Rooted in Agriculture, Western Carolina Crosses Industries For Success

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Sewing Field, digital collage,  2010, Libby O’Bryan

Western North Carolina is steeped in agricultural-based manufacturing – food, textiles, furniture. The very industries that are key to our survival – food, clothing, shelter – are presently learning from each other and adopting a “crafted production” model with support from the Carolina Textile District.

I’m a fashion designer and artist by training. Currently I operate Sew Co., a small-scale product development and industrial manufacturing company focused on design, quality, and enjoyable labor. My husband is an architect; our friends are graphic designers, photographers, chefs, writers, computer programmers, builders, accountants, therapists, educators . . . .and the list goes on. The one thing we all share is a desire to do meaningful work. Our work defines us. We blur the lines between on and off the clock. Sharing who we are and what we do, we exchange skills, strategies and discoveries that collectively elevate us.

Recently, I have expanded my community by joining the Carolina Textile District (CTD). Much like my friend-base, this network of “partners” consists of manufacturers and producers within ‘heritage industries’ that see collaboration, rather than competition, as a model for sustaining client demand.

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Edith Halford, 40+ year veteran of the sewing industry.  Photo by Todd Crawford.

Molly Hemstreet, one of the CTD’s founders and executive director of Opportunity Threads, a worker-owned cut and sew manufacturer, clearly asserts her foundational premise for the coalition, “Our region and community are better when we all share best practices – from how we run our operations, to how we train employees, to how we build out fair labor practices.”

Molly and I met as we were simultaneously launching our sewing companies. With a shared value set, but slightly different visions for our businesses, we instantly became friends engaged in coopetition: collaboration between business competitors, in the hope of mutually beneficial results. Hemstreet looks to the furniture industry as a model for revenue diversification in the textile sector, specifically how they have built in-house brands as well as offer contract production and perform custom work. Many textile companies institute temporary lay-offs during slow periods, which give employee’s little security and low morale. Our common goal is to avoid these layoffs in our factories. Our hesitation is the sales and marketing investment needed.

But, as consumers become more concerned about where products come from, how long they will last and how they can be customized, businesses across all sectors are learning from each other how to harness this modern demand and market it. Our furniture industry looks to the food industry for sales and marketing models.

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Lang Hornthal has founded Root Cause, a regional initiative to raise awareness of the local forest products industry among responsible consumers. Hornthal credits the local food movement as inspiration: “We have learned a lot from the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project in Asheville which has done an excellent job of telling the story of family farms and land preservation while branding local food and agriculture. Western Carolina’s furniture industry is proudly sharing our state’s ‘cradle of forestry’ lineage in order to educate our consumers that in turn influence the management of our precious land which supports our community’s economy.”

The conscious consumer demand will soon move beyond the maker markets and become a force to be reckoned with. Our foundational industries sit deep in the roots of American craft heritage giving us a prime platform to shift to a place of scalable craftsmanship and mass-customization. The CTD has developed a “crafted production” model.

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“Crafted Production is characterized by smaller production runs, shorter turnaround time, customized products, and the use of direct-to-consumer distribution methods. Many clients, especially the successful ones who come back around for repeat orders, incorporate triple bottom line principles into their business. They are socially and environmentally conscious. Many are looking for sustainable and organic materials or want to establish a local supply chain that reduces their company’s carbon footprint. Often these companies are social enterprises, meaning their business model is based on improving the well-being of others.

Some might think “crafted production” is an oxymoron, but my subversive mind thinks its the perfect solution to our domestic manufacturing woes. These agricultural-based industries have moved beyond providing products just for survival, but into creative enterprises. Not unlike the Bauhaus movement, I believe it is the innovative, inter-disciplinary, collaborative spirit in these here hills that will allow our region to evolve and remain a strong industrial manufacturing center, appropriate to a new standard of cultural values, and maybe it’s even replicable.

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