Smartwool’s Textile Recycling Partner Gets $10 Million Grant for Expansion

The Industrial Commons of Morganton, N.C. landed a $10 million grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC). The circularity-focused 501c3, which runs Smartwool’s textile recycling partner Material Return, will use the funds to break ground on a new campus devoted to manufacturing activities in Western North Carolina.

The first building will be one of four on the 30-acre project which will be financed by the Appalachian Regional Initiative for Stronger Economies (ARISE).

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The first phase of what is being called the Innovation Campus will occupy 3-4 acres and will be devoted to training, administration and some manufacturing, according to Molly Hemstreet, executive co-chairman of The Industrial Commons. It will also serve as an incubator space for startups and scaling brands to work in the spreading circular economy. The green design was executed by a nearby firm, Mithūn, named Architects of the Year 2023 by the local chapter of the Architects Institute of America. The tract to be developed is located on a brownfield, the site of a former Drexel furniture factory, that is slated for remediation. Work is set to start in 2025 but some of the massive clean-up has already begun.

Once completed, the building will employ 85 people in all three capacities, and will be a hub for the emerging textile circular economy in which The Industrial Commons is making its name. Material Return is a recycling initiative that recycles textiles and makes yarns, fiberfill, non-woven products from post-consumer and post-industrial textile waste from across the Southeastern U.S. It also does custom order yarns and other products for clients made from their own textile waste.

Over the past two to three years, Material Return has saved about 3 million pounds of mechanically recycled textiles from the landfill, according to Hemstreet. Most of those are poly-cotton blends, and are carefully tracked and documented through the production process for fiber content and how much is being kept in circularity.

Several years ago Hemstreet founded Opportunity Threads, but not as part of The Industrial Commons which is considered an “economic engine” in this part of Western North Carolina. The Opportunity Threads initiative is a worker-owned cut-and-sew B Corp focused on upcycled and sustainable small-batch production for entrepreneurs and mid-sized companies, with minimums around 250. Among many others, lines include men’s luxury boxers by Thomas Hill, women’s T-shirts, and bralettes and underwear by Lake Jane.

The Industrial Commons aims to generate more of these kinds of creative companies on the new campus. It will offer extensive support programs so entrepreneurs can learn from the ground up how to build a business and provide an enduring economic infrastructure in the regions. There will be financial support in the form of loans, instruction on bookkeeping, human resources and financial training, sourcing and skills training in fields like industrial sewing and furniture upholstery. Opportunity Threads also provided the foundation for the Carolina Textile District, an organization that further assists creative people in setting up successful businesses. It is a member-managed and member-driven organization serving North and South Carolina that hosts workshops and instructional sessions that provide contacts and resources to foster growth in participating fledgling companies. Many staffers are of Guatemalan heritage.

“This project speaks to true community collaboration,” said Hemstreet, referring to the new campus. “We look forward to it being a transformational space for the Appalachian region and the innovative work we do in the textile and furniture sectors.”

The $10 million grant is the largest non-highway construction grant ever awarded by ARC. The total fundraising goal for phase 1 of the Innovation Campus is $45.6 million for the development of 10 acres and the Accelerator Building. The plan is to develop the remaining acreage with the three additional buildings over the next five to 10 years. With ARC’s investment, The Industrial Commons has raised a little over $23 million and has a balance of approximately $22 million in additional funds to raise.

The Industrial Commons’ expansion will bring the organization’s reach into nearby parts of Tennessee and South Carolina, giving entrepreneurs and more mature ventures access to resources in sustainable manufacturing.

Additional reporting by Jessica Binns.