The textile and apparel industries have been important, intertwining threads in the Piedmont North Carolina's history although the industries' influence has waned as the local economy diversified.During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Greensboro grew as local textile firms expanded and thrived. After the town struggled in the Civil War and Reconstruction, it was textile manufacturers who gave the town an industrial base that brought jobs and prosperity.
Many of these companies practiced welfare capitalism - taking on duties such as building houses, schools and recreation centers for workers and their families. The result was close-knit communities centered around mills such as Cone Mills' Proximity and White Oak plants in Greensboro, which remain identifiable neighborhoods today.
William Moore, director of the Greensboro Historical Museum, said textiles has been and continue to be the dominant industry of the area.
``In the 19th Century, bringing the railroad really helped Greensboro grow. But at the turn of the century it was companies like Cone Mills that really boosted the economy,' he said.
Cone Mills is among four of the nation's largest textile firms that are based in the Greensboro area; the others are Burlington Industries and Guilford Mills of Greensboro and Fieldcrest Cannon of Eden. More than a dozen smaller textile-related firms call the area home, notably Unifi of Greensboro, Culp of High Point and Macfield of Madison.
In the apparel industry Wrangler, formerly Blue Bell, was born and remains headquartered in Greensboro and ranks among the nation's largest jeans makers.
While the Piedmont has benefited from the textile and apparel business, it has also been affected by past and present turmoil. Union organizing pitted workers against the owner and other workers. At times, the result has included violent conflict. The discovery of byssinosis, better known as brown lung disease, showed the high price many textile workers paid for years breathing air laden with cotton dust.
In the '80s, leveraged buyouts and layoffs left scars as local companies struggled to pay off debts. Those financial pressures, coupled with increased foreign competition and greater automation, contributed to a 10 percent decline in the number of textile and apparel workers in North Carolina during the '80s to 314,000.
The textile industry was first attracted to the Piedmont in the 1800s because of the area's large supply of relatively low-wage workers. Now companies are increasingly shifting production to Asia, South America and Caribbean, where wages are lower than in the United States.
As a result, textile employment reached its lowest level in 50 years this year.
``The (foreign) competition has forced firms to automate more,' said Don Carrington of the State Employment Securities Commission. ``Production has stayed constant as companies move toward automatized plants.'
As textile and apparel employment has fallen, its dominance in the local economy has declined. Greensboro's industrial base has expanded to include such diverse firms as Konica, a Japanese camera and film manufacturer, and Ciba-Geigy, a Swiss agricultural chemicals manufacturer. Further growth has occurred at companies such as American Express and Sears Roebuck & Co., Greensboro's largest corporate employer.
But Carrington said the textile industry still carries economic and political clout.
``Obviously it would have tremendous impact if it went away,' he said. ``And politicians still need to vote for import restrictions to be elected,' Carrington said. Indeed, attempts to block textile imports are one of the few issued on which Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., and Sen. Terry Sanford, D-N.C., agree.
Losing the family feel
In the '20s, mill owners continued to say their villages were better than life on the farm, but wage and hour reductions brought increased unrest among workers. New England textile mills faltered in part because Southern mills undercut their prices with cheaper labor. As New England textile centers turned into ghost towns, North Carolina mill villages thrived. By 1927 there were 579 textile mills in the state employing 170,000 people.
Southern owners were anxious to increase production to avoid the same fate as northern companies. They institute a ``stretch-out' meaning fewer workers handled more machines. Textile mill owners said they had to use such methods to survive the Depression. Despite losses from shifting fashion trends and increased competition from Great Britain, Japan and India, a Federal Trade Commission survey in the early '30s indicated that most Southern mills earned profits ranging from 6.42 to 12.44 percent of sales.
``The history of Southern textiles is a history of battles over who controls the shop floor,' said Michael Schulman, a sociology professor at N.C. State University who is writing a book on the Southern textile labor movement. ``Workers want to have their say and companies want to have total control.'
Initially, mill workers had tolerated what they believed they couldn't change. But through organized labor, they hoped to have more of a voice in mill operations. Successful strikes in Charlotte and Concord boosted union membership at many mills, prompting many owners to counter by portraying union organizers as communist outsiders.
Local workers often supported the goals of organized labor but were reluctant to join a union when it meant losing their jobs. On a sweltering summer day in 1932, mobs of unemployed textile workers tried to get a strike going by turning off electricity and carrying workers outside mills in High Point, Jamestown, Kernersville, Thomasville and Lexington. The strike caused 150 factories to close and 150,000 workers, one fifth of the state's labor force, to walk out. However, the strike was short-lived. Most workers returned the next day.
