As a cotton farmer, Atwood "At" McIntosh had a concern: It was next to impossible to find cotton clothes he knew to be definitively U.S. grown and made. He's set out to fix that problem.
In 2014, McIntosh’s idea to make polo shirts from the cotton he grows on his farm in Williamsburg County, SC, became a reality when he launched his cotton shirt business Homegrown Cotton. He wanted to make sure the entire process was as local as possible, from the time his cotton left the gin to the finished product.
In 2012, McIntosh toured Cotton Incorporated’s research center in Cary, N.C. and became interested in what happens to his cotton when it leaves the gin. This sparked the interest in trying to develop a finished product with his cotton.
“People are big on local food,” the eighth generation farmer says. “They want to see exactly where it is grown and where it comes from. I thought the same would work for cotton shirts. . I wanted to turn to local industries to make the shirts, not have the shirts travel halfway around the world to be woven, dyed and sewn."
So last year, when the cotton harvest was complete, McIntosh went to his gin and selected his highest quality bales that could be made into high-end, high quality men’s polo shirts.
After the cotton is ginned at Tri-County Gin in Salters, the lint is spun into yarn at Hill Spinning in Thomasville, N.C. The yarn is then knitted at White Plains Knit Fabrics in Jefferson and the fabric is dyed at South Fork in Lincolnton, N.C. The shirts are then cut, sewn and embroidered at Craig Industries in Lamar.
“I wanted to keep it all as local as possible to create local jobs and make a local product every step of the way,” McIntosh says.
A number of South Carolina retailers sell his shirts and McIntosh gains a number of sales from his website, www.homegrowncotton.com. “I ship shirts all over the country. A lot of people from South Carolina who have moved away order shirts so they can have a piece of home,” he says.
Upland cotton catching up with pima in quality
Social media is important for marketing, and Homegrown Cotton has 6,500 “Likes” on Facebook in four months, McIntosh says. He also plans to advertise in statewide magazines to promote his locally grown and made cotton shirts. “The idea is to promote a locally made, high quality farm product,” he says.
Last year, McIntosh used the variety DP 1321 for his cotton shirts. This year, he planted DP 1555 specifically for the shirts. “Upland varieties really are catching up with pima varieties in terms of quality. They have come a long way in terms of quality which you need to make high quality shirts,” he notes.The shirts come in light green, light blue, black and natural, which is not dyed and does not go through a bleaching process.
“For the shirts, you farm your cotton a little differently. You focus on fiber quality first, over yield. Staple length is the main factor spinning mills are looking for and micronaire is important too,” he adds. “The large clothing manufacturers shoot for a standard product. They take good quality cotton and blend it with lower quality cotton whereas I’m trying to use only the best quality cotton I can produce.”
Through it all, McIntosh’s MBA from Francis Marion University in Florence came in handy. He came up with a business plan to find a way to profitably market his shirts. With the help of a former marketing professor, he came up with the name “Homegrown Cotton” and the unique logo that adorns his shirts.
“I thought about using a tree or a bird or a fish on the shirt, but she said that has nothing to do with cotton. She helped me realize that cotton had to be in the logo and it had to be in the name. We went over hundreds of names before we decided on that simple sounding name, Homegrown Cotton,” McIntosh said,
For his shirts, McIntosh came up with a unique, eye catching logo that shows a boll of cotton with an outline of the state of South Carolina to represent where the cotton comes from and where the shirt is made. “This makes it different and unique,” he says.
The shirts come in black, light blue, light green and natural. Natural is not dyed and does not go through a bleaching process which gives the shirt a unique look. McIntosh is now adding more colors, including Clemson orange and Carolina garnet, white and coral. “I’m also adding an XXL size. There have been a lot of requests for that,” he says.
McIntosh plans to add a cotton t-shirt line with his logo and maybe some women's shirts as well.
McIntosh says he is growing his business "one step at a time." He is focusing on the local markets first before expanding out further. Farming is still job #1 for McIntosh with his shirt business as a sideline business. McIntosh also is a commercial pilot.
McIntosh uses the Seal of Cotton on the label and Cotton Incorporated helped him design the tag and provided technical help in making his cotton shirts. His shirts are Certified SC Grown by the South Carolina Department of Agriculture and are the only cotton products that have that certification.
McIntosh is pleased with the progress his new business has made and credits the support of family and friends for making it all possible. “It all turned out better than I expected. I am pleased with the quality of the shirts and I have had nothing but compliments on them.
To learn more, log on to www.homegrowncotton.com.