Revival for dormant textile mills
Once a staple of the South, they find a new niche after free trade began years of decline.
After 29 years in the loom rooms of this Piedmont mill, Phyllis Ruffin's enthusiasm for her work has yet to fray.Skip to next paragraph
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She has the slim, strong fingers of a seamstress, and they work quickly and brightly to "draw in," thread by thread, a pattern that will eventually become upholstery fabric.
Her lips, too, seem to work full time for the Burlington Industries' Williamsburg Plant.
"This mill has put food on my family's table nearly my whole life," says the stately Ms. Ruffin. "I'd recommend this place to anyone - even today."
As a flood of cheap imported fabrics from Brazil and China continues to threaten jobs in America's mills and finishing plants, the suggestion might seem a risky one for job seekers.
But in some corners of Cotton Country, the textile industry is making a comeback.
A century ago, mills sparked the urbanization of the South. Today, even as freer global trade siphons jobs overseas, smaller and more-specialized weaving operations are drawing new contracts - and young workers.
Employing looms so accurate they can stitch the front page of the Greensboro News & Record into readable fabric, mill workers from Georgia to North Carolina are stitching together a more-hopeful future - and reviving a long-dormant way of life.
"We're not downsizing at all, we continue to add people," says Stan Jewell, marketing director for Southern Mills, a milling operation in Union City, Ga.
While commodity fabrics such as denim are now largely woven overseas, America has had success with special fabrics: silver weaves for odor control, light "new cottons," and hybrid fabrics that will one day go into the Star Trek fashions of tomorrow.
In fact, experts say, US weavers manufacture the most complicated, high-tech fabrics in the world - many of which were perfected at Southern research universities. And mills filling this niche have found room to grow.
Since 1994, fabric exports have doubled. They reached $1.2 billion this year - up more than 17 percent since 1999 alone.
The rise in exports, however, doesn't mean spinners and weavers have ignored the domestic market. The Williamsburg plant in Matkins depends on the Piedmont's huge furniture and mattress factories, which buy most of its upholstery fabrics.
How mills are surviving
"Many American companies have done an excellent job in moving their operations into a stronger technical base," says Bill King, a professor at the College of Textiles in Raleigh, N.C. "If you put the new technology together with certain other factors in the US, you'll find that there are still certain parts of the textile industry that are still [among] the most competitive in the world."
Examples are widespread:
* Earlier this month, Burlington signed a deal with Nano-Tex Technologies to supply fabrics for the next generation of molecularly engineered everyday wear.
* Southern Mills in Union City, Ga., is a market leader in supplying fire suits to firefighters, and remains perhaps one of the steadiest looms in the business. Managers here struggle to find workers, and nepotism is considered a good thing. Managers rely on family connections to find competent workers.
* Parkdale Mills in Gastonia, N.C., is about to start producing a fabric "that's better than cotton," leading to a rush of jobs and expansions in the mill district.
"In lots of these small Southern towns, the mills are still the best jobs in town," says Duke Kimbrell, president of Parkdale.
Efficient new looms have made the mill work easier - and, with pay starting at more than $12 an hour, it's more profitable than most other small-town jobs.
At the Burlington plant in Matkins, the work seems more measured than hectic. Yes, there's the din of 460 two-story pneumatic looms gnashing miles of yarn, but an underlying order seems to be present.