Covered in Cotton

Posted: September 1, 2021 at 10:12 am
How heeding a divine message led a Darlington couple to turn cotton into comfort

By Libby Wiersema

Soft, fluffy cotton bursts forth from the cracked cotton boll.
PHOTO BY REBECCA DUCKER

Bare, cold and crying – that’s how everyone comes into the world. In most cases, it’s nothing a good swaddling in a baby blanket can’t remedy. This first act of welcome is time-honored and instinctive, offering warmth, comfort and security in a moment of total human vulnerability. Of course, you don’t have to be an infant to appreciate the pleasures of a well-made blanket, especially when that blanket was born right here in South Carolina through a process that is both thoughtful and inspired.

The Circle is Unbroken
Covered in Cotton is a family enterprise deeply rooted in Darlington County land and tradition. From the cream of the Woodard family’s upland cotton crop, blankets, throws and towels are born. Of course, there’s a lot that happens between planting and finished product to create these handsome, yet functional creature comforts that have found favor locally and beyond. What began as a home-based, part-time enterprise in 2017 for Tracy and Ty Woodard has grown into a thriving business with its own brick-and-mortar headquarters, a smattering of employees, and an increasingly recognizable brand that won national acclaim after snagging top honors in the Garden & Gun 2019 Made in the South Awards.

And it was a well-deserved and fitting accolade. After the cotton is harvested, it undergoes a process that never takes it out of the Carolinas. The 500-mile circuit begins at the farm, where the cotton is picked, bundled into 500-lb. bales, then turned over to S.P. Coker Cotton Gin in Hartsville. It then undergoes HVI classification to determine strength, length and uniformity of fibers. The finest of the batch is curated, ginned and sent on to Hill Spinning in Thomasville, NC where it is ring-spun into a lovely, soft yarn. The strands are plied at Shuford Mills in Hickory, then transported to Blacksburg, SC where they are woven on Jacquard looms into fabric at Weave-Tec. Craig Industries in Lamar stitches the Covered in Cotton labels into place, then the finished products return home to Woodard Farms where they are folded, packaged and shipped.

“We normally harvest the cotton depending on the weather, anywhere from September to November,” said Ty. “Of that, we use less than 5% to make our products for Covered in Cotton.”

Fields of Dreams
Since 1962, the Woodard family has been farming their 4,500 acres, raising cattle and bringing forth crops of soybeans, corn, peanuts, and cotton. When it was time for the third generation to step up, Ty Woodard joined his brother and did just that, but not until he finished four years at Clemson. But farming wasn’t always a given career choice for him.

“I did toy with the idea of a career in sports medicine,” he said. “But not for too long.”

After graduation in 2007, he married his college sweetheart, Tracy, and returned home to carry on the family legacy. This required a modicum of soul-searching.

“Living on a farm wasn’t something I had envisioned for myself,” said Tracy. “My dreams were to be in a big city working in graphics communication for a big company. But I reminded myself that I didn’t want to marry a city or a job – I wanted to marry Ty. At the end of the day, he’s the one I would be coming home to and that’s what really mattered.”

Tracy opted for a job as an insurance agent and settled into the easy pace of small-town living. Married life blossomed for the couple, who had their first child, Tate, in 2012 followed three years later by twins: Tobin, a boy, and Tyson, the first girl in the family for three generations.

“Before we knew we were having twins, we asked Tate if he wanted a brother or sister,” said Tracy. “When he said ‘both!’ we thought that was so cute. Tate got what he wanted, but we were in shock.”

With the birth of the twins, Tracy and Ty had completed their family. Their focus now was on juggling babies, jobs, and a demanding home life, all of which they embraced with the wherewithal of any young couple living out the American dream. What they didn’t know was that a dream of another sort was waiting in the wings, and its influence would significantly shift the trajectory of their lives.

Tracy and Ty Woodard are committed to cultivating cotton with a cause. PHOTO BY MIKE BAKER

If You Weave It, They Will Come
One night in December 2017, an exhausted Tracy climbed into bed and sunk like a stone into slumber, unaware she was on the precipice of a dream-ordained transformation. Like a boll of cotton that ripened overnight, the tightly held notions about her life’s purpose loosened and yawned the next morning, revealing seeds of new possibility, each wrapped in a cloud of cotton sent down from the heavens.

“God woke me up from a dream, and I knew we were going to make blankets from our own cotton,” Tracy remembered. “I even had the name of the business in my head: Covered in Cotton.”

