By Nancy Spitler
Photography by Tracy Woodard ’07, Craig Mahaffey ’98
& Ashley Jones

Tracy and Ty Woodard have taken just 1 percent of their family’s cotton crop and turned it into a growing brand of blankets and throws

Covered in cotton. Those three words came to Tracy Woodard in a dream one Sunday morning in December of 2017.

Those three words would become the culmination of lots of plans and dreams.

Tracy Free ’08 and Ty ’07 Woodard are part of a family that raises cotton, as well as soybeans, corn, peanuts and Black Angus beef cattle on the 4,500-acre Woodard family farm in Darlington, South Carolina. That farm is the source of Covered in Cotton, the name tagged to every buttery-soft blanket or thick towel from the brand whose mission is to “cultivate the natural comfort and quality of cotton products grown and crafted in the USA, cultivate relationships that invite people into the wonder and truth of agriculture, and cultivate a cause that tells a story and shares hope.”

A BAIT AND SWITCH

The story of Covered in Cotton actually begins long before that December dream and starts with bright, multicolored tissue paper. In 2004, her freshman year and his sophomore year at Clemson, Tracy and Ty met sticking pomps through wire mesh during the annual build of homecoming floats on Bowman Field. She was a first-generation college student from Lexington, South Carolina; he was from a Clemson farm family in Darlington. A few months later, they ran into each other again. Conversations led to friendship, and pretty soon, they were inseparable.

“I joke that he bait-and-switched me,” says Tracy. “He grew up working on the farm, but he was never the one who wanted to do this the rest of his life.” Ty had a plan to head to medical school and pursue sports medicine. Tracy envisioned city life and a job in graphic design.

The summer after his sophomore year, he went home and, as usual, worked on the farm with his dad, Frankie Woodard ’79, and his brother, Wes Woodard ’03. Something changed for Ty that summer. He talks about it in terms of feeling a pull — a calling, even — back to the farm.

It was a decision that surprised Tracy, as well as Ty’s own family. Wes had begun to sense a shift in Ty’s interest and was encouraging him to consider returning to the farm. Their dad, Frankie, was skeptical.

Frankie says he always knew his older son was coming back to farm after Clemson. When the boys were growing up, he says, “Wes was everywhere that I was. He was just like a magnet around me at the farm.” Ty, on the other hand, “really didn’t want anything to do with it.” When Ty and Wes’ grandmother would go get parts or supplies, “she’d have [Ty] in the car. She’d pull up to the field or wherever we were, and he’d stay right there in the air conditioning.”

But the summer after Ty’s sophomore year, Frankie also saw Ty’s growing interest in the farm and engagement in the work. It surprised him initially, but now he says he wouldn’t have it any other way. “We couldn’t do without him,” he says.

After a hard summer of work on the farm, Ty returned to Clemson that fall knowing that what his future held was farming the land outside a small town in the South Carolina PeeDee region.

A DREAM COMES CALLING

After the two married in 2008, they moved to Darlington, and Ty went to work plowing, planting and harvesting with Wes and Frankie. Tracy couldn’t find a job as a graphic designer but took a position as an insurance agent. “It really helped me get familiar with a new town and new people and find my way in Darlington,” she says.

After several years in insurance, she went to work for NewSpring church in Florence, where she worked for almost eight years. Then the dream of Covered in Cotton came calling.

On long road trips in the early years of their marriage, Tracy and Ty would imagine the farm’s possibilities, how they could share their love of the land with others. “We had always talked about how cool it would be to take something we grow on the farm and market it directly to the consumer,” Tracy says. “We sold all our crops to brokers.”

But add three kids to the mix and life gets a bit hectic. Imagination took a back seat to reality — until Tracy’s dream in December 2017.

“I woke Ty up and told him,” Tracy says. The excitement she was feeling rubbed off on him as well. They started putting pen to paper, figuring out how to turn that dream into a reality. Going from cotton in the field to a finished product is a complicated process. “We knew how to grow cotton,” says Tracy, “but there were a lot of things we didn’t know.”

They wanted to use the cotton grown on their farm, but they had already sold their yield for the year. They contacted the broker and ended up buying the cotton back for more than they had sold it for. They found a yarn spinner in nearby Thomasville, North Carolina, that does small runs who taught them about spinning and helped them through the process.

They reached out to Harold Pennington ’89, a fellow Clemson alumnus who runs Weavetec in Blacksburg, South Carolina, a company founded in 1987 by his father, Harold Pennington Sr. ’65. “We met Ty and Tracy in 2018,” says Harold Jr. “Tracy reached out to us, looking for a supplier to weave decorative throws.”

“We told him what we wanted to do — we knew that piece of the puzzle was the most important,” says Tracy. She and Ty drove up to Blacksburg to meet Harold and his wife, Laurinda. “We talked a long time, got set on designs, and they took us to lunch,” says Tracy. “We were friends instantly. The Clemson connection — that makes a difference. We left there knowing they were the right people and the right company to work with.”

Harold was also able to connect Tracy with other suppliers integral to the process. The Woodards also left that initial meeting with three designs for throws, named after Tracy and Ty’s children: Tate, Tyson and Tobin.

FROM BOLL TO BLANKET

It takes a lot to go from a boll of cotton in the field to a finished throw or blanket. Ty holds a boll and runs his fingers through it as he talks: “We knew how to grow cotton, but we didn’t really know a whole lot beyond that.”

He explains their process: “Typically, late April throughout the month of May is normal planting season. And then we’re harvesting — in a normal year — late September through November, just depending on the weather. There’s a time, late August, early September, when the cotton opens, just like this boll I’ve got in my hand, and you see the lint. It fluffs out real nice and pretty like we always like to see, but within the boll, you can feel the seed down within the lint.”

