Bacteria-fighting linens may herald Beacon's return to Swannanoa

Black Mountain News

A North Carolina company has revived the Beacon name and hopes to bring jobs back to Swannanoa, where Beacon Manufacturing provided jobs for generations.

Tedd Smith, president of Beacon Linens, worked at Beacon Manufacturing for years and was one of its last owners when the century-old plant was shuttered in 2002 (and subsequently torched by an arsonist). Smith and Beacon Linens CEO Steve Hutcherson have come up with a line of bed-hugging silver-embedded sheets that kill bacteria. The extra-durable fabric in their Safe Haven Linens could, they believe, significantly reduce the number of hospital acquired infections.

Beacon Linens president Tedd Smith holds an old Beacon Manufacturing blanket while talking about his company's line or antimicrobial sheets.

Annual costs associated with those infections start at $28 billion, according to a Centers for Disease Control estimate that Beacon Linens refers to on its website. Smith and Hutcherson believe their sheets and possibly hospital garb made from the same bacteria-killing fabric will be the norm at hospitals in the not-too-distant future.

And it’s possible, Smith said, that a plant making the sheets and blankets under the Beacon Linens name might be sited in Swannnanoa, a community in which Smith grew up and which grew around the old Beacon Manufacturing Co. plant and village.

“We would love nothing more than to be make blankets in Swannanoa again,” said Smith, who owns the rights to the Beacon blanket patterns and name. “Right now we’re getting wind under our sails in getting products placed in the market.”

Through Beacon Manufacturing, Swannnanoa was the nation’s biggest supplier of blankets from the mid 1920s, the year Charles Owens moved his textiles plant to Swannanoa from New Bedford, Massachusetts, to 2002, the year the plant shut down. At one time, 81 percent of the blankets bought in the U.S. came out of the Swannnanoa Valley, Smith said. “And right now we have zero,” he said.

Hutcherson was at first skeptical about the germ-killing properties of silver, he said. But silver has long been recognized for its germ-killing properties. Soldiers carried purifying silver coins in their water pouches during Roman times. Silver vessels kept ancient Greeks’ water and Romans’ wine fresh.

These days, hospitals, community water systems, pools and spas use silver ions in their water purification systems, according to The Silver Institute, a nonprofit international association that seeks to educate the public about the uses of silver.

Smith and Hutcherson, longtime friends who were nearing retirement when they started Beacon Linens, didn’t set out to make sheets with bacteria-killing properties. They just wanted to stay in the textile industry, a business in which they have a combined 80 years’ experience.

“We started looking at what in those markets needed help,” Hutcherson said. “We talked to a friend in the retail business who said what they can’t get is a fitted sheet that stays on the bed. That’s the number one consumer complaint” about sheets. So the two friends designed a fitted sheet that grips the underside of each corner with a small triangle of fabric. Beacon Linens has applied for a patent and expects to get it this year.

A little more than a year ago, Smith and Hutcherson took their pocket technology and high-performance fabric to PurThread Technologies, a Cary, N.C., company that embeds silver salts into fabric to make them toxic to bacteria, molds and mildews. Together, Beacon and PurThread engineers came up with sheets that kill germs, stay on beds and can be washed hundreds of times – attributes which make the sheets attractive to hospitals and people with skin conditions.

That’s making it easier to market, the partners believe.

“Tedd knows everyone in the world,” Hutcherson said. “With him leading the way, there’s nobody that we can’t go in and talk to. We’re working with some of the biggest health care providers and some of the biggest retailers.”

Tests on Beacon Linen’s sheets and pillowcases with PurThread technology have killed 99.5 percent of bacteria within four hours, Hutcherson said. The sheets don’t kill the good bacteria that all of us have on our skin, he said. But they kill the bad bacteria like e. coli.

“We cannot go out and tell people that we have a medical product. We can’t say that our product cures something,” Hutcherson said. “We can tell people what has happened in a laboratory when we test our fabric.

We’ve had a number of cases of bad acne that use our pillowcases and the acne goes away,” Hutcherson said. “A 13-year-old kid who had acne all over his back, he slept on our sheets for 11 nights and his back just about cleared up.”

“Eczema, psoriasis, any skin condition can be aided by PurThread technology,” Smith said. The silver, he added, doesn’t wear out in the wash or leach into the water system.

Currently the sheets are made in China and India (Beacon Linens has a small distribution center in Mars Hill; Smith and Hutcherson, who travel a lot, work out of their homes). Beacon Linens has made sample sheets domestically, “and we’re far along in development that we believe we can produce them all in the States,” Hutcherson said. “Our plan is that in a very few years we’ll be able to make sheets and blankets in North Carolina.”

“There were a lot of textile jobs lost in the Carolinas. If we can bring some of those back, it’s a win-win for everyone,” Smith said. “Steven and I are here to make money, but when you get to be our ages, we really try to do something to make a difference.

“We think it would be neat to have (a manufacturing plant) located where it once was,” Smith said. “If we can be there, that would be great. But if we end up somewhere close to there, so be it.”