That divine edict was the genesis of a dramatic, surprising change for Tracy and Ty. From that day on, they were on a “mission to cultivate.”

“We had talked about doing new things with something we grew,” said Tracy. “That morning, there was no doubt in my mind that it would be cotton. I woke Ty up and he was just as excited as I was.”

The couple immediately set to work. Though admittedly clueless about how to begin, they smartly reached out to Clemson connections, made phone calls and asked lots of questions. Designs were drawn up and businesses in the textile industry were approached about playing a part in processing the cotton. Taking that cotton from lint to heirloom quality blankets was going to be an involved, complicated process. But armed with a solid belief that this was God’s plan, Tracy and Ty muscled forward.

“We were doing blanket operations from out of our house,” said Tracy. “We’d put the kids to bed, then get busy fulfilling orders and packaging. The next morning, we’d head to our ‘real’ jobs, come home and do it all over again.”

It wasn’t long before the couple knew they had to go bigger. Tracy made the decision to leave her insurance job and run their new business full-time. That was especially necessary after Garden & Gun shone the spotlight on Covered in Cotton, choosing it from a long list of businesses vying for the “Made in the South” title. Sales burgeoned as the business was hit by a tsunami of orders. Before they knew it, all inventory had been snapped up, leaving nothing for hopeful Christmas shoppers. Operations moved into an old hardware store in Darlington, and just last May, into a dedicated order-fulfillment center that Tracy and Ty had built at Woodard Farms where they busied themselves packaging and shipping their finished products, each bearing a distinctive pattern and named for a family member. But it’s the blankets that remained in highest demand. After all, COVID was in full swing, and aside from a cure, people only wanted one thing: comfort. And it’s the comforting nature of a warm, cozy blanket that brings this story to another pivotal episode in the lives of Tracy and Ty.

he natural beauty of Covered in Cotton blankets is produced without dyes or bleaches. PHOTO BY REBECCA DUCKER

A Blanket Ministry is Born

The year was 2015, and Tracy’s dream was still two years away, hovering patiently in the heavenly wings. She and Ty were focused on their careers and growing family. But when the twins were 3 months old, life took a jolt when their baby son, Tobin, was diagnosed with a rare, life-threatening form of bacterial meningitis. A stubbornly high fever and alarming lethargy landed him in the ER where a spinal tap confirmed the diagnosis.

“He had all the classic symptoms,” remembered Tracy. “His condition was so serious, he spent 35 days in the hospital.”

On Christmas Eve, the ailing infant underwent a double craniotomy to relieve pressure on the brain and deliver antibiotics directly to the affected tissue. There was a good chance he would lose his vision and hearing, the doctor warned. It was a frightening time for the young parents, and they welcomed the generous outpouring of love and support from friends, family, church family, and the hospital staff. Even the smallest of gestures took on great meaning for Tracy and Ty, from a Gamecock-leaning nurse providing food for them as they watched a Clemson game to Tracy awakening from a nap to find a cold bottle of Coke sitting next to her. And when a nurse named Ali proffered the gift of a soft blanket, not only did Tracy and Ty reap a soothing warmth from it, but they were unknowingly receiving the seeds of intention that would one day sprout and drive their future enterprise.

“We covered up in that blanket every night,” said Tracy. “To us, it represented the Lord covering us with his comfort and protection. The blanket was such a practical gift, but it also became a tangible reminder of the peace, joy and comfort that can be found in trying moments.”

Miraculously, Tobin made it through his critical ordeal completely unscathed. When the grateful parents finally said goodbye to the hospital and staff, the blanket went home with them along with all it symbolized. Now Tracy and Ty pay it forward by donating a blanket to children’s hospitals across the state for every 10 blankets they sell. Hundreds have been distributed in Florence, Columbia, Greenville and Charleston, providing comfort to worried parents. And it all came about because Tracy and Ty recognized a dream as a mandate to use their personal nightmare to reach out to parents facing nightmares of their own.

“Our experience taught us that the things that matter, matter,” said Tracy. “And the Lord’s message in my dream let us know just how Tobin’s experience was connected to using our cotton to make blankets. We call it ‘cotton with a cause’ and we want to use this business to cultivate that cause through the telling of our story and sharing of hope.”

 

Shop the Covered in Cotton line of baby blankets, throws and towels at coveredincotton.com or call (843) 269-4058.