Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the American textile industry packed its bags and left for cheaper-labor countries like China, India and Brazil, with about 99% of U.S. textile manufacturing–and about 900,000 jobs with it–migrating to other shores.
Mark Yeager didn’t let those harsh realities slow him down any, though. Since 1983, when he went from working on his family’s small farm in north Alabama to owning it, he’s also added the jobs of cotton gin owner and linens manufacturer to his resume. It’s that last title that really flies in the face of industry trends. Yeager had the idea of making bedsheets with the high-quality cotton from his own farm in 2015, founding Red Land Cotton and making his first products just before Christmas the following year. Red Land has seen 20% year-on-year growth since then, accelerating to between 30% and 40% in the past several years. The company, which now makes not just bedsheets but quilts, duvets (covers), bath towels and loungewear, had $11 million in sales in the past year, increasing its employee base by 25%–representing 45 jobs–in that time as well. It’s still a small company, but it’s growing fast.
There’s a lot of family history behind those details. “My Dad was raised on a very small cotton farm in southern Tennessee, about 80 miles from where we are now,” said Yeager. “He went into the Navy in 1938 and served in WWII. He got into electronics in the Navy and after he got out, started his own business in Huntsville. He bought a farm nearby and invested in a lot of farmland over the years.”
As a third-generation farmer, cotton was in Yeager’s blood. “I made my first cotton crop in 1980, a very small one,” he said. After taking over the family farm in 1983, he continued to grow the operation. “By 1987, I was farming about 1,000 acres. Realizing that our soil was our greatest asset, I bought more land and leased even more land. Then in 1994 I built my own cotton gin.”
A cotton gin is a group of machines that cleans and separates the cottonseeds from the fibers. Yeager built his own cotton gin to give himself a complete and unsurpassed level of quality control over his product. “My dad was an eccentric kind of person, always looking for a different way to do things,” he said. “My move was to cut out the extra person. I was just 35 and thought I could do whatever I wanted to do.”
“That desire to cut out the middleman fed directly into Red Land Cotton,” added Anna Brakefield, Yeager’s daughter and Red Land Cotton’s co-founder.
“Anna had gotten her college degree at Auburn and moved up to New York City, which I did not like,” said Yeager. “But by 2015, when I had my idea to make bedsheets from our cotton, she had moved back to Nashville. The timing worked out great.” The two made a series of trips to North Carolina to work with Cotton Incorporated, a non-profit that assists companies with business basics like product development, marketing and innovation, and launched the business in 2016. They hired a retired textile expert, Jack Miller, from Greenville, South Carolina, to help, and he still works for them today.
Red Land Cotton products are made entirely from cotton grown on the family farm and processed through the company’s cotton gin. The entire cotton farm is rain fed, so the soil has to be able to hold up during dry spells to make premium cotton.
Brakefield and Yeager have developed a 100% U.S.-based supply chain to spin and weave the cotton and have established their own cut and sew operation in Tylertown, Mississippi. “That was a move to bring even more of our process under our control,” explained Brakefield. “We have a mill owned by Parkdale Mills in Hillsville, Virginia, doing our spinning, while our weaving is done by Milliken and Hamrick Mills in South Carolina. We embrace the rich textile tradition that spans decades and generations in the Southern United States. When we expand to produce a new product we’ve come up with, we go out and put together a whole supply chain of the experts in their craft. We’re even working with vendors up in Maine now, which is really exciting for us!”
One big focus of the company throughout Yeager’s career has been sustainability. “I’m a good cotton farmer–I just need it to rain!” he said. “We believe in sustainability, including practices like crop rotation and cover crops so as to have as minimal impact on the surrounding environment while producing as unrivaled a crop as possible. I have two sons, and I hope they’ll continue with that work.”
Red Land Cotton has had its challenges along the way. “In 2018 or 2019, one of the big weaving mills went out of business,” said Brakefield. “That has a big effect on a small business like ours. 2020 was a huge challenge–the supply chain was fragile even before Covid came along. However, we pivoted and overcame what could have been devastating to our business–we were one of the first to make masks for our Alabama hospitals. We did what we could to stay afloat and give back to the state of Alabama. Having a direct-to-consumer business allowed us to quickly move to make masks and provide to health care workers and our general audience. This kept our team working continuously.”
“Labor can be a challenge, too,” said Yeager. ” We are expanding and therefore continually looking for new, engaged and talented workers.”
“Skilled labor in particular,” added Brakefield. “We consistently look at ways to keep our team of skilled workers for the long haul, and it’s a challenge we believe we will face for several years.”
Still, the two co-founders are bullish about the future. “We’re seeing continued sustained growth,” Brakefield said. “We’re excited to be continuing to design and develop new products, and working with new American contractors for our operations.”
“Offering a Made-in-America product is a big deal,” added Yeager. “It’s mentioned in at least a third of our customer reviews on Facebook that they’ve bought because we’re made here in the U.S.A. People really appreciate what we are pursuing with our supply chain and business model.”
“It’s what our customers are looking for,” added Brakefield. “We introduced a loungewear collection last year, along with our new mobile app to reach the younger generations, like my own. They are less interested in home products at this stage of life, and more interested in apparel, so our loungewear is an opportunity. They have a common desire to know where their products come from, where their meat comes from and where their clothes come from. Most people have never been in a textile mill, and even fewer have been on a cotton farm, which is why we share so much of our manufacturing processes and our farming processes on social media and online. It allows them to experience the process firsthand, which is exciting!”
They’re plenty ready for a lot more growth. “I usually grow about 7,000 bales of cotton a year,” Yeager said. “We get about 70 sheets per bale, so we could grow to $84 million in sales just on what we grow today.”
“If you look at all that the U.S. grows, we export about 95% of it,” Brakefield added. “So there’s a lot more we can do here. The resources are here. “