Carpet industry, trampled in recession, is springing back

Not everyone has heard of Dalton, nestled in the pine-covered mountains of northwest Georgia. But there's a good chance that a bit of Dalton is quite close to you - underfoot, in fact.

Dalton and environs is the center of the tufted carpet industry in the United States. Some 65 percent of all tufted carpet produced in the US is made here, and tufted carpet accounts for upwards of 95 percent of domestic carpet production.

The industry, which is closely tied to both housing and automobiles, was severely pinched by recession through the end of last year; dozens of firms folded. But the mills are now jumping again. ''The next thing they'll have to do is add another day to the week,'' says one official.

Dalton's involvement in the business began around the turn of the century with the development of the tufting machine - a sort of ''gun'' that shoots yarn into a backing fabric that looks like a giant needlework project. Women at the southern tip of the Appalachians brought these machines home, along with a large supply of yarn, and a cottage industry of tufting chenille bedspreads was born. Chenille bedspreads have rather lost their chic, but tufting technology was adapted to factory scale and, by 1950, was being applied to carpet production.

It was the mass production of tufted carpet, a process 25 times as fast as traditional weaving, and hence significantly cheaper, that gave Middle America an alternative to bare floors. Tufting and the introduction of synthetic fibers were the industrial revolution of the carpet industry.

The Galaxy Carpet Mills dyehouse here in Dalton had the blues when this correspondent came to visit. It was Monday morning, but the color had nothing to do with the mood at Galaxy. Peter R. Ware, dyeing product development manager, explains that blue shades are the trickiest to work with, and so they are generally run on Mondays, after the last traces of other tints have been removed from machinery during weekend cleanup.

But Galaxy, which concentrates on residential carpet, and the other companies here are really feeling in the pink. ''Sales are up; we're projecting the biggest growth year ever,'' Mr. Ware says. Next year is expected to see even more growth in sales. The dyehouse is already running two 12-hour shifts, seven days a week.

Other companies are similarly upbeat. The strong housing recovery, particularly, is being felt in Dalton, as is the general economic upturn. ''We're at full capacity,'' says Greg Fowler, assistant manager of technical services at J&J Industries, which caters to the commercial market. ''We're not turning any orders down, but we'll probably have some orders canceled, because we won't be able to get to them in time.''

''The carpet firms are doing well after some dry years,'' says textile analyst Kay Norwood of Interstate Securities in Charlotte, N.C. ''They're in the double digits in sales (increases), and in earnings, too, in many cases.'' The falloff through 1982 was considerable. ''If you look at the chart of carpet shipments, the line goes right down to the lower right-hand corner of the page.''

She sees the current spurt in sales as a significant upturn, but doesn't think 1983 will match the boom year of 1979. ''That would be asking a little too much too soon.''

Donald W. Kuhn, president of the rug and carpet division of WestPoint Pepperell, notes the salutary effect of the housing recovery but says, ''Times are still tough. We've got to find new ways to reduce costs. The prices we are able to command for our products are not yet back up to earlier levels, though our costs continue to escalate.''

For the long term, he expects the industry to focus on marketing carpet as fashion - on enticing consumers away from safe basic beiges into exciting ''now'' colors - which will eventually become blatantly ''then'' shades that must be replaced.

The carpet industry is highly competitive and highly capital intensive and in a continuous state of technical advancement. ''Come back in six months and we may not be using this equipment anymore,'' says Galaxy's Mr. Ware of the computers being used to develop colors like ''lavender haze'' and ''rice paper.''

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