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.

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.

For all the noise, the looms move in concert. A smiling middle-age woman rides by on a rickshaw filled with spools of yarn. Her friend pulls tools from a carpenter's belt and prepares a loom for a fresh run of mattress batting. Technicians calmly bend into the jaws of machines capable of weaving thousands of yards of fabric a week.

Twentysomething Tiffany Shaw came 30 miles from Greensboro, N.C., to apply for a job here. "I'm a little nervous about all the layoffs we've been hearing about, but my mother, who works here, says not to worry," Ms. Shaw says.

Still a plum job

In some Southern mill towns, young people are still choosing to find local work after high school. Despite worries over job security, these jobs are still vaunted.

Since the first looms started twitching in the South in the late 19th century, mill jobs have always been highly regarded, and were not given to just anyone. In fact, in the early days during segregation and Jim Crow, blacks were not allowed to have jobs in many loom rooms; the choice weaving spots were held open for white farm families.

Unlike some of his friends who left Matkins, 10-year mill veteran Thomas Lee graduated straight from high school into the cloth room. For Mr. Lee, the occasional job worries have been supplanted by a great hourly wage and the ability to work close to his house, just up Cherry Hill Road. "I make good money for the work, and I'm happy here," he says.

The majority of workers at this mill have been here for more than 10 years, and many who leave to try other work eventually return.

"As it was back when the mills in many cases were the towns, people still feel like they're being taken care of here," says Burlington spokeswoman Delores Sides.

For all the positive signs, though, the textile business is still fraught by uncertainty. Burlington has closed a half dozen mills in the past two years, and the future of others may hinge on international trade deals.

Many of the new workers at Parkdale's mills are watching the Caribbean Basin Initiative, which might help US textiles. It forces Caribbean nations to use American fabrics if they want to avoid tariffs on goods they sell in the US. Already, Korean apparelmakers are setting up shop in Jamaica and St. Thomas, ready to use American thread.

But the US has to be more firm with other countries, analysts say. Brazil, for example, exported 67 percent more to the US this year than last year, yet it largely blocked the Yanks' access to its huge apparel industry. Frustrated, states including North Carolina are taking matters into their own hands - as witnessed by a state trade mission to Cuba last week.

"All these foreign companies, everybody's entwined," says Marty Kane of Travis Textiles in New York's Garment District. "They find a million excuses not to have to deal with American manufacturers."

To be sure, the trade imbalance has had an effect on many American manufacturing trades - but especially textiles. Dozens of Southern towns, many with tiny, brick-faced downtowns straight out of the 1950s, are getting a firsthand lesson in how to get along without the mill.

Erwin's story

Before the decline of denim, Erwin, N.C., was a typical mill village, replete with big gardens and sturdy cottages set up like Southern sharecropper farms. The mill was the town, and the town was the mill. Last week, though, Swift Mill's Plant No. 5 - not long ago the largest denim mill in the world - was being dismantled.

"People in Erwin are a gritty bunch, real good ol' boys," says J.R. Jarman, who owns the Oriental Health Clinic in Erwin. "They'll make it work."

For the specialty mills that are surviving, officials just try to keep workers from getting too uneasy. Burlington plant manager Charles Martin issues regular communiques to his workforce.

"We tell them what we know," he says. "People are always going to talk, but they know they're getting forthright information from management."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.