'Dirt to Shirt' movement hopes to regrow local textile industry

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, take a moment now to check that label inside the collar of your cotton shirt. Chances are, it doesn't say Made in the U.S.A., even though the cotton it's made from was probably grown in the U.S.A.

Cotton farmers in North Carolina are trying to change that, teaming up with local textile mills to produce garments that are truly homegrown. Now around a dozen companies are selling clothing that can be traced back to local cotton fields.

From PBS station WTVI in Charlotte, Jeff Sonier shows us how Carolina textile towns are bouncing back after years of mills closing down and jobs moving out.

JEFF SONIER: Inside this North Carolina textile factory, it's the sound of survival, or maybe revival.

ERIC HENRY, Textile Factory Owner: When NAFTA hit, they basically said textiles in this country are dead. You either go overseas, or you go out of business.

JEFF SONIER: That was the hard choice facing textile factory owner Eric Henry, the same hard choice that killed these other Carolina textile mills, along with the textile jobs they provided for generations.

NARRATOR: Time was when cotton was king of the coastal plain.

ERIC HENRY: There would be over 100 people working in here. Our customers were Tommy, Nike, Gap, Polo, Adidas, high-level branded companies. Within two years, we laid off 80 percent of our staff.

The brands could not get overseas quick enough. And that's when I realized there's more to business than a bottom line. That's when we realized we wanted to be a different business.

JEFF SONIER: And for Henry's business, being different means not just made in the USA, but what he calls dirt-to-shirt, products sewn here in the Carolinas from cotton that's grown here in the Carolinas.

Yes, you know, with all the struggles that Carolina cotton mills have been through over the past couple of years, you would figure Carolina cotton farmers would be struggling, too. But, actually, it's just the opposite. In fact, the farmers say, just like this field we're standing in right now, that their business is actually growing.

BUTCH BROOKS, Cotton Farmer: Well, I think it's great. Just we're blessed to be able to grow a crop like this.

JEFF SONIER: Butch Brooks grows his cotton on a 100-year-old family farm, picking it from behind the wheel of a half-million-dollar harvester. Cotton experts say the crop itself is high-quality, which translates into high demand.

MAN: This is the cotton that textile companies want, absolutely. Textiles want this quality cotton for expensive garments, for high-quality clothing.

JEFF SONIER: Problem is, after it's cleaned and baled and bar coded for sale, most of this local cotton winds up in the same place those local jobs went, overseas.

WES MORGAN, Cotton Gin Owner: This area of North Carolina was the center of cotton in the world at one time. People wanted to be able to go to the store and buy a shirt made in the United States. Well, right now, there's almost none of that. Could we get that again? Could we have something completely made in the Carolinas?

ERIC HENRY: We just believe there's more to a T-shirt than just the cost of a T-shirt, where it's made, how it's made, the impact it has on the people, the impact it has on the planet. We grow cotton here. We can make apparel here.

JEFF SONIER: In fact, the homegrown, home-sewn shirts here at Henry's factory even have special color-coded threads in the hem and the sleeves, so you can track back your shirt to the very beginning.

ERIC HENRY: If you take those two colors, and go to a Web site, Where — W-H-E-R-E — yourclothing.com, you put in these two colors, a map pops up, and from that map, I will introduce you to the farmer, the ginner, the spinner, the knitter, the finisher, the cut-sew, and T.S. designs.

We make our supply chain completely transparent all the way back to the farmer.

JEFF SONIER: Henry admits his dirt-to-shirt concept isn't all that different from those popular farm-to-fork restaurants, and that's no coincidence.

ERIC HENRY: Offering people alternatives if they're looking for something how they can support their community and have a better product, and know where it comes from.

We have had great cotton in this state for a long time. And all we're doing is reconnecting that cotton to jobs and textiles back in our state.

JEFF SONIER: With a goal of not putting the cheap overseas shirt-makers out of business, but maybe growing and sewing a whole new business.

For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Jeff Sonier in Stanly County, North Carolina.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what a promising story.

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