by Jesma Reynolds
photographs by Juli Leonard
Raleigh native Beulah Louise Henry, an early 20th century inventor, once said: “If necessity is the mother of invention, then resourcefulness is the father.”
Judy Hill, another Raleigh native and an inventor of sorts, embodies the truth of Henry’s words. The founder of local shirt and tie maker High Cotton, Hill came upon the need that spurred her resourcefulness and spawned her business in 2009. That’s when her oldest son, Cameron, then a medical student at the University of Virginia, told her that doctors were no longer wearing ties on hospital rounds because they were considered too bacteria-laden – usually made of silk, ties were rarely cleaned.
So Hill took a yard of cotton fabric, cut and sewed it by hand at her kitchen table, and made a bow tie her for her son to wear – and wash. Almost overnight, Hill had orders from other doctors and medical students. They wanted to wear ties on rounds, but needed something hygienic.
Hill’s preppy designs and bright colors appealed to college students as well, and soon her creations were in such demand that she created a company to sell them. She found her materials and labor locally, and named her business in tribute to North Carolina’s rich agricultural and textile traditions.
Five years later, High Cotton is a thriving Raleigh business that Hill runs with her other two sons, James, 27, and Patrick, 22. The cotton they use comes from growers here and in South Carolina; local mills process and weave the raw material into fabric. And High Cotton’s store is part of a new crop of local retailers making downtown a shop-local destination. On West Hargett Street, the store is strategically located near young professionals, college students, and, as it turns out, up-and-coming textile designers.
It’s that close proximity that spurred the Hills to tap into one of Raleigh’s most valuable local resources. In 2013, they launched the annual High Cotton Paisley Contest for students at N.C. State’s College of Design and College of Textiles. Hill’s father was a professor of agriculture at N.C. State, and she says she was eager to find a way to give back to the school, and also wanted to encourage local talent to stick around.
Guidelines for the contest are straightforward: Create a paisley design using a pre-determined color palette that would translate well onto a bow tie. It’s an opportunity, Hill says, for students to apply learned skills to a real-world challenge, and to create tangible results. She chose paisley, she says, because it allows so much opportunity for creativity.
This year’s winner, chosen from among 75 entries and 10 finalists by High Cotton’s in-store customers, is Meredith West, 23, a first year graduate student at the College of Design. Her “modern take on a traditional paisley” will become part of High Cotton’s spring bow tie collection. The fabric was printed locally by Durham-based Spoonflower.
Encouraged to enter the contest by some of her professors in early October, West had about two weeks to complete a design for submission. She started by looking at traditional paisley motifs and patterns, sketching different ideas by hand.
“I wanted something intricate but modern,” she says. Bright and playful, the Wilmington native’s design features local imagery within paisley shapes. West used both traditional and modern techniques: She sketched out a design, and then used tracing paper to scan the pattern into a computer where she could manipulate it more easily. There she added color and experimented with repetition and scale.
“Meredith’s design was almost always the first entry to capture the attention of customers coming into the High Cotton showroom,” Hill says. “I believe Meredith’s design won because it was such an intricate drawing and it pulled people in to discover all the details incorporated… cotton bolls, dogwood, seashells and anchors. Her design was not only well-executed but purposefully southern-inspired and will be a great addition to our High Cotton line this spring.”
West says she’s always been a creative person, but she notes that pattern-making leans on the left side of the brain. “It’s kind of a mathematical process in a way. It has to be seamless” in order to be successful, she says.
West didn’t realize she could make a career out of her love for pattern and print until she took a class as an undergraduate at the Design School with “pattern expert” Susan Brandeis that sparked her interest in textile design. West credits the school for helping to make its students marketable, and says her contest win was a pleasant surprise: “I was excited just to make it in the top 10.”
Bow ties with West’s winning paisley will be available at High Cotton’s downtown store and online beginning Feb. 1.
High Cotton: 19 West Hargett Street #100 (919) 817-8319. highcottonties.com