The cotton goes from Woodard Farms to the S.P. Coker Cotton Gin in nearby Hartsville, where they separate the seed from the lint. From there, the ginned cotton goes to the yarn spinner, Hill Spinning Mill in Thomasville, North Carolina.

From there, the yarn cones go to Shuford Mills in Hickory, North Carolina, and they ply the yarn together. From Shuford, it comes south to Weavetec and Harold Pennington, where the throws are woven.

Weavetec also “weaves the rolls of fabric that we use for our baby blankets and hand towels,” says Ty. From Weavetec, the throws and rolls of fabric are sent to Craig Industries in Lamar, South Carolina, where they will cut and sew baby blankets and hand towels and add the finishing touch: the “Covered in Cotton” labels.

Ty and Tracy bring everything back to the farm and package and ship all over the world. Regarding the whole process, Ty says, “We’re pretty proud to say that the cotton makes about a 500-mile round trip.”

Tracy adds, “One of the things we appreciate most is that we’re partnering with these local family businesses, and the majority of them are in smaller towns where you feel like you’re impacting those communities and helping make those places better. We’re fortunate that there’s enough remnant of the textile industry left in North and South Carolina that we were able to find these people and do what we wanted to do.”

“Every piece is completed within 150 miles of our farm,” Tracy continues, “and we know the families and the people who put their hands to our cotton and our product.”

A PARENT’S NIGHTMARE

In 2015, two years before Tracy’s dream, the family experienced every parent’s nightmare. Their youngest son, Tobin (the twin of Tyson), was diagnosed with bacterial meningitis at 3 months old. “For 35 days, we sat in the children’s hospital in Columbia,” says Tracy. “Those were some of the worst days of our lives.”

Tobin had emergency brain surgery on his first Christmas Eve — a double craniotomy — to allow doctors to put antibiotics directly into the brain. “We were told he would probably lose all or most of his hearing and vision,” says Tracy. “The worst-case scenario was that he would never mentally develop past 3 months old.”

None of those worst-case scenarios happened. “He was a fighter,” says Tracy.

Days turned into weeks at the hospital. Tobin was moved to a new floor. The first nurse who cared for Tobin came and found them, a blanket in tow. A simple, practical gift — but one much appreciated by two young parents who were living on cots in a cold hospital room.

Tracy and Ty kept that blanket when they went home. For them, Tracy says, it was “a reminder of the Lord covering our family and taking care of us.”

It was also a reminder of a new outlook on life. “The things that mattered, mattered. The things that didn’t, didn’t,” says Tracy. “It changed our perspective on a lot of things. We saw people a lot worse off than us.”

Tobin came home from the hospital in January and continued to make improvements. Five years old now, he’s completely recovered with no side effects. “The doctors have told us it’s a miracle,” says Tracy.

Because of that experience, Tracy and Ty wanted to use Covered in Cotton as a way to tell that story and to help other people. For every 10 blankets they sell, they donate one to a children’s hospital. One of the first donations they made was to Prisma Health-Upstate, where they met with child life specialist Taylor Stathes ’13, who immediately recognized Tracy’s Clemson ring.

Two years after getting started, they’ve donated 415 blankets to keep other families warm.

GOOD DIRT

Frankie’s father, Frank Woodard, came from a family who lost their farm in North Carolina when he was a small child during the Great Depression. They moved near Latta, South Carolina, Frankie says, “where my granddaddy worked as a sharecropper more or less, and they just barely got by.” When Frank graduated from high school, he went to work in Latta as a meat salesman, but he nursed an itch to get back into farming. He and his brother, a pharmacist, bought some land and farmed on weekends.

One day in 1962, during his travels for work, Frank stopped for lunch in Darlington County and saw an ad for a farm and decided to take a look at it. “My father said that they were used to having tobacco stalks about the size of your finger — or two fingers,” says Frankie, “and he said he saw some that were just this big around,” making about a 3-inch circle with his hand. “He said, ‘We got to have that dirt.’”

Frankie grew up in Darlington, with his dad working full time as a meat salesman during the week and farming on the weekends. “He took two weeks of vacation every year,” says Frankie, “one to plant, the other to harvest.” In 1975, Frankie headed to Clemson, where he earned a degree in agronomy and then returned to Darlington, where he gradually took over the reins of the farm. He sent both of his sons to Clemson and now is gradually handing leadership over to them. “It’s a good life,” he says.

For almost 40 years, the Woodard family has been growing cotton, corn, soybeans and tobacco. About 10 years ago, the tobacco shifted to peanuts. A herd of Angus beef cattle rounds out the farm operations. And now Covered in Cotton is added to the mix.

BEST IN THE SOUTH

A year ago, Tracy jumped into Covered in Cotton full time. She says her parents are happy that the skills she gained at Clemson are getting used as she handles design packaging, the website and a lot of the day-to-day operations. She and Ty are still dreaming — new products, new opportunities. In 2019, they were named the overall winner of Garden & Gun magazine’s 2019 Made in the South Awards.

“After that was announced,” says Tracy, “we sold all our throws in 10 days. Things got really crazy, but we restocked and are now able to think ahead.” Thanks to popular demand and a multitude of requests, bed-sized blankets are in the works.

“People should know where the food they’re putting in their bodies and the fibers they have in their homes come from,” Tracy was quoted as saying in the Garden & Gun article announcing the award. Tracy and Ty not only know intimately where those cotton fibers come from, but they also know the people and companies who take them step by step from soft cotton bolls to warm cotton blankets.