During the Depression, the hosiery industry rode the wave in nylon stockings without widespread layoffs. Hosiery jobs were highly prized because the plants were cleaner, less dangerous and better paying than cotton mills. A hosiery worker could earn $40 a week, the same amount a cotton mill workers earned in a month.
World War II gave the textile and apparel industries a needed boost. The armed forces bought about 70 percent of North Carolina mills' entire production during the war years to use in uniforms, blankets, tents and parachutes.
One of the companies that capitalized on the war was Burlington Mills. Burlington Chairman J. Spencer Love built the company into the nation's largest producer of rayon. During the war, he made plans to continue company expansion.
``The Four Year Plan for expansion and modernization has been laid out for some time and will go into effect immediately,' he wrote in a 1945 memo. ``This plan calls for additional manufacturing facilities in every direction of the company.'
By 1950, Burlington had mills in 21 locations and made 40 percent of the nation's hosiery. Other local companies such as Cone Mills and Blue Bell capitalized on the boom in jeans sales during the '60s and '70s. In 1960, North Carolina had 1,100 mills valued at $2.8 billion, with more than 55 percent of the state's manufacturing workers employed in textile mills.
In 1940, when mill workers earned an average of $600 a year, Love had a salary of $91,939.
Textile and apparel companies showed relatively little interest in diversifying into other industries. As a result, the companies became vulnerable to business cycles and increasing competition from imports.
Local mills felt the pressure in 1955 when tariffs on Japanese-made products were cut in half. As a result, imports quadrupled and exports fell sharply. Local mill owners lobbied Congress to little avail.
It was the beginning of the textile industry's frustrating fight to curb imports, which today account for one-fourth of the U.S. trade deficit. In the '80s, Congress twice voted for import restrictions but former President Ronald Reagan, a champion of free trade, vetoed the bills twice. On both occasions, Congress could not muster the votes to override.
The industry benefited from passage of the state's Right to Work law in 1947, which effectively slowed union organization by making it illegal to require workers to join a union. Today North Carolina ranks as the nation's least unionized state.
State industrial recruiters lured Northern companies to the area by advertising the state's low wages, which ranked fifth lowest nationally in 1960. The recruiters also emphasized that North Carolina workers are not likely to agitate for improved pay and conditions.
Exposure to cotton dust contributed to poor conditions in mills. In the '60s, doctors began investigating the breathing problems of long-time mill workers and discovered that cotton dust from the mills had filed their lungs making it difficult to breath. The condition was medically called byssinosis but was better known as brown lung disease. In 1967, health officials tested 500 Eden mill workers and found 60 with the disease.
In 1971, brown lung was officially recognized as a work-related illness whose victims were eligible for workman's compensation. To prevent future cases of the disease, factories had to install air-cleaning systems and require workers to wear masks over their mouths and noses.
In the '60s and early '70s, North Carolina grew to be the center of the domestic textile industry with more than 1,300 mills and 250,000 workers. But continued competition from imports trimmed 60,000 textile jobs in the '70s and early '80s. Plant closings became routine news as Southern mill towns suffered the same fate their New England predecessors met 50 years earlier.
Another factor contributing to the rise in plant closings was the rash of leveraged buyouts that raged through the industry in the '80s. Like other industries, the textile and apparel companies had to contend with corporate raiders who wanted to buy companies and sell them off piece by piece for a higher profit.
In 1984, Cone Mills became the first local textile company to enter a takeover war, sparked by a New York investment firm called Western Pacific Industries. Senior management took the company private in a $465 million buyout but the resulting debt forced the company to consolidate and sell or close several plants, including the Minneola plant in Gibsonville and Edna Plant in Reidsville.
Burlington Industries went into play when New York financier Asher Edelman and Dominion Textiles of Canada began buying stock in February of 1987. In September, after 50 years as a public company, Burlington went private under a management-led group that teams with the New York investment banking firm of Morgan Stanley.
Like Cone Mills, Burlington had to close or sell many of its operations to pay off debt stemming from the $2.8 billion billion buyout. The corporation has reduced its work force from 44,000 to 27,500 since 1987.
Blue Bell was taken private through a management-led buyout in 1984. Then, the 50 senior managers who had acquired the company in 1986 sold out to to VF Corp., a large apparel corporation based in Pennsylvania, for $813 million. A few days later, VF officials announced plans to close Blue Bell headquarters in Greensboro and trim 900 jobs in the company's North Carolina factories. Today the company uses the former Blue Bell headquarters to house its Wrangler division, employing more than 300 people here.
