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Greenville Business Magazine

Textile Industry Is Alive And Well

Nov 01, 2017 02:20PM ● By Emily Stevenson
By Devin Steele

A common perception, even by some here in the Upstate, is that textile manufacturing is virtually gone in the U.S. When I encounter folks with this ill-informed notion, I’m more than happy to do my part to try to change their minds.

Years of negative headlines around layoffs, closings, and contraction no doubt etched that image into the minds of the general populace, particularly here in the heart of “Textile Country.” I had a front-row seat for the industry’s collapse, having written those headlines for more than a dozen years for another textile trade publication. Even before NAFTA was passed in 1993, the industry was beginning to see cracks in the powerful structure it had built and thrived in for many decades.

The full effects of NAFTA and China’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2000 began to lead retailers and brands to “chase the needle” to low-labor countries, and the industry was decimated in America. CAFTA was passed in 2003 and helped parts of the industry, particularly yarn and fabric makers, stay on life support for several years as it took advantage of duty-free, zero-tariff access of products into Central America. For some companies that outlasted that devastation, the last straw was the Great Recession, which forced even more out of business. A decade and a half of industry turmoil saw the livelihoods of whole communities destroyed, and the industry was straddled with that “lifeless” label.

But a funny thing happened as many politicians and consumers began to pronounce the industry dead. Despite the steep climb ahead, the industry continued to innovate, develop niche products, find new markets, and enact more sustainable practices, and, before long, a glorious thing happened: the word “reshoring” became part of mainstream dialogue as manufacturers, retailers and brands began looking at hemispheric strategies when wages, energy costs, and labor shortages began to rise in the Far East. Plus, lead times were getting shorter as fashion seasons turned more quickly, bringing about the need for flexibility in design, quality, delivery, and speed to market.

And today, we have a new story to tell, and I’m glad to help tell it. From the industry’s perspective, disseminating this good story is a national movement, led by the Washington, D.C.-based National Council of Textile Organizations (NCTO). Last year, the council launched a P.R. campaign with the goal of raising awareness and shaking the industry’s reputation among many as a dated, decrepit, dirty manufacturing sector. The “American Textiles: We Make Amazing” campaign (#WeMakeAmazing) is aimed at branding the industry for what it is – a technology driven, capital-intensive innovator of high-quality products that is fully competing in the 21st century global marketplace.

Given old perceptions, most wouldn’t recognize the industry today. But it indeed has changed and begun to compete globally, led by a number of venerable companies in the Upstate. For instance, 174-year-old KENTWOOL, based in Greenville with production facilities in Pickens, has found a tremendous niche in high-end, high-tech golf socks that is all the rage in that sport. Also, 116-year-old Inman Mills in Inman has a developed a number of proprietary technical fabrics that have kept its looms humming along through the economic vagaries. And Mauldin-based Mount Vernon Mills (circa 1847) has thrived as one of the most dynamic companies in the industry with a widely diverse range of yarn and fabric products.

And South Carolina is fortunate to count many other longtime textile industry leaders in its ranks that came through the downturn strong: Milliken in Spartanburg, Sage Automotive Interiors in Greenville, Greenwood Mills in Greenwood, DeRoyal Textiles in Camden, Southern Weaving in Greenville, Hamrick Mills in Gaffney – to name just a few. Other companies based out of state, such as Sunbrella fabric-maker Glen Raven and yarn spinner Parkdale, operate massive production complexes in Upstate S.C.

These companies did the things necessary to pave the way to their own survival, and we’ve seen a great mini-revival in the industry as a result. Companies are expanding, opening new plants, hiring again and, frankly, doing some pretty cool things. The innovations being developed these days are astounding and the processes and working environments are exceptional – far removed from the days of mass commodity production. Automation has played a role, too, but not to the extent many may think.

Even the U.S. government has taken notice of the U.S. textile industry’s importance and resurgence. Last year, the Department of Defense announced the creation of the Revolutionary Fibers & Textiles Manufacturing Innovation Institute (RFT-MII), led by the MIT-based Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA). The RFT-MII is a collaborative effort between government and the private sector to accelerate the development of the next generation of highly functional “smart” textiles from both a commercial and military perspective. Total funding is expected to be almost $320 million. A number of Upstate entities, including Inman Mills and Clemson University, are members of this national effort.