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Textile mills still producing in Palmetto State

Manufacturing
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Rumors about the death of marked twine have been greatly exaggerated.

Twine, yarn, fabric, thread, cordage … the textile manufacturing industry in South Carolina – and the rest of the nation – has suffered through some tough years. At every gathering of manufacturing folks and the industry that surrounds them, someone mentions the death of the textile industry.

It’s not an easy business, say those still in textiles, but it’s still very much alive.

The textiles industry employed 24,611 workers in South Carolina in 2016, third most in the country, according to data from the National Council of Textile Organizations. With almost 50,000, Georgia has the most textile jobs, followed by more than 36,000 for North Carolina. Those numbers do not include apparel manufacturing or farms producing cotton and wool.

Nationally, there were 112,300 jobs in yarns and fabrics alone in 2017, and 550,500 workers in the supply chain.

James Richter, director of workforce development for the South Carolina Manufacturers Alliance said textiles in South Carolina continue to do well, even if it is a struggle.

“It’s a pretty vibrant industry, with well over 300 textile related operations, possibly over 500,” he said.  Those that are surviving have done so by finding a market for their products and a way to produce those products with maximum efficiency. International competition supported by lower wages abroad is blamed most often. The North American Free Trade Agreement is often vilified as a key culprit.

KENTWOOL’s Keith Horn said his company has overcome Chinese competition by developing new specialty products that they pledge to deliver in high quality and always on time. And significantly, by the time the Greenville company delivers its product, the low-wage advantages of the competition have been equalized.

“For a long time people thought textiles had pretty much died,” said Horn, the company’s president of manufacturing.  “Those of us still in it had two choices. Continue with your game plan or adapt to your new environment. And, when you think about it, when you put pen to paper, you have to ask if it’s really cheaper to do business out of China.”

KENTWOOL has developed not just the yarns used in the end product, but also the end product. The 175-year-old family-owned company’s website includes a highly-developed retail space that helps move the products spun by the 70 employees at their Pickens County yard division.

Other manufacturers have found customers in the new industries that now dominate the state’s manufacturing scene, such as Sage Automotive Interiors, which makes products that mill workers from bygone days never heard of, like microfiber suede. The company is located close to customers and says it works to keep technology fresh.

According to the National Council of Textile Organizations, plants across the country have been aggressive about upgrading technology and facilities to help them keep up with competition.

The organization marks the recession year of 2008 as the last year of its industry slide. A string of mill closings drew a lot of public attention and created a lasting image of an industry in permanent decline. Since then, investment in mills and textile product mills has climbed. Spending on upgrades grew from $960 million in 2009 to $1.8 billion in 2014. In a speech to members published on their website, the organization’s president said mill closings after 2009 “likely are the result of normal business cycles, new investment or productivity increases instead of being tied to the massive loss of market share as was the case in the 1995-2008 timeframe.”

Being innovative and aggressive doesn’t always work, though.

One of the most recent mill closings is Alice Manufacturing Company Inc.’s Ellison plant in Pickens County. The company announced at the end of April that it would close the doors on its manufacturing operation on June 30.

The textile manufacturing company produces fabric and yarn.

 “The Ellison plant team has had a proud 50-year history of producing the finest textile products in the world,” E. Smyth McKissick III, chairman of Alice Manufacturing, said in a press release announcing the closure. “Thousands of folks have come here for decades to create the highest-quality fabrics. They’ve worked together for a common purpose and have created a community of the very best people.”

The company, which has been run by the same family for its 95-year history, touts innovation on its website.

The Ellison plant was built in 1966 and was upgraded with the “latest generation” of air jet weaving products available in 2013, according to the company website. The website also mentions management strategies like Lean and Six Sigma to maximize efficiency, and it includes a spot showcasing the company’s role as a corporate citizen that supports a list of community projects and causes.

Although McKissick declined to comment further for this story, the company indicated in its news release that it had survived under NAFTA but its manufacturing arm succumbed in the end to other international trading pressures.

“The global textile industry has undergone tremendous change in recent years. Once vibrant U.S. and NAFTA markets on which plants like Ellison have depended have changed dramatically due to a flood of imports from producers in non-market economies,” the news release said. 

In response to these changes, Alice Manufacturing founded a fashion bedding business in 2000 in order to become closer and more important to the final consumer, the news release said. A company representative said the bedding business is located in New York, but service and distribution are handled out of Easley.

“We are energized about the future of our fashion bedding business,” McKissick said in the news release. “This business made two acquisitions in 2017, and we believe both of these will generate terrific synergies and build on its successful platform.”

Alice Manufactuing is still looking to a future in textiles, but there is no place in it for the Easley plant or its 175 employees.

Reach Ross Norton at 864-720-1222.

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