TS Designs in Burlington prints and dyes teeshirts made from cotton grown, ginned, spun, and sewn into shirts in North Carolina. On a tour of their facility, you’ll hear about the triple-bottom-line they use to measure success: People, Planet, and Profits. You’ll see everything from chickens, bees, and an organic garden for employees, to a toilet that flushes with the condensation from the AC and ice machines, to solar panels and a windmill. And you’ll learn about Cotton of the Carolinas, the program that works “from dirt to shirt” to create a totally local tee as well as 700 jobs in North Carolina.
Founded in 1977, TS Designs quickly grew to over 100 employees, printing shirts for big brands like Nike and Polo. After the 1993 implementation of NAFTA, however, those brands took their business to Mexico for its lower labor cost. Rather than give up, CEO Tom Sineath, President Eric Henry, and co-owner Sam Moore decided to continue with the new triple-bottom-line business model. Now with over a dozen employees, considering the triple-bottom-line with every decision they make is ingrained in their system.
Most screen-printers use “plastisol” inks that sit on top of the shirt and over time peel away. These inks contain PVC and phthalates that have negative environmental and health effects and leech into the wastewater stream after multiple washes. TS Designs uses special water-based inks that are within the shirt, not resting on top, meaning they never crack or wash out and can be ironed. Their “Rehance” process allows them to print on dark shirts; the design is printed on white tees that are dyed after printing.
TS Designs sells several types of teeshirt: the Cotton of the Carolinas shirt made with North Carolina cotton, shirts made in the US with organic cotton from overseas or from other states, and several made by other companies, including one made with recycled soda bottles. In 2011, the first field of certified organic cotton was planted in North Carolina, in Nash County. The farmers harvested enough cotton to make 5000 tee-shirts; Weaver Street Market signed up to buy half of them. As of 2015, our tee-shirts are still printed on organic Cotton of the Carolinas. The organic NC cotton program, however, is on hold; after several years of attempts, they decided that growing organic cotton in NC is not viable (for now).
North Carolina is the third largest grower of cotton, but most of it we ship overseas to gin and spin, even if it is shipped back to the United States to be sewn into tee-shirts. By processing the cotton in our state, Cotton of the Carolinas impacts 700 North Carolina jobs and helps the sustainable local agriculture movement, as well as reducing the transportation footprint of the final product to 900 miles (compared to 17,000 miles for a tee that involves China).
Read more about TS Designs on their website, tsdesigns.com. TS Designs gives tours on the tenth of each month, and you can stop by on other days to browse the $5 bins of extra tees. They also offer an annual Cotton Harvest tour (photos here). There’s even free coffee in the morning! Watch a video of our visit below.