The Georgia company has become a Made in America mainstay, but it took the determination of three mill employees to get there.
In 1888, a company known as Kincaid Manufacturing began manufacturing towels in the small Georgia city of Griffin, located 40 miles south of Atlanta.
The company went through several acquisitions and mergers over the past 134 years, but the historic mill today continues to produce intricately woven American-made cotton towels, employing approximately 340 textile workers.
It wasn’t always clear that would be the case.
Kincaid Manufacturing was on the verge of going out of business in 1995 because of the fierce competition in the global towel market. Three mill employees, led by current Chairman Doug Tingle, were committed to keeping the mill running.
In 1996, they took control of the towel mill and renamed it 1888 Mills, paying tribute to the year the first American-made towels were manufactured in Griffin. Generations of Georgians had worked at the mill, and the new owners were committed to preserving that tradition.
“They had one thing in mind, and that was to keep towel manufacturing in Griffin, Georgia,” said Lexi Schladenhauffen, who has worked at 1888 Mills for 21 years and now holds the aptly named title of Chief Experience Officer. “We have become a global company, but if you look at any of our towels that come from Georgia, they are all made entirely in the U.S.A.
“We do everything from the weaving, so we have loom operators, to the cut and sew, dying, finishing and everything in between. All the towels made in Griffin, Georgia are truly 100 percent Made in the U.S.A.”
1888 Mills is a yarn forward manufacturing facility. The company does not spin the cotton into yarn but sources from other American yarn manufacturers such as Parkdale and Hill Manufacturing. The company is a terry manufacturer and does not make any apparel or work with the clothing industry. It is strictly towels all the time and 1888 Mills does not supply its fabric to any other companies.
In addition to bath towels, hand towels and wash cloths, the mill not only sells its products under the 1888 Mills brand but also makes towels under the private label brand Made Here, which is featured on Amazon and other retail websites. The mill also manufactures the Better Homes and Garden Towel label that is sold at Walmart and the American Heritage brand that is available at Fred Meyer, which has stores located in the Pacific Northwest.
But despite the different brand names, each towel has a label specifying that it was Made in the U.S.A. by 1888 Mills. The retail price for 1888 Mills towels runs between $8 and $30, depending on the size and quality of the cotton used in production.
1888 Mills also manufactures towels for the hospitality industry and are standard issue at Hyatt Hotels. The company also manufactures its most luxurious cotton towels for the exclusive Breakers Hotel Resort in Palm Beach, Fla. The Breakers is so impressed with the high quality of its 1888 Mills towels that the five-star hotel advertises its partnership with 1888 Mills. The mill also provides its most luxurious towels to many boutique hotel properties including those in Manhattan and Miami’s South Beach.
“The cotton varies depending on the product. For example, the towels for the Breakers we use high-grade Supima cotton, and we have some organic towels where we use organic cotton,” Schladenhauffen said. “A majority of our towels are Upland cotton grown in the Southern regions, the jewel of the U.S. cotton belt area. It really depends on what the final product is that determines what kind of cotton we use. We use a pretty big mix.”
After receiving the cotton which is spun into yarn, 1888 Mills takes the cotton fibers and puts it on to large spools that go onto the looms. It is then sized and transferred to the weaving room where the cotton is weaved before being sent to the bleaching room where it is either bleached or dyed depending on what the particular product requires. The cotton then is moved to the cut and sew department where the longs strands of towel material is cut into pieces to the required size depending on what type of towel is being produced.
After the weaved cotton is cut it is hemmed and sewed and labels are put on the product before it is hand folded and packaged. It is then put into boxes and shipped to the designated customer.
“It could be a typical bath towel, hand towel or bath sheets which are the extra-large bath towels often used by our hospitality customers,” Schladenhauffen said. “We do hotel beach towels, and I would say between all of our retail programs, we have two to three dozen different colors, but we only do solids.”
When 1888 Mills began manufacturing in 1996, its factory was 150,000 square feet. But with the demand for a finely combed American-made towels, the company has now expanded to a 500,000 square foot facility.
Competition is relentless in the towel industry, and that is why 1888 Mills partnered with a company in Pakistan in 2003 to better serve its global market. Its global operation uses some imported cotton, but Schladenhauffen said 1888 Mills does not source from the cotton-rich Xinjiang region of China, where slave labor is used to produce clothing apparel.
“We do not have any cotton from the Xinjiang region of China and in fact most of the retailers we work with we have to provide traceability on all of our cotton,” Schladenhauffen said. “We have everything from old fashion paperwork through DNA markers, Blockchain, you name it, and we are tracking cotton that way.
“It’s amazing what some of the requirements are of some of these retailers today but unfortunately, they don’t get credit for it. Half of the consumers don’t even know the lengths that some of the retailers go through to make sure they are working with vendors that are following the rules and making the best products they can without supporting nations that take advantage and abuse their workers.”
So, it is comforting to know that if you are purchasing an 1888 Mills towel in the United States, the product was manufactured in Griffin, Georgia by American workers.
“I think when you look at our commitment, 1888 Mills started in 1996 and that’s right around the time when quotas went away and all the other mills in the U.S. shuttered and went to totally offshore manufacturing. We didn’t,” Schladenhauffen said. “We were committed to maintaining this mill in the U.S.A. and have continued to run it every day since the day the doors opened, and we actually expanded it several years ago.
“Every day we are looking at expansion and ways to increase capacity when the time is right for both us and our customers, as we kind of monitor the demand for U.S.A.-made product.
“U.S.A. manufacturing has always been the major part of the 1888 Mills footprint and will continue to be. We are that committed to U.S. manufacturing.”