Farm-to-Fashion: Boutique Textiles Find a Home in Chapel Hill
Brilliant You Denim
Sewing machines rattle and hum as Terry Davis overlooks the new Brilliant You office in Chapel Hill.
Davis, the owner and inventor of Brilliant You’s patented women’s jeans, has just expanded in the Midway Business Center out of the Launch Chapel Hill incubator
The new space has eight industry standard sewing machines and Davis oversees the production of each pair of jeans — something she couldn’t do if her jeans were sewn in China.
“I’m an engineer with a very high quality type of production background, so my quality standard for the jeans is really high,” Davis said. “I decided you know what, I’m gonna have to do it myself.”
One hundred years ago, textiles dominated North Carolina’s economy. Big mills and mill villages sprung up across the Piedmont. Many of those mills shuttered, and those jobs are gone. To adapt, North Carolina’s textile roots have grown a new, “farm-to-fashion” enterprise of boutique companies, while large-scale textile producers have adapted to the burgeoning high-tech manufacturing needs of the state.
“We’ve got the heritage of the textile industry, a great higher-education system, and access to raw materials,” said Kate Annett-Hitchcock, associate professor in the College of Textiles at North Carolina State University.
Lead sewer Piper Honigmann working on a pair of jeans at Brilliant You.
Technology and Textiles
Despite headline-grabbing job losses in the last 20 years, North Carolina still has the largest textile mill industry in the country with more than 42,000 people in the workforce and more than 700 textile manufacturing establishments.
North Carolina, and more specifically the Triangle, is also home to many cutting-edge tech companies. These two seemingly separate industries have an interwoven relationship when it comes to production in North Carolina.
“Most large-scale industrial equipment needs a textile component at some point,” said Kate Annett-Hitchcock.
The Triangle region provides technology manufacturers with convenient access to textile production and experts in the field of nonwoven textiles.
Textile companies such as Cotton Incorporated work right next to Human Solutions, a tech company designing body-scanners in Cary, North Carolina. “Who would’ve thought they’d be in the same town, but it's because of the need for textiles,”Annett-Hitchcock said. “There is this really neat conference of the old-school manufacturing and design of textiles coupled with the high-tech stuff that this area is known for.”.
While large-scale textile production has shifted toward the production of things such as brake pads and air filters, smaller shops are having success selling boutique denim and apparel, according to Annett-Hitchcock.
Raleigh Denim is an example of a locally-sourced boutique textile and apparel shop that has laid the groundwork for the growth of such shops in the Triangle.
“There is a movement now called farm-to-fashion,” Annett-Hitchcock said. “Just as craft beer has sprung up, there is a lot of artisanal fashion that has come about.”
Online marketplace Etsy has been instrumental in the decentralization of fashion and helping to create new fashion centers in cities other than New York or Los Angeles, according to Annett-Hitchcock.
Farm-to-fashion shops, like Raleigh Denim or Brilliant You, use locally sourced raw materials and have invigorated the fashion industry in the Triangle. “There is this great entrepreneurial spirit to this state that I haven’t seen elsewhere,” said Annett-Hitchcock.
Honigmann sewing fabric in the new Brilliant You office space.
When it comes to women’s jeans, former electrical engineer Terry Davis has a high standard for quality.
She started Brilliant You in Seattle in 2012; however, when it came time to set up a production facility, Davis decided to move operations to Chapel Hill.
“The cost of setting up production in North Carolina was way less than Seattle,” Davis said. “Plus, we get our denim local from Greensboro and that denim is very expensive to ship across the country because it’s so heavy.”
With assistance from Launch Chapel Hill, Davis was able to set up her production facility in the Midway Business Center in Chapel Hill.
“We have found Chapel Hill to be extremely small business centric,” said Davis.
With her background in engineering, Davis sees her work as solving an age-old problem: jeans that fit.
“If we think about the original purpose of Levi’s jeans, they were a male’s working pants,” Davis said. “Looking at it from a woman’s standpoint, men’s and women’s bodies are shaped very differently.”
Davis’ idea for her jeans came from changes in her own body. She saw women like herself struggling to find jeans that could stretch and conform to a woman's body and where women tend to gain weight. Davis’ jeans use a patented technology that is incorporated into the jean’s seams to allow them to better conform to the wearer’s body.
“One of the hardest things for a women to find is a good fitting pair of jeans,” Davis said.“Since Levi, the industry has been trying to evolve the jean into an item that women can wear and they’ve done it by introducing denim that stretches more or adding elastic waistbands, but this is the very first time that a totally new technological approach has been introduced to the industry.”
Honigman lining up fabric to sew.