GAFFNEY, S.C. — The old textile mills here are mostly gone now. Gaffney Manufacturing, National Textiles, Cherokee — clangorous, dusty, productive engines of the Carolinas fabric trade — fell one by one to the forces of globalization.
Just as the Carolinas benefited when manufacturing migrated first from the Cottonopolises of England to the mill towns of New England and then to here, where labor was even cheaper, they suffered in the 1990s when the textile industry mostly left the United States.
It headed to China, India, Mexico — wherever people would spool, spin and sew for a few dollars or less a day. Which is why what is happening at the old Wellstone spinning plant is so remarkable.
Parkdale Mills, the country's largest buyer of raw cotton, reopened it in 2010.
Bayard Winthrop, the founder of the sweatshirt and clothing company American Giant, was at the mill one morning earlier this year to meet with his Parkdale sales representative. Just last year, Winthrop was buying fabric from a factory in India. Now, he says, it is cheaper to shop in the United States. Winthrop uses Parkdale yarn from one of its 25 U.S. factories and has that yarn spun into fabric about 4 miles from Parkdale's Gaffney plant, at Carolina Cotton Works.
Winthrop says U.S. manufacturing has several advantages over outsourcing. Transportation costs are a fraction of what they are overseas. Turnaround time is lower. Most striking, labor costs — the reason all these companies fled in the first place — aren't that much higher than overseas because the factories that survived the outsourcing wave have largely turned to automation and are employing far fewer workers.
"When I framed the business, I wasn't saying, 'From the cotton in the ground to the finished product, this is going to be all American-made,' " he said. "It wasn't some patriotic quest."
Instead, he said, the road to Gaffney was all about protecting his bottom line.
That simple, if counterintuitive, example is changing both Gaffney and the U.S. textile and apparel industries. But as manufacturers find that U.S.-made products are not only appealing but affordable, they are also finding the business landscape has changed. Two decades of overseas production has decimated factories here.
Now, companies that want to make things here often have trouble finding qualified workers for specialized jobs and U.S.-made components for their products. And politicians' promises that U.S. manufacturing means an abundance of new jobs is complicated — yes, it means jobs, but on nowhere near the scale there was before, because machines have replaced humans at almost every point in the production process.
Take Parkdale: The mill here produces 2.5 million pounds of yarn a week with about 140 workers. In 1980, that production level would have required more than 2,000 people.
When Bayard Winthrop founded American Giant, he knew precisely what he wanted to make: thick sweatshirts like the one from the Navy that his father used to wear.
They required a dry "hand feel," so the fabric would not seem greasy to the touch, and a soft, heavily plucked underside. Winthrop had already produced sportswear overseas, so he looked there for the advanced techniques and affordable pricing he needed.
He wanted to sell his hooded sweatshirt for around $80, between the $10 Walmart version, made in China, and the $125 Polo Ralph Lauren version, made in Peru. He was insistent on cutting and sewing the sweatshirts in the United States — a company called American Giant couldn't do that part overseas, he felt — but wasn't picky about where the fabric came from.
With the help of a consultant, he settled on a mill in Haryana, India, that could make the desired fabric. After several months of back-and-forth, Winthrop was ready to ship his first sweatshirts in February 2012. But he was frustrated with the quality and the lengthy process. By October of last year, Winthrop had moved production to South Carolina. Now it takes just a month or so, start to finish, to get a sweatshirt to a customer.
"We just avoid so many big and small stumbles that invariably happen when you try to do things from far away," he said. "We would never be where we are today if we were overseas. Nowhere close."
Now that production has shifted to the United States, Winthrop says, those problems have disappeared. Winthrop and his team visit Carolina Cotton Works and Parkdale whenever they want, check on quality and toss ideas around with the managers. And, he says, the cost is less than in India.
Where Winthrop relies on labor — the cutting and sewing of the sweatshirts, which he does in five factories in California and North Carolina — is where the costs jump up. That costs his company around $17 for a given sweatshirt; overseas, he says, it would cost $5.50.
But labor is not a big ingredient in the manufacturing uptick in the United States, textiles or otherwise. Indeed, the absence of high-paid U.S. workers in the new factories has made the revival possible.
"Most of our costs are power-related," said Dan Nation, a senior Parkdale executive.
Step inside Parkdale Mills and prepare to be overwhelmed by machines. They stretch city block after city block, this one tossing around bits of cotton to clean them, that one taking 4-millimeter layers from different bales to blend them.
Only infrequently does a person interrupt the automation, mainly because certain tasks are still cheaper if performed by hand. Beyond that, there is little that resembles the mills of just a few decades ago.
The air-cleaning room, where air is washed 6.5 times an hour to get contaminants out, could be a modern-art installation, with liquid raining into pools of water. Along the ceiling, moving racks like those at a dry cleaner snake throughout the factory, carrying the finished yarn to a machine for packaging and shipping.
"With all the challenges that we've had with cheap imports, we knew in order to survive we'd have to take technology as far as we could," said Anderson Warlick, Parkdale's chief executive.
Overall, the company employs 4,000 people, its biggest workforce ever, but it is technology that has made it competitive.
"We've been able to be effective here because we invested in our manufacturing to the point that labor is not as big of an issue as far as total cost as it once was," Warlick said. "It's allowed us to be able to compete more effectively with foreign countries that pay, you know, a fraction of what we pay in wages. We compete with them on technology and productivity."