In Martinsville, Va., fleece has lost its luster

Globalization forcing apparel companies to shut their doors

March 03, 2002|By Jeffrey Gettleman | Jeffrey Gettleman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

MARTINSVILLE, Va. - Some people climb mountains. Margaret Blankenship has sewn one - out of sweat pants, 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 sweat pants 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 sweat shirt and sweat pants 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.

Workers left behind

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, which includes both cloth manufacturing and garment making, 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 sweat shirts 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 Co., once home to the Chateau Marseille dinette set, is roped off with yellow police tape.

Last month, Martinsville was the first place Virginia's new governor, Democrat Mark Warner, mentioned in his commonwealth address when he got to the part about towns "getting left behind."

But people here are trying to catch up. 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 sweat shirt 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.

Starting in mid-1990s

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 Sept. 11 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 sweat shirt 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.

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