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Material Guy: Carpenter’s Textile Turns

By Jenny Callison, posted Jul 28, 2017
Guy Carpenter, who has spent most of his career working with fabrics, is shown at The Cotton Exchange with some of the textile samples he’s collected from around the world. (Photo by Chris Brehmer)
The threads of Guy Carpenter’s career have, quite literally, been woven into fabric. When he was young, Carpenter – the founder and owner of Cape Fear Apparel in Wilmington – knew only that he didn’t want to have anything to do with cotton or the textile industry. After all, his father had spent his childhood as the son of a cotton sharecropper and had few good things to say about the crop or the life.

So Carpenter headed off to College of Charleston, where he majored in political science. He then spent two-and-a-half years with the Peace Corps, teaching English in Niger. The next step was a stint in the Army and then graduate school.

Somehow, though, the road led back to textiles. Carpenter became a private label manufacturer, managing businesses that created other companies’ clothing.

“I’ve been part of and run companies with as many as 3,000 employees that produced as many as 1 million T-shirts a week,” he said. “I worked in Hungary and Romania after the [Iron Curtain] came down.”

In the 1990s, Nike came to Carpenter with a request: to make a T-shirt from organic cotton.

“At that time, organic cotton was unusual and hard to find,” he said, adding that the request got him interested in the product.

“There was a problem defining organic cotton,” Carpenter said. “Who would decide just how much organic cotton a fabric had to contain in order to be considered organic? People would call me.”

Carpenter remembers asking himself what his father would have done.

“I admired him so much for being clear about things,” he said. “Eventually, the USDA did decide that [fabrics] had to be 100 percent organic or they were not organic at all.”

While clear definitions helped some farmers and producers self-regulate, it also led to more industry regulation.

Carpenter wonders, however, if perhaps the industry has too many rules. In his work in developing countries, he is concerned about whether a farmer ever sees additional revenue from the buyer to offset the cost of having his small farm certified organic or fair trade.

Despite obstacles of cost and complications of supply chain – with cotton from one continent often shipped to another for processing and to still another for garment finishing – organic cotton is a huge industry now, Carpenter said.

His involvement in the nascent organic cotton industry also got Carpenter interested in the use of hemp in fabrics. But there was a problem. While organic cotton was rapidly gaining in popularity and more farmers were cultivating it and more plants were processing it, textile hemp was scarce. The only source of processed hemp for fabric, Carpenter said, was China.

“There was no process manufacturing [of hemp] into fiber for industrial textiles in the U.S. because nobody had been growing it [here],” he said.

Carpenter found a partner in China, with whom he worked for five years.

“Hemp can’t replace cotton; it never will. It’s stiff and heavy but can be cottonized, made soft so it can be blended with other fibers and add value to them,” he said, pointing out that while hemp is most commonly blended with cotton, it can be woven into wool, silk or even polyester.

“Armani has been using hemp for the last 20 years in tuxes and suits but not in its exports,” Carpenter said. “The Chinese make hemp sheets that are as soft as silk.”

Working with his Chinese partner during his manufacturing days, Carpenter turned out “green” apparel for such well-known brands as Nike, Lululemon, Hudson’s Bay Company, Dillard’s and Macy’s. Small companies were also on his client roster. But then Carpenter got out of manufacturing and into sales and then into consulting. His specialty became organic and ecologically sustainable fibers and fabrics. Soon he found himself considered a go-to person in the green fabrics field and became the fiber expert for the national Organic Trade Association.

Because Carpenter was consulting with many small companies in emerging countries, he worked with them on more than just finding their raw materials and turning those materials into a saleable product. He advised also on how to engineer their factories and identify processes to make them more efficient and profitable.

While creating fabrics from organic and ecologically sustainable materials is his goal, Carpenter isn’t a purist. If a farmer can produce only so much organic cotton and sells it to a processor that combines it with non-organic material, that’s still better than having no organic cotton at all, he says.

“It’s like turning off the water when you brush your teeth. Will it solve the water problem? No, but every little bit helps.”

Now settled into Wilmington following a peripatetic life and career, Carpenter has created his company, Cape Fear Apparel, and aims to get back into private label manufacturing with an emphasis on hemp.

His efforts include helping to build a fiber hemp industry in North Carolina.

“I was named to the N.C. Industrial Hemp Commission; I’m their agribusiness expert because of my fiber background,” he said. “We’re involved in a pilot program and have successfully brought about the ability for a farmer to apply for permits to grow hemp. There are almost 200 North Carolina farmers growing hemp this season, but not all for fiber. Some are growing it for seed and some for oil.”

Even though he has established a base in Wilmington and a focus on North Carolina, Carpenter is still involved in projects around the globe.

“Lately, I have been working in West Africa and the Middle East, sometimes in Central and Western Europe and the Far East,” he said, adding that he’s trying to help build an entire textile supply chain in Africa. “We’re now building an innovation center in Nigeria focusing on the Four Fs: farm, fiber, fabric and fashion.

“I love textiles. I am passionate about fabrics.”

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