America's textile barons are on the attack. Facing a saturated, inflation-hit market at home, the whole world has become their target. Overseas sales of American-made towels, sheets, carpets, bolts of fabric, and --
Blue jeans, you say? US manufaturers have visions of a billion Chinese in blue denum jeans. Muses one specialist in the field. Dean David Chaney of the School of Textiles at the university of North Carolina: "If we could make the Chinese like denim. . . ." Many Americans may think of textile mills as noisy old brick buildings with sealed-up windows where underpaid workers have to fight both "brown lung" and management's union-busting tactics. But while these certainly are still parts of the US textile scene, there is another, brighter side --industry experts.
Efficient management techniques and major investments in new textile machinery during the past decade are paying off. And although exports for most firms account for less than 10 percent of their total sales, the percentage -- and profits -- from exports aregrowing rapidly.
This growth comes even as many US manufacturers of apparel (which involves a high degree of handwork) continue to be hard-pressed by imports from countries such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea, where labor is considerably cheaper than in the United states.
But when it comes to making sheets, towels, unfinished fabrics, and carpets, American tectile manufaturers are finding their efficient -- anf often new -- machines and management techniques give them a price advantage in many countries.
Indeed, increasing productivity in textiles is "one of the bright, shinning sport on the industrial horizon," says Dean Chaney.
in Europe, a devalued dollar and higherpriced fabrics from less-efficient local factories have customers grabbing up American products. Some industry analysts warn that the recession in Europe and possible European protective reaction to this Yankee "invasion" may slow US sales there. But Latin America, Africa, and Asia also are on the target list of a growing number of Us textile firms.
Burlington Industries, the nation's largest textile manufacturer, has been expanding its export sales in Europe, South America, and, more recently, in the Far East, says an executive vice-president, Charles McLendon.
Cannon Mills sees, "tremendous opportunities" not only in Europe, but also in Latin America and the Middle East, in the words of Otto Stolz, board chairman and chief executive officer. Cannon calls itself the world's largest manufacturer of towels and sheets.
Mr. Stolz says Europeans particularly find the softer, subtler colors of American-made goods to their liking. Meanwhile, in some developing countries -- oil-exporting Venezuela, for example -- Cannon is catering to the tastes of a growing middle class.
When middle-class families were at what Stolz calls "a lower economic level," they were "willing to sleep on rougher, muslin sheets." Now, they often demand finer US-made sheets. Currently there are no major Venezuelan firms to compete with cannon in supplying such products, says Stolz.
US textile exports jumped from $2.2 billion in 1978 to an estimated $3.6 billion this year, says George Wino, cheif economist of the American Textile Manufacturers Institute (ATMI), a trade organization.
In 1970, the balance of trade figures for textiles (not including apparel) showed a minus $544 million; in 1979 they showed a plus $815 million (meaning that the value of exports exceeded imports by that amount.)
Meanwhile, with apparel made by cheap labor overseas continuing to flow into the US, this country had a trade deficit in apparel of $4.2 billion in 1979, according to the US Department of Commerce.
Ansious to improve the American balance of trade, the Commerce Department has been encouraging and assisting textile firms to step up their export efforts. And US firms are responding with what one official calls a "fantastic amount of interest."
But more federal help also is needed to reduce some of the red-tape, nontariff barriers that many countries use to discourage US textile imports says Mr. MCLendon.
South Korea, for example, requires American textile firms to get an import license from the South Korean textile manufacturers association. But in practice, thatassociation often denies licenses to avoid US competition. Meanwhile, South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong account for the bulk of Us apparel imports.
But while cheap-labor apparel manufacturing nations are working away, US firms are pressing their export advantage on the nonapparel side. It is not just a case of the Oriental seamstress vs. the expensive, but efficient, machinery used in the US. Increasingly, it is a matter of both parties doing what they do best.
When it comes to efficiency in producing nonapparel textile products, says North Carolina securities analyst Kay C. Norwood, "We're sort of in the driver's seat."
Behind this efficiency, the turn to overseas markets, and the general state of the US textile industry today are several factors:
* The devalued dollar. This means foreign buyers get more for their money because it is worth more compared with the US dollar.
* Slow sales in the US. The recession has hurt the textile industry just as it as other types of manufacturing; many people put off buying extra sheets or towels or carpets till better times.
* New machines. These produce cloth faster, in wider widths (which are popular in Europe), and result in higher quality, textile specialists say. Some of the new machines are looms without shuttles: The yarn or thread is moved by an air or water jet.
* Inefficiency in many European plants and lack of competition in many other countries. Ironically, many of the new textile machines come from Europe. But textile industrialists in this country say high salaries and expensive fringe benefits, plus less capital investment, have left many European textile producers outpriced.
Working conditions. The new machines are quieter -- a factor that takes on added importance in view of continuing federal pressure to reduce the noise level in mills for textile workers.
But the federal noise standard "cannot be met," even with the new machines, says Howard Wells, an official of the Bibb Company, a manufacturing firm based in Macon, Ga.
Moreover, federal standars on the level of cotton dust in plants are under legal challenge from the industry as excessive.
But, complains Dennis Balske, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center the industry has been neligent in reporting findings of the effects of cotton dust on workers. He contends that many textile workers have been laid off when lung damage was detected, but they were not told of the cause or how they could claim workmen's compensation. The center has filed lawsuits on behalf of some textile workers allegedly affected by brown lung.
Dean Chaney, however, points out that medical scientists disagree over the extent to which cotton dust can be blamed for lung damage in a worker, especially if the worker smokes tobacco. It is far cheaper for companies to monitor lung capacity (and to transfer affected workers) than it is to buy and install air filtration equipment, he says.
* Workers pay and benefits. Wages in the textile industry have consistently lagged behind the average pay of manufacturing industries in the US. Textile unions have fought long and hard to organize and press for what they consider fair wages and benefits. The National Labor Relations Board has accused the J. P. Stevens Company, in particular, of illegal antiunion actions. (The company and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers signed their first labor contract in October after a 17-year union organizing effort. The contract affects some, but not all, of Stevens's mills.)
* A gradual decline in the number of textile workers and an increase in the amount of work done by machines. The number of textile workers in the US has shrunk from 919,000 in 1976 to 875,000 this year, according to the ATMI.
The decrease in the work force (often due to attrition) and the introduction of the efficient new machines have boosted productivity, according to ATMI economist Wino.
Productivity gains in the textile industry, he says, have been averaging about 4 percent a year for the past 20 years, compared with an average 2 percent gain for all industries.
There are currently 6,000 companies involved in the textile industry, according to ATMI. As some of the less efficient, or import-battered companies (mostly in the apparel industry) fold or cut back sharply in their work forces, the more efficient ones are forging ahead, with their sights on overseas sales.