ship off to be spun elsewhere. This time of year - the Fall - is their all-hands-on-deck busy season. About 30 - 40 bales an hour are produced at this time at this gin.
The cotton comes in huge round cylinders from the field and the plastic is removed. Next the cotton goes through a series of machines that will remove all the "trash" such as leaves and seeds. Finally it is heated, compressed, bound, and tagged. Each bale also has a sample removed that is send to the USDA for grading - this specifies the length, coarseness, brightness, etc. Cotton of the Carolinas t-shirts are 313335 - white, clean, and long.
Now about that field the cotton comes from.... we got to visit the farm where some of the Cotton of the Carolinas cotton is sourced from and speak with Ronnie Burleson. Ronnie manages 100s of farms all over the state and is a wealth of knowledge. He and Eric (TS Designs) also explained the importance of developing relationships with your suppliers - they are more likely to cut you a deal when you need it and will appreciate your repeat business in return.
Visiting the fields on a crisp fall day and feeling the cotton really increases my respect for farms and the amount of work that goes into one cotton t-shirt. I am thankful that there are still people pursuing farming who care about their community and who are willing to take the time to share their experience and knowledge with the rest of us. This is why I like to know where my clothes come from and take pride in the work that Redress Raleigh does. Thank you TS Designs, Wes at Rolling Hills Gin, and Ronnie Burleson for a great Harvest!
(A couple more videos are below, including one where we got to ride in the Harvester!)