The wave of buyouts and resulting plant closings and layoffs has contributed to the trend toward a more diverse state economy, in which textile and apparel makers no longer dominate. In his book ``North Carolina,' historian David Brown says many manufacturers are more likely to surround themselves with the relics of a glorious past than look toward the future.
``Electronics is in,' Brown writes. ``Textiles, well, sometimes the politicians crowing about industrial development forget to mention textiles.'
Brown says textiles has been ``put on the back-burner and quite possibly will stay there.'
Of course, most manufacturers aren't so pessimistic. With a continued push to automation and modernization, the textile and apparel business will continue to be one of the state's largest industries, they say.
``The future for us is bright,' Fieldcrest Cannon chairman Joseph Ely II said. His company has committed $500 million over the several years to modernize its plants. ``But modernization is the key.'
Kay Norwood, a textile analyst at Interstate Johnson Lane in Charlotte, said domestic manufacturers need to embrace advancements such as computer bar coding that monitors retail sales and quickly replaces depleted towels, hosiery and jeans.
``Any company that wants to survive needs to invest in state of the art technology,' Norwood said. ``It's the only way they will make it in the fight with imports.'
Textiles and apparel have been a part of the region going back to native Americans and early European settlers who had to make their own clothes out of wool and animal skins. But it wasn't until the late 1880s that the Piedmont became an industry headquarters.
In 1804 Michael Beam opened the state's first textile mill in Cleveland County. Thirty years later, Henry Humphries brought textiles to Greensboro when he started the Mount Hecla Steam Cotton Mill at the present-day corner of Bellemeade Street and Battleground Avenue. Completed in 1833, it was the first steam-operated mill in the state.
Without adequate transportation, it was difficult for manufacturing to grow. Meanwhile yeoman farmers who couldn't make a living on their small patches of land were flooding out of the state and heading west.
Guilford County's John Motley Morehead, who owned a textile mill in what is now Eden, led the state's building of the North Carolina Railroad. Built in the 1850s, the line passed through High Point, Greensboro and Burlington on its route to Raleigh.
The railroad provided a foundation for textile manufacturing, but it took another 30 years for the textile industry to really take off in the Piedmont. Until then New England was the center of textile production but Northern manufacturers started looking South after the Civil War because the region had the necessary raw resources - cotton, workers and rivers - to power the mills. Meanwhile local large landowners and merchants were looking for investments that produced more reliable returns than the volatile agriculture business.
Textile companies lured sharecropping families off farms and into the mills by offering a steady job with reliable income. In 1890, the average annual wage for a male textile worker was $254, while women averaged $159 and children, $90.
The industry heavily recruited women, including many who were widowed in the Civil War, and their children. Women typically had more experience spinning, weaving and sewing fabric but they also appealed to manufacturers looking to save money.
Textile companies typically paid women 60 percent of the average male wage. Jobs were very sex-typed with men controlled higher paying mechanical and supervisory jobs.
According to, ``Like a Family: The Making of the Southern Cotton Mill World,' a book on the textile industry, sexual harassment was pervasive in mills.
Blacks had even fewer opportunities for mill positions. While slaves had worked in some mills before the Civil War, segregation laws passed in early 1900s prohibited blacks and whites working together so the mills, hailed by politicians and industrialists as a savior for poor whites, continued to shut out blacks for all but the dirtiest and most difficult jobs.
Children were at the bottom of the power structure. They grew up in villages next to the mill and were introduced to work as soon as they could hold a broom and sweep the floor. Because pay was usually meager, families needed every able body to earn a wage. Since most mothers worked 12-hour days in the mills, older children often had to take over housekeeping chores such as cooking dinner and taking care of younger siblings.
Life in the Mill Village
While mill life was far from easy, it sounded good to rural farm families looking for a better life. Jobs in textile mills helped boost the population of Greensboro from 500 people in 1870 to more than 10,000 in 1890.
Part of the attraction included benefits such as free housing offered by the mills. But mill-owned villages gave owners almost complete control over their employees.
The mill villages put companies in a government-like role overseeing institutions such as schools.
In Greensboro, Cone Mills built its Proximity school in 1896, Revolution school in 1904 and White Oak school in 1907. In the early '20s, the company had three YMCA recreation facilities - two for white workers and one for black workers - that offered summer camp for the children of employees.
Owner Ceasar Cone hired a welfare worker for his Greensboro mill villages in 1903. Hand-picked from the top of her class at the Normal and Industrial College for women (now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro), Cone paid for Pearl Wyche to learn modern social working techniques during a year's training in New York City. After coming back to Greensboro, Wyche trained a cadre of other social workers who tended to mill families health needs.