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BOB MOON: Ya know, it all depends on your perspective. If China is cheating with its currency, giving its own businesses an edge over foreign competitors. . . . It’s a good thing we’ve got our own house in order on free trade, right?
Actually, take a close look at the latest U.S. Farm Bill and you’ll find hints that we’re protecting our own industries. Example: A textile subsidy program. It’s designed to help cotton mills better compete in the face of growing competition from, uh-huh, China. Not that the fabric and apparel industry can’t use the help.
Here’s North Carolina Public Radio’s Leoneda Inge.
LEONEDA INGE: You need ear-plugs when you walk the spinning floor at Parkdale Mills in Lexington, N.C. Parkdale is one of the top yarn producers in the world.
Raw cotton is cleaned and then pulled into long braids that are automatically fed into machines. The cotton turns into thin yarn before your eyes.
SHANE HAMRICK: It’s automatically wrapped, automatically labeled. It’s taken off the line and you’re ready for shipment.
Shane Hamrick is the plant manager here.
Hamrick has spent all of his career in textiles. He’s never been laid off in an industry that’s dwindled by 50 percent in the last decade.
HAMRICK: Yeah, with the current climate I feel as good about being here as I would anywhere. I’ve got friends that work at Wachovia and Bank of America and I think they are a little more unstable than we are right now. So, I feel good about the future.
In 2005 you could hardly find anybody in textiles who felt good about the future. Imports of cotton underwear, socks and pants from China were flooding the market. Tens of thousands of textile workers lost their jobs in the U.S.
Import caps were put in place to slow down the flood, but those expired last month.
Now textile manufacturers are getting support from new subsidies in the Farm Bill. The goal is to help companies like Parkdale stay competitive. The program will pay to up-grade equipment at mills that convert cotton to yarn. Basic manufacturing, but it’s a part of the textile industry where the U.S. still leads in terms of output and quality.
Michael Walden is an agricultural economist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. Walden says the U.S. has a future at the other end of the textile industry.
MICHAEL WALDEN: What’s left has moved away from common apparel products to more what I’ll call high-tech textile and apparel products, innovative products. Products that have industrial use, products that have military use.
Like the fabric N.C. State developed for the Air Force to make a tent that protects against fire.
Blanton Godfrey is dean of the College of Textiles at N.C. State. He says innovation is the key to the future of the textile industry. We’re not talking socks and T-shirts, but components to make cars and sporting equipment.
BLANTON GODFREY: Instead of a truck body being made out of aluminum or in the old days, steel, it’s now going to be made out of composites which are textile based, fiber based.
Innovation in new fibers is the future. But the textile industry also sees growth in the fiber that started it all.
This semester the College of Textiles sponsored its first Cotton Couture Fashion Show.
Caitlin Lubatty is a senior in the program. Lubatty says the textile industry is far from dead, it’s just different.
CAITLIN LUBATTY: I think of it as an interrelated network of suppliers and manufacturers and designers and everybody is really working together at this point.
Figuring out new ways to work together could be the biggest survival technique of all, in a recession where orders for everything are down.
I’m Leoneda Inge for Marketplace.
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