Anna Brakefield left the bright lights of the big city to rejoin her father in the land of cotton. The result is a fledgling business that did more than $1 million in sales in its first year and is attempting to spark a revival of the once-thriving textile business in Lawrence County.
Red Land Cotton, named in honor of the northwestern Alabama soil that produces the fluffy fiber, is a true labor of love for Brakefield and her father, Mark Yeager. The company takes the cotton that is grown on the Yeager family farm and turns it into luxury bed linens that are sold online and out of a small store in downtown Moulton.
This definitely is not what Brakefield envisioned she would be doing when she graduated from Auburn University with a degree in graphic design in 2012 and then moved to New York City. Like many young people who grow up in a small town, she says her focus in high school was simply “to get out.”
“But once you get out, you develop an appreciation for what you had, ” Brakefield says. “There’s a lot to be said for small towns and the work ethic people have in them. But it’s an appreciation you can’t develop until you leave.”
While Brakefield was contemplating what direction to take with her career, her father was back home doing what he had done most of his adult life: working on the cotton farm. Yeager has been farming in Lawrence County since 1982, and in 1994 he built his own cotton gin.
“I couldn’t have been happier. It’s all I ever wanted to do, ” Yeager says. “But cotton farming is tough without adding some kind of value to it. Basically, whatever the market is (for raw cotton), that’s what you’re going to make. And, unfortunately, we’re competing with the world that grows things for below the cost of doing it.
“I’ve always dreamed of being able to move my cotton into something where I had my hand in it all the way down the line, instead of just growing cotton and taking whatever they give you for it and hoping you can pay the bank. That’s always been on my mind.”
ABOVE Cotton grown and ginned in Lawrence County is now transformed into finished goods — the entire company the brainchild of Mark Yeager and his daughter, Anna Brakefield (pictured above).
The seeds of what has become Red Land Cotton were planted while Brakefield was home for Christmas in 2015. She had helped her father establish an Instagram account, and he posted a photo of his latest crop of cotton. Yeager’s sister, who lives in Texas, wrote a reply stating, “I’d love to have some sheets made out of that nice, Alabama cotton.”
“That’s when I really started putting a lot of thought into it, ” Yeager says. “Would it be possible to do? And how would you try to market it and brand it to get it to where you’re separate from all the other choices in linens.”
Sensing that his daughter was not entirely happy with her current situation, Yeager approached her with his idea. They agreed that the key was to make luxury linens rather than the standard bed sheets that can be found at most department stores.
“We wanted to recreate the old-timey sheets that were really breathable, but heavy and substantial, ” Brakefield says. “We wanted to tell this story of a farm-to-home product. We felt like that was something that could set us apart.”
Or as Yeager describes, “We wanted to make the kind of sheets that grandma had that hung on the line and had some substance to them.”
So in February of 2016, armed with samples of their cotton, Yeager and Brakefield went on an exploratory trip to Cary, North Carolina, to visit with officials at Cotton Inc., which is the research and promotion arm of the U.S. cotton industry, to see if they thought the plan was feasible. The feedback was positive, prompting Brakefield to move back home and embark with her father on this new adventure.
Within months, they had secured deals with a spinner and weaver in South Carolina and a bleacher in Georgia to help produce the product. Then they discovered a small company right there in Moulton — Dance Wear Plus — that was making uniforms for cheerleaders and dance teams but was about to go out of business. They agreed to put the finishing touches on the sheets, crafting them to resemble vintage heirloom lines.
“I tell them what I’d like for it to look like, using drawings and pictures, ” Brakefield says of the sewers at Dance Wear Plus, which is changing its name to Southern Sewn on Jan. 1.
ABOVE Finished linens crafted from Yeager’s cotton are sold online and in the company’s Moulton shop.
Red Land Cotton received its first sets of finished sheets in October of 2016 and immediately began fulfilling more than 100 orders that had already been made through the company’s website. Initially, the sheets were stored and shipped out of the grungy gin office, which, Brakefield says, “is not a place where you’d think luxury linens would come from.” That is part of the reason why they opened a storefront location this past September.
Yeager says approximately 250 bales of cotton have been harvested on their 4, 300-acre farm since Red Land was formed. Each bale weighs between 5, 000 and 6, 000 pounds, but after all the trash, seeds and lint are removed, there is about 2, 000 pounds of usable cotton remaining. Yeager says each finished bale can produce 260 sets of king-sized sheets.
In addition to the basic challenges of being a startup business in an industry that has struggled for decades in the United States, there also is the issue of father and daughter working together. Brakefield says the key is for her father to concentrate primarily on the production of the cotton, while she focuses on design, marketing and branding.
“We are a lot alike, which actually can be irritating at times, ” Brakefield says with a smile. “But for the most part it’s worked really well. When both of us stay in our lane and do the work that we’re really good at, it’s a good combination.”
ABOVE Mark Yeager and his daughter, Anna Brakefield.
Yeager, meanwhile, beams with pride when asked what it’s like to work with his daughter. “I couldn’t have picked anybody any better to do what she’s doing, ” he says. “Anna got real savvy living in New York. She’s doing things for us I couldn’t have done on my own.”
Currently, Yeager’s farm produces more cotton than Red Land needs to fulfill its orders, so he continues to sell the excess on the open market. But the long-range goal is for all the cotton to be used by Red Land, which is why Brakefield is attempting to expand the company’s offerings.
“In 2018, we’re looking at making quilts with our own cotton batting and do a baby line of bedding, ” Brakefield says. “We’re also working with other companies that are interested in collaborating and using our fabric to create things like pillows.
“Hopefully we’ll continue to grow and expand every year. You go to these places that still have manufacturing mills, and you can see how important those mills are to those small towns. We want to eventually be an uplifting business like that here in Lawrence County.”
Cary Estes and Cary Norton are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.
Text By CARY ESTES // Photos by CARY NORTON