Globalization putting new wrinkles in textile industry

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Efforts to patch up the South's once-thriving textile industry have run up against NAFTA and the economic recession. Meanwhile, globalization and even the war on terrorism are rippling through competing clothing-manufacturing industries in places like Mexico and Pakistan.

MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Some people climb mountains. Margaret Blankenship has sewn one — out of sweatpants; 21,565,440 pairs of them, to be exact.

Every workday for the past 36 years, the bundles of fuzzy cotton kept coming and Blankenship kept stitching, making more sweatpants along the line at the VF Imagewear factory than anybody in company history.

But recently she got laid off. VF is ceasing operations here, the latest in a long list of Southern textile mills to succumb to the pull of globalization. And Martinsville, once the sweatshirt and sweatpants capital of the world, is fast approaching its last batch of fleece.

For years, these mills had eluded obsolescence with an iron-hard work ethic and investments in technology that kept production costs competitive. No more. Just as the textile industry left New England for the South 80 years ago, it's now shipping off for Mexico, Honduras, even Pakistan, thanks to looser trade laws.

Thousands of middle-aged, minimally educated American textile workers have been left behind in a landscape of shuttered plants and cool smokestacks.

The lintheads, as they were once called, have few prospects.

"Dreams? Ambitions? Goals?" Blankenship asked, as if she were talking about foreign lands. "It's funny, but I've never thought about them. I always figured I'd be sewing."

It's the same old story, one that many American steel workers or toy makers could tell.

But the last decade has been especially harsh on the textile industry, with 441,000 jobs disappearing, a loss of 44 percent. Last year, 110 mills shut (most of them in the South), 68,000 workers were laid off and several of the largest companies filed for bankruptcy.

"It's so sad," said Judy Brooks, a bank manager in Andrews, N.C., where a Lee jeans plant just closed. "I got people calling up, telling me, 'Just come and get it. I can't pay for my car no more."'

Few places have been as hard hit as Martinsville and surrounding Henry County, along the Virginia-North Carolina border. In the past eight years, the area has lost 9,360 jobs, forcing county leaders to consider closing four schools because tax revenues are plummeting and folks are leaving.

From red-brick factories looming over the hilltops and along the churning rivers, Martinsville used to produce wooden furniture, auto parts, grandfather clocks and more sweatshirts and nylon than anywhere else in the world. Its neighborhoods are lined with graceful Tudor homes — mill-manager homes — and downtown there's an arts center and history museum, symbols of a grander day.

Now, abandoned trailers sulk outside the old Tultex plant, the DuPont factory is essentially a bulldozer practice pit and Bassett Chair, once home to the Chateau Marseille dinette set, is roped off with yellow police tape.

But people here are trying not to get too far behind. Thick-handed mill workers are learning to type, others commute miles to new jobs, and a big new Mexican restaurant — a sign of the changing times — is going up on Memorial Boulevard, the main strip through town.

"We thought it was the end of the world when tobacco left," said town historian Carl DeHart. "But then we got textiles. Who knows what's next?"

American companies had kept themselves relevant by specializing in products composed of nylon and fleece and developing high-tech machines such as the "napper," a computer-controlled contraption that whips sweatshirt fabric with wire brushes to make it fuzzy. VF, a $5.8 billion international corporation, invested $25 million in the past five years for new machines in Martinsville.

But starting in the mid-1990s, with the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, these companies began to suffer from foreign competition and falling prices. The more labor-intensive apparel work went first, with sewing shops moving to Mexico. The textile industry has two components: textiles, the business of knitting, dying and cutting cloth; and apparel, the assembly or sewing stage. Many companies do both, and labor statistics tend to group textiles and apparel together.

After the Asian financial crisis of 1997, which devalued currencies, overseas textiles became even less expensive.

The final blow was the terrorist attacks, according to textile lobbyists, which left the industry with the bleakest outlook since the Great Depression. Since Sept. 11, 42 mills have closed or announced closings, including VF, the last of the sweatshirt makers in Martinsville.

Also, President Bush is under pressure to lift textile tariffs on Pakistan, the third-largest cloth maker in the world, as a way to say thanks for the country's help in fighting terrorism.

"The industry is doomed," said Wayne Hill, VF's vice president of textiles. "We used to compete against the mill down the street. Now we're up against the world."

Today, 85 percent of VF's manufacturing jobs are offshore, compared with 20 percent just six years ago. Since 1997, VF has added 13,000 employees in Mexico and Honduras, while cutting 24,000 jobs in the United States. The company is paring its domestic operations to a handful of mills in the South.

"It's four to five times cheaper to make sweatshirts offshore," said Cindy Knoebel, a VF spokeswoman. "We don't have a choice."

These business realities leave huge holes in communities like Martinsville.

Across town from the mill, in a new office in the Henry County government center, Wayne Sterling is an economic-development adviser earning $200,000 a year, more than twice the next-highest-paid county official and about 10 times the earnings of a veteran mill worker.

Sterling is best known for leading the team that persuaded BMW to locate its first North American production plant in Spartanburg, S.C., which provided 4,000 jobs. It's hard to talk about jobs in Martinsville without Sterling's name coming up, whether in the halls of the county center, at the employment office or during lunch at the D & A cafe, where a plate of chicken and "taters" costs $3.90 and people who don't know each other cram into booths and swap stories about getting laid off.

"Wayne better produce," DeHart said, "unless he thinks he looks good in tar and feathers."

Martinsville's leaders are bracing themselves for the summer, when the last of VF's 2,300 textile workers are let go and the jobless rate is expected to hit 20 percent.

"Let's be honest," said Tim Hall, Henry County spokesman. "Most of our people are not ready to step into some New Economy gig."