Skillfully Southern: Red Land Cotton
Bed, Bath and Family Bond
written by CARL DANBURY | photography courtesy of RED LAND COTTON
VISIONS OF COTTON SHEETS ON A CLOTHESLINE GENTLY BILLOWING IN THE BREEZE on a warm spring afternoon are imbedded in the minds of many of us born prior to 1980. The smell and the feel of them once they were laid upon your bed were as comfortable as a grandmother’s hug. Back in the day, those linens were produced in textile mills all over the Southeast using cotton that was grown and ginned nearby. But many of those mills closed when business owners went looking for more competitive solutions elsewhere, such as Mexico, India and Indonesia. Like some other manufacturing industries, the number of textile jobs lost from 1994 to 2016 in four of the top five textile producing states in the U.S. (Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina) was 242,846, according to the Congressional Research Service and the U.S. Department of Labor.
Yet, research shows that American consumers appreciate American made products, and Mark Yeager and his daughter Anna Brakefield are attempting to capitalize on an even narrower market. Their company, Red Land Cotton in Moulton, Ala., produces pillowcases, duvet covers, shams, two-ply bath towels, dishtowels and decorative pillows with sassy or clever Southern sayings. All are manufactured using the cotton grown on Yeager’s Red Land Farms and ginned at Yeager Gin Co. Bales are then sent to Graniteville, S.C., where the cotton is spun into yarn. The yarn is then transported to Gaffney, S.C., where it is woven into greige cloth. The greige cloth is then shipped to Flintstone, Ga., near Fort Oglethorpe, where it is finished and then put up for cut and sew. The finished fabric is delivered to the cut-and-sew facility, DWP Contract Cut and Sew in Moulton, where it is cut, sewn and packaged.
As for the towels, the Red Land cotton goes from Moulton to Graniteville where it is spun into yarn, and then to 1888 Mills in Griffin, Ga., where the yarn is woven, finished, and cut and sewn into towels. The towels are the only American-made, two-ply bath towels on the market.
Spinning a Yarn
Yeager has been sustainably farming about 5,500 acres of cotton in the red soil of Lawrence County, Alabama since 1983. He founded Red Land Farms four years later, and then began operating his own cotton gin in 1994, which helped him maintain strict control over the quality of the cotton fibers he produces. His cotton is grown in the shadow of Bankhead National Forest near Moulton.
In mid-2015, Yeager posted a video of an employee loading bales of cotton with a fork lift on Instagram, and his sister, June Martin, who lives in Dallas, Texas, commented that she’d like to have some sheets made from that Alabama cotton. Not one to miss out on a business suggestion, Yeager began bandying the idea with his wife, three children, church group and others.
“I had the idea in the middle of 2015, and by the spring of 2016, we were committed to the project,” Yeager said.
The sheets used as a model for the first Red Land offerings were discovered after his Methodist Sunday School class, according to Yeager. “We reached out to friends asking them if they had any old linens that we could try, and to take them to somebody to cut up and have them analyzed,” Yeager said.
Daphne and Bob Sittason found a set of sheets that had been made for Bob’s great, great grandmother, Madeline Gray in the 1920s. The sheets had been laundered countless times and were still holding up. A sample was cut from the flat sheet and sent to Cotton, Inc. in Cary, N.C., where it was carefully reverse engineered to provide Red Land with the original formula of how those sheets were produced. Red Land named its lace-trimmed sheets and pillowcases as a tribute to Madeline Gray. By October 2016, the first Red Land Cotton heirloom-inspired sheets were manufactured and shipped.
Weaving a Future
The response from the local community and consumers fueled the business during the first holiday shopping season.
“We were really surprised by the response from everyone at Christmas time last year. We were brand new, we had just begun shipping our sheets in October and we had a great Christmas season,” Brakefield said. “Once January and February hit, we were starting to understand what it feels like not to be in a holiday season, but this first year of fully being in business and selling and shipping product has really gone well. I fully believe we have seen sales growth every month.”
Brakefield, an accomplished graphic designer, advertising professional and Auburn University graduate left her job in Nashville and moved home to help her father with sales, design, marketing, publicity, fulfillment and more. Red Land is sowing seeds online and via social media, and word is spreading about the family’s 100 percent Southern brand.
“The fact that these products are all homegrown and made in the South particularly speaks to the Southern consumer,” Brakefield said. “But, it also hits on our area’s rich textile history and utilizing those resources that have been decimated. That is a major point. It’s cotton grown in the South, and people appreciate all of the assets we still have in the South to create beautiful and well-made textiles. I think that’s a reason why people will want to shop with us. But beyond that, the feeling of our fabrics, the fact that we weren’t going to settle for anything that you could buy in a department store, that we took an old bed sheet, had it reverse engineered, and worked with textile engineers to recreate the old 1920s weave from these sheets. Attention to detail is important to our consumer.”
Red Land sheets use a thicker yarn than what is traditionally used in sheeting, and the fabric is not finished with harmful formaldehyde resins. They also sell fitted sheets, flat sheets and pillowcases separately, which allows consumers complete flexibility in how they choose to make their bed.
“If a person is obsessed with really high thread counts, they are probably not going to be interested in our sheets,” Yeager said. “But, if you look at the reviews, the people who have bought them have absolutely loved them. They breathe well and they are substantial. I guarantee you a set of our king-size sheets outweighs anybody’s sheets. But, that doesn’t mean they are cumbersome on your body or hot. The air flows well through them. It is just like those you would have found in your grandma’s house in the mid-’60s.”
Red Land Cotton is focused upon providing its customers with more color options in the future, but Brakefield said it is important to keep doing what it has done right before worrying about further expansion and growth. The company doesn’t rely heavily upon the wholesale side of the business and prefers its consumer-direct sales model both online and at their shop at the corner of Lawrence and Main streets in Moulton.
“It was a big deal to be able to launch our towels. It is completely different; a different supply chain and process that we had to put together. Looking ahead into 2018, we already have some ideas about a few new things to add into the line, but there is something to be said for not growing so fast that you outgrow your capabilities and your customers,” Brakefield said.
Sowing Seeds of Appreciation
After graduating from Auburn, Brakefield pursued a career in New York and Nashville before returning to Moulton.
“I spent a great deal of my early childhood and onward focused on getting out of Moulton. I have come back with more skills and things to offer. My journeys outside of Moulton were beneficial. There is something to be said about a small town community, and a community that respects agriculture,” she said. “There also are a lot of great things to be said for the cultural richness that happens in a big city, but small towns and cities are what keeps America going. I probably could not have had a newfound respect for Moulton had I not experienced other things,” Brakefield said.
Moulton has taken ownership in supporting the new business.
“We had our grand opening on the square with our new storefront. The community really came out. There is a good deal of happiness for new industry in the town and that is uplifting,” Brakefield continued. “We started working in December 2016 with a small group of women here in our hometown to cut and sew our sheets. That has been amazing, and I think it has been a blessing to both parties. Recently, I think they have hired three new people and with the addition of our new storefront we have been able to add two new people to our group. Slowly but surely we have been able to have a positive impact on the feeling that something is happening in downtown and that it’s a good thing.”