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Originally published Saturday, October 5, 2013 at 9:36 AM

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U.S. textile factories hum again, but not with workers

The U.S. textile and apparel industry is thriving again, but machines have replaced humans at almost every point in the production process.

The New York Times

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AFFNEY, S.C. — The old textile mills here are mostly gone. Gaffney Manufacturing, National Textiles, Cherokee — clangorous, dusty, productive engines of the Carolinas fabric trade — fell one by one to the forces of globalization.

Just as the Carolinas benefited when manufacturing migrated first from the Cottonopolises of England to the mill towns of New England and then to here, where labor was even cheaper, they suffered in the 1990s when the textile industry mostly left the United States.

It headed to China, India, Mexico — wherever people would spool, spin and sew for a few dollars or less a day. Which is why what is happening at the old Wellstone spinning plant is so remarkable.

Drive out to the interstate, with the big peach-shaped water tower just down the highway, and you’ll find the mill up and running again. Parkdale Mills, the country’s largest buyer of raw cotton, reopened it in 2010.

Bayard Winthrop, the founder of the sweatshirt and clothing company American Giant, was at the mill one morning earlier this year to meet with his Parkdale sales representative. Just last year, Winthrop was buying fabric from a factory in India. Now, he says, it is cheaper to shop in the United States. Winthrop uses Parkdale yarn from one of its 25 U.S. factories and has that yarn spun into fabric about 4 miles from Parkdale’s Gaffney plant, at Carolina Cotton Works.

Winthrop says U.S. manufacturing has several advantages over outsourcing. Transportation costs are a fraction of what they are overseas. Turnaround time is less. Most striking, labor costs — the reason all those companies fled in the first place — aren’t that much higher than overseas because the factories that survived the outsourcing wave have largely turned to automation and are employing far fewer workers.

Not patriotic move

“When I framed the business, I wasn’t saying, ‘From the cotton in the ground to the finished product, this is going to be all American-made,’ ” Winthrop said. “It wasn’t some patriotic quest.”

Instead, he said, the road to Gaffney was all about protecting his bottom line.

That simple, if counterintuitive, example is changing both Gaffney and the U.S. textile and apparel industries.

In 2012, textile and apparel exports were $22.7 billion, up 37 percent from just three years earlier. While the size of operations remains behind those of overseas powers like China, the fact that these industries are thriving again is indicative of a broader reassessment by U.S. companies about manufacturing in the United States.

But manufacturers are also finding the business landscape has changed. Two decades of overseas production have decimated factories here.

Between 2000 and 2011, on average, 17 manufacturers closed up shop every day across the country, according to research from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

Now, companies that want to make things here often have trouble finding qualified workers for specialized jobs and U.S.-made components for their products.

And politicians’ promises that U.S. manufacturing means an abundance of new jobs is complicated — yes, it means jobs, but on nowhere near the scale there was before, because machines have replaced humans at almost every point in the production process.

Take Parkdale: The mill here produces 2.5 million pounds of yarn a week with about 140 workers. In 1980, that production level would have required more than 2,000 people.

When Winthrop founded American Giant, he knew precisely what he wanted to make: thick sweatshirts like the one from the Navy that his father used to wear.

They required a dry “hand feel,” so the fabric would not seem greasy to the touch, and a soft, heavily plucked underside. Winthrop had already produced sportswear overseas, so he looked there for the advanced techniques and affordable pricing he needed.

He wanted to sell his hooded sweatshirt for around $80, between the $10 Walmart version, made in China, and the $125 Polo Ralph Lauren version, made in Peru.

He was insistent on cutting and sewing the sweatshirts in the United States — a company called American Giant couldn’t do that part overseas, he felt — but wasn’t picky about where the fabric came from.

He was frustrated, however, with the quality and the time delay in getting fabric from India. By October of last year, Winthrop had moved production to South Carolina. Now it takes just a month or so, start to finish, to get a sweatshirt to a customer.

March of the machines

Step inside Parkdale Mills and prepare to be overwhelmed by machines.

The ceilings are high and the machines stretch city block after city block — this one tossing around bits of cotton to clean them, that one taking 4-millimeter layers from different bales to blend them.

Only infrequently does a person interrupt the automation, mainly because certain tasks are still cheaper if performed by hand — like moving half-finished yarn between machines on forklifts.

For Parkdale, the new technology has been its salvation.

In the last decade, the company began meeting with machine manufacturers, doing trial runs of equipment and offering feedback and debugging, so it got dibs on the newest technology.

It looked for business opportunities in the countries where its customers were heading, those in Central America in particular, and now 75 percent of its business is in exports.

Overall, the company employs 4,000 people, its biggest workforce ever, but it is technology that has made it competitive.

“We’ve been able to be effective here because we invested in our manufacturing to the point that labor is not as big of an issue as far as total cost as it once was,” said Andrew Warlick, Parkdale’s chief executive.

Back from the dead

All that automation has made working in the mill — which once meant mostly dead-end jobs for people with no other options — desirable for many people.

Scott Symmonds, 40, of Galax, Va., works as a technician for two plants in the area. He never planned on manufacturing work, but after he served in the National Guard in Iraq, his home went into foreclosure and he had trouble getting work because of his low credit score and lack of a college degree.

As a teenager in rural Iowa, he knew people who worked in manufacturing and watched two plants go out of business.

“I saw how they would come home dirty, smelly and often injured,” he said. “I didn’t want that.”

But he needed a job. Symmonds started as a spinner, then got a job on the packing line and then snagged a technician’s job after a technical-aptitude test.

He earns $15 an hour, which he says is better than what competitors pay.

He fears, though, that his higher pay could become a liability.

“We are making far more money than our counterparts in China or other nations,” he said. “We can’t afford to take a big enough cut in pay to be on an even level with those places.”

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