Carolina Mills Cooperate to Rebuild Industry

In North Carolina, a network of textile proffesionals known as the Carolina Textile District has come together to help entrepreneurs navigate their way into the industry. 

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In the rural Carolinas there is a growing movement for businesses to take another go at their core industries. 

Within the textile industry there is major buzz around brands looking to “re-shore” their production of goods to U.S. soil.  The Carolina Textile District is a network of mill owners, pattern makers, label producers and suppliers joining together to lift up each other’s work and get ready to manufacture on a large scale once again. 

In the early 1990’s when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) took effect, American brands rushed overseas to mass produce goods paying workers incredibly low wages.  North Carolina factories that employed 100-plus worker were suddenly empty.  The hum of machines dwindled, and vacant buildings became part of the landscape.  Often life-long textile employees were left without job, pension and retirement. 

Some mills managed to keep their doors open in the midst of this economic bust. Nand Thapar of Action Sports Inc. kept his business going by making uniforms for sports teams.  He even produced some of the uniforms for the 1996 Summer Olympics teams, but the scale of work changed drastically.  All the major contracts, like Nike, Victoria’s Secret and Hanes, once the main providers for these factories, left for overseas.  It took determination for mill owners like Thapar to keep their doors open. 

Dan St. Louis, director of the Manufacturing Solutions Center in Conover, North Carolina, and a founding member of the Carolina Textile District, worked during the cycle of the boom and bust around textiles during the 1990s.  Through his position at Manufacturing Solutions he was able to see the high number of garments being sent in for testing after problems with overseas production.  Everything from use of wrong materials to poor craftsmanship made it apparent that there might be another way to go. 

St. Louis recalls seeing the first wave of designers wanting to produce American-made goods again.  

“Around 2011 the phones started ringing off the hook, first from entrepreneurs," he said.  “They were calling all of us. Word was getting out that we were willing to work with them, and it just exploded.”

It was then that he began talking to others in the community like Molly Hemstreet, who was in the beginning phases of opening a worker-owned cooperative, Opportunity Threads.  She saw the need to create one point of contact for potential clients seeking manufacturers. The idea was to to create a regional value chain — a network of businesses, nonprofit organizations and collaborating players who work together to satisfy market demand for specific products or services.

They needed one umbrella organization that could link a designer up to someone who could help with the patterns and professional grading of their product, create a sample, start a production run for retail, even down to the labeling and tags.  With that, the Carolina Textile District was formed.   

Photo by Dana Dillehunt
Kristin Alexander Tidwell, a designer and partner in the CTD, talks with Sara DuPont, who is starting a clothing line.

Sara DuPont of Ellie Glad is a new designer working to create a line of women’s clothing with the Opportunity Threads cooperative.  A portion of the proceeds will go to building a better education system in Tanzania.  The Carolina Textile District can walk a client through the entire process, from the initial idea to a ready-to-sell garment. DuPont calls it the “idea-to-completion process.” 

For her it is important to have the item made in the United States. She says she loves the idea of producing in North Carolina because there is such a rich history of textiles in the state that provides a wealth of knowledge.  

“It’s hard enough to communicate in the same building, much less 8,000 miles away and in a different language,” St. Louis says about the difficulties of producing overseas.  “That’s what they never put in the numbers for, they just kept thinking, this is so cheap!”  This is where people, especially young entrepreneurs, see the benefits of producing within a value chain over a "supply chain," which is the traditional model of manufacturing. 

DuPont tried producing her item in New York City for a time and found it difficult to be a new designer struggling to carry messages herself from the pattern maker to the grader to the manufacturer.  “Going through the Carolina Textile District was like someone connecting all the dots for me,” she said.  It is also a benefit to have everything produced in the same region because it allows space for “a higher level of quality control and oversight” that she’s not sure she would have found anywhere else.       

This is what the Carolina Textile District is hoping to provide: a level of customized mechanization that enables mass-produced items and maintain a high level of craftsmanship.  “We don’t want to be the new China,” says Larry Small of Ashton printing, a partner of the textile district. “We just want to make innovative things.” 

“If you’re out on your own you have nothing” says Thapar, who is starting to see the benefits of working with new entrepreneurs through the initiative. He has expanded his business to manufacture a variety of goods beyond sports wear.  “If you’re working together sharing things then everybody has something and everybody wins.”

Will the belief of value chain over supply chain begin to show its strength here in the states, especially in rural communities?  Folks are starting to see that it doesn’t make sense to compete with the people in your community anymore. Rather, for the Carolina Textile District, what makes sense is finding a way to band together, lift up one another’s work and grow the region as an investment in local livelihood.

 

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