Textiles are thriving here

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Tina Young loads packages of polyester thread onto a frame used to produce a beam or spool at Varinit Corp. in Greenville.  Varinit uses traditional textile equipment to produce its custom order specialty fabrics for the medical and electronics industries Tina Young loads packages of polyester thread onto a frame used to produce a beam or spool at Varinit Corp. in Greenville. Varinit uses traditional textile equipment to produce its custom order specialty fabrics for the medical and electronics industries

Upstate companies turn to high-tech for growth

Southern Weaving, a Greenville textile company that supplied cotton webbing to Ford Motor Co.'s Model T's when it opened on Greenville's west side, is part of the new face of the textile industry.

The company recently announced a $1.5 million expansion and 20 new jobs at its East Bramlett Road plant.

While the Greenville County expansion comes mostly from the consolidation of the company's plant in Easley, company president Ron Mohling said it also represents what has allowed some textile companies in the Upstate to survive - improving efficiency and developing products that set them apart from Chinese imports.

"We're re-inventing the company from the top to the bottom," Mohling said. "Yes, we are becoming more efficient, but the real success comes from developing products they can't make cheaper than we can and to offer the kind of customer service they can't."

More than 200 textile companies in the United States have closed since 2005, according to the National Council of Textile Organizations, a lobbying group for the industry.

Greenville and Spartanburg counties - along with the rest of the Upstate - have been hammered by the closing of textile plants which produced apparel, sheets, pillow cases and other broad cloth.

"Indeed, textiles as we colloquially think of it is pretty much non-existent," said Michael Ellison, a professor in Clemson University's School of Materials Science and Engineering. "Commodity producers are about the only ones that left, but, unfortunately, the commodity producers hired the most people."

Milliken & Co.Chemicals that give crayons
and markers their color and
automobile dashboard their durability
Carolina Manufacturing, Inc.InsectShield, an insect repellant
for fabric that repels mosquitoes,
ticks, ants, flies and other pests.
ThermotexProscenium fire safety
curtains for theaters
Varinit Corp.Fabrics for surgical implants,
anti-static fabrics for operating
rooms and prothesis reinforcements
InvistaCoolmax fabric,
Polarguard fiber
FiberwebMaterial for engine
air intake filters,
landscape fabric
Trelleborg Engineered SystemsSeals for immersed
tunnels, tractor tires

Southern Weaving produces nylon, cotton and polyester webbing used primarily for cargo restraints, safety harnesses, sling webs and hydraulic hose sleeves. The company exported more than $1 million in cotton transfer belts used in the manufacturing process to, of all countries, China, Mohling said.

There were 236 textile plants operating within a 30-mile radius of downtown Greenville, according to Hoover's, a business database.

But the actual total is likely much higher, according to Blanton Godfrey, dean of North Carolina State University's College of Textiles.

N.C. State researchers were contracted by the South Carolina Competitive Council to determine how many textile companies were operating in the state.

They found more than 900.

Some were traditional textile companies, others were companies that supplied chemicals or machinery used in the textile industry.

The companies had a $21.9 billion economic impact.

"Like Mark Twain said, 'Reports of my death were greatly exaggerated,'" Godfrey said. "The textile industry is far from dead."

Expansion announcements like those made by Southern Weaving and Leigh Fibers, which announced a $10.1 million expansion of its Spartanburg County plant, keep happening and people still are surprised, Godfrey said.

"People drive by the plants and see parking lots half full and they assume they're not doing well," Godfrey said. "But that's not the case. They don't need as many people today as they did."

Indeed, a common theme among Upstate companies that have survived is technological advances and specialized fabrics, Godfrey said.

Steve Till, president of Greenville-based Varinit Corp., said his biggest problem is not finding markets for his company's medical and bioengineering fabrics, it's finding labor. The company makes filtration fabric used in wastewater treatment and food processing, fabric used for surgical implants, stent covers and hospital cubicle curtains, and anti-static fabrics for operating rooms and electronic manufacturing.

The 27-year-old company originally manufactured home furnishing products.

"That whole market fell apart," he said. "We've had to change. It's the only way we have a chance to survive."

One of the biggest difficulties for the company is finding employees, he said.

"It's difficult to find people with any textile experience," he said. "People are gravitating to the automotive industry."

Textile companies in the Upstate range from the small - as few as two employees - to the large, Milliken & Co., which employs about 7,000 people worldwide.

Milliken is perhaps the quintessential example of the new face of textiles.

The Spartanburg-based company, the world's largest privately-held textile company, is regarded as the nation's best run textile company.

Milliken manufactures 19,000 textile and chemical products, including those that give tennis balls their soft texture and Jell-O pudding its creamy smoothness.

Textile magnate Roger Milliken did what many other of the big name textile companies did not - he invested heavily in research and development. The company holds more than 2,000 patents, the largest number held by a private company in the United States.

The company's private status gave Milliken a competitive advantage, said Richard Dillard, the company's director of public affairs.

But its biggest advantage, he said, was Milliken's vision that allowed the company to produce innovative material and products that "kept us ahead of the game in a very competitive industry."

"The successful companies in the textile arena have all been successful because they've stayed on the cutting edge of new products and technology," Dillard said. "The key is having products with competitive advantages that rely on high-tech manufacturing. The successful companies execute that."

Godfrey said carbon fiber composites are a huge textile product.

"Technological textiles have gone crazy," he said. "The world of textiles is very different now than the world of textile was decades ago."

And it will continue that way, Ellison said.

Clemson University researchers are working to develop advanced synthetic polymers and to enhance natural fibrous materials, including wool, cotton and silk. Other research involves fiver-reinforced composite materials based on metals, ceramics and polymers for high performance applications in the automotive and space industries.