Commentary Loss of textile industry hits Southeast

What survived the Civil War, the Great Depression, and other economic upheavals of the past century could not survive the ravages of bad trade policy. Tallassee Mills, located about 35 miles northeast of Montgomery, Ala., closed its doors recently after operating for more than 161 years.

The mill, described by its parent company as the nation's oldest cloth factory, reportedly once made fabric for both slave clothes and Confederate uniforms. Tallassee Mills is a reminder of a by-gone era in more ways than one. Sitting on the banks of the Tallapoosa River, its stone walls are more than a yard thick, and its floor joists are made from pine logs.

But the new “world market” in which we are operating is no respecter of time or tradition.

Tallassee Mills is just the latest in a long line of U.S. textile plants to lose the fight being waged against foreign imports. More than 350 U.S. textile plants have closed since 1997, and the industry has lost about 194,400 jobs in the past five years, according to the National Council of Textile Organizations.

As a result of Tallassee Mills closing, more than 300 people lost their jobs in a city of about 5,000.

The plant's manager said foreign competition finally got the best of the non-union mill, where the average wage was $12.50 per hour.

Owned by Mount Vernon Mills, Inc., of Mauldin, S.C., Tallassee Mills dates back to 1844, when workers began producing heavy cotton cloth used to make both grain sacks and slave clothes in a one-story building that also turned out Confederate carbine rifles during the Civil War.

A larger mill was built beside the original structure in 1852, and it turned out material for uniforms worn by Confederate troops.

The workers in this proud old mill produced about 1 million yards of cotton and polycotton fabric a week on 337 looms. Now, that production will presumably move overseas or south of the border.

The decimation of the U.S. textile industry has been especially difficult on the Southeast and towns like Tallassee. North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia were the biggest losers of textile jobs in the past year among states with the largest concentrations of jobs in this sector, according to federal statistics.

In North Carolina, textile mill employment decreased by 2,300, or 3.7 percent, to 60,200 in June 2005 compared to June 2004. In South Carolina, the sector's count fell by 2,200, or 6.1 percent, to 34,000.

Virginia had the sharpest decline, 15 percent, decreasing by 1,800 jobs to 10,200 in June 2005 from 12,000 in the same month a year earlier. Georgia lost 1,300 jobs, or 3.6 percent, to 35,100.

Virginia textile manufacturer Dan River, Inc., which emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in February, has cut between 900 and 950 jobs in that state, mostly in its headquarters city of Danville. In addition, the company has announced plans to sell its apparel fabrics division, which employs about 800 people, so it can focus on its home fashions unit.

But industry watchers say even leaner companies such as Dan River still face an uphill battle against low-cost foreign competition, and they expect more industry cutbacks as manufacturers cope with threats from overseas.

The only bright spot in U.S. textiles is in California, where mill employment has risen by 6.6 percent to 14,600, from June of last year through June of this year. But the growth, says a research specialist with the California Employment Development Department, probably reflects the small size, agility and diverse fabrics of the state's manufacturers.

As for the impact of all of this on cotton producers, no one has to tell you that your livelihood is now almost totally dependent on the export market, not the most stable of situations. The latest estimate has the United States exporting 15 million bales of cotton during the current marketing year.

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