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DeFeet is North Carolina’s Small Business of the Year. See why the company’s innovative owner remains committed to Burke County


Spotlight on Industry: Textiles

The textile industry has changed tremendously from what it was in our region nearly 100 years ago when mill towns dotted the Western North Carolina landscape. More recently, in the past 20 to 30 years, both increased technology and overseas competition have caused thousands of textile employees to lose their jobs.

Despite the changes, many textile manufacturers right here in Burke County are remaining relevant and successful due to innovative production models and the creation of groundbreaking niche products. Both DeFeet International and Opportunity Threads are good examples of how textile companies are thriving in today’s global economy because their leaders are thinking outside the box.

As the textile industry moved south from New England in the early 1900s, mill towns were formed in rural areas throughout North Carolina. Due to low wages everyone in the family usually worked in the mill, including children. The factories were large and employed hundreds of people. The mill was the center of town life and the towns did not develop other economic functions. Often the mill owner also owned the houses where employees lived and operated the general store where they shopped.

One textile company in Morganton, Opportunity Threads, has taken the old traditional model used for textile facilities and has flipped it backwards. The mill towns of the early 1900s had an established hierarchy, where the mill owner provided housing and supplies for workers in exchange for long hours of tedious work. At Opportunity Threads the workers meet weekly to make decisions for the plant, both in business matters and operating procedures; and employees are also given the opportunity to become owners of the company. This demonstrates how drastically the industry has changed and how different business models for textile operations can succeed in today’s economy.

With support from Maggie’s Functional Organics and the Center for Participatory Change, Opportunity Threads began operations in late 2008. Through the perseverance of the workers and organizers the business has grown from one sewing machine and one client to over 17 clients from across the United States. All of Opportunity Threads’ clients have some type of environmental focus and most are working with organic materials. The company has been a phoenix rising from the ashes, with almost all of its equipment being refurbished and reclaimed from local mills that were shut down.

Molly Hemstreet, a native of Morganton, was the original organizer of Opportunity Threads and now serves as Project Manager, working directly with clients and overseeing daily plant operations. In just the past year the company has grown from three full time and two part time employees to eight full time and one part time employee. While still small by most definitions, Hemstreet finds that being small and nimble contributes to their ongoing success and their long term plan to start other worker-owned businesses in the manufacturing sector.

“We work with entrepreneurs and since we are small and nimble we can accommodate lower minimums and new designs,” said Hemstreet, who volunteered her time for two years to help start Opportunity Threads. “Because our company is structured as an employee-owned company the employees are the beneficiaries of our success. We share in the struggles and we share in the earnings.”

At DeFeet International Shane Cooper, President and self-proclaimed Chief Sockologist, has also found success by taking the path less traveled. Through the production of niche products he has not only built a prosperous company but has become one of the top athletic sock companies in the world. DeFeet was chosen as the sock provider for President Bush’s Mountain Bike Crew and also provides socks for cyclists competing in the ‘Tour de France’.

Cooper’s first product, the Air E-Ator, was developed when he experimented with a knitting machine given to him by his father. By taking traditional knitting methods and reversing them Cooper created an athletic sock that revolutionized the industry. The innovation and out of the box thinking continued and Cooper soon produced a line of footwear made from CoolMax Eco Made, a yarn produced using recycled water bottles.

Opportunity Threads also produces many niche products, including items that are eco-friendly or made of recycled materials. The cut and sew company currently makes lounge pants and t-shirts for a North Carolina based collegiate apparel company, hand-made sock monkeys for a company from Massachusetts, and custom purses for an entrepreneur from Asheville.

“Many of our products are niche products because we are working with companies and entrepreneurs who are bringing their products into the marketplace for the first time,” explained Hemstreet. “Many people want to use a facility where they know the people that are making their products and feel that they are contributing to helping families and communities build businesses that are sustainable.”

As these companies have embraced new and innovative approaches, the Burke County community has embraced their work and helped to build their success.

“We have always been based in Burke County and our vision would not be possible without the thoughtful work of those that have helped us,” said Hemstreet. “We are deeply appreciative of the support we have received from Burke Development, Inc. (BDI), the Valdese Economic Development Investment Corporation (VEDIC), Manufacturing Solutions Center (MSC), Opportunity Thread’s Advisory Committee, and the Self Development of People Fund (SDOP) through our local Presbyterian Church.”

BDI Project Manager Misti Humphries is proud to be involved with organizations like DeFeet and Opportunity Threads. “These companies are setting the pace for the future of textile manufacturers. It is very rewarding to walk through these plants and see creative, innovative products that are in demand across the US being made right here in Burke County.”