When specifying a fabric, or a fabric-covered product, do you know where the textile was produced? What is the supply chain for that fabric, and how has it changed in recent years? Despite growing demand for fabric, the number of mills that produce textiles in the United States is far fewer now than at the start of this century. And that has an impact on the product you specify as a designer.
The textile industry in the U.S. was hit hard by the recent recession like many other industries, but the closing of mills and loss of jobs began years before and a domino-like collapse has trickled down the textile supply chain. The chain begins with yarn suppliers and dye houses, and when they close shop, the mills that weave and finish textiles are crippled and often succumb to the same fate as their suppliers.
Contract textiles are a smaller niche within the larger textile industry, which encompasses apparel and products for the military and the automotive and medical fields. While the apparel industry in the U.S. has particularly suffered since the 1990s—when trade agreements relaxed import limits, allowing more production overseas—a significant amount of contract textile manufacturing still occurs stateside. Most contract textile companies prefer to work with U.S. mills, many of which are family-owned businesses concentrated in the rural Southeast. When a mill closes, and mill workers lose their livelihoods, the impact is devastating to a community.
A look at the numbers
Since 1997, 662 textile mills have closed in the U.S., according to the National Council of Textile Organizations (NCTO). And while closings occurred during the recession and continued through this year, the majority of closings were years earlier when 124 mills closed in 2001 and 82 shuttered in 2003. North Carolina alone was home to 232 of the 662 mills that have closed since 1997.
Employment numbers in mills also dropped precipitously. According to NCTO, the average annual employment in textile mills dropped from 379,000 in 2000 to 120,000 earlier this year, and the average annual employment in textile product mills fell from 230,000 in 2000 to 117,000 in 2012. Those numbers do not include apparel mills, by the way, which also saw a similar decline in employment from 484,000 in 2000 to 150,000 in 2012.
American textile designers and furniture manufacturers make it a priority to work with U.S.-based mills, but with so many mills shutting down, designers are competing with one another to secure relationships with those that remain. Textile designers and contract jobbers—companies who order large runs of textiles—view their relationships with mills as long-term collaborations. Unlike their counterparts in the fashion industry, who release new collections each season, textile designers hope to have their collections available on the market for decades.
Given the upfront investment—typically a yearlong process from design to development, testing, and production—it can take years to reap rewards. When a mill shuts down, designers are often forced to discontinue products and face a loss in profit. For example, KnollTextiles recently received a call from a mill that it had been working with announcing that the mill was closing in only three days. KnollTextiles Creative Director Dorothy Cosonas had to then scramble to bring that product to market as planned. “We ended up taking the product to another mill,” Cosonas said. “But it’s never a seamless process as the fabric never looks exactly the same.” While KnollTextiles had worked with 45 to 50 different U.S.-based mills a decade ago, the number has dropped to approximately 25 today.
American mills as innovators
The U.S. mills that have weathered the recession are innovators—both in business model and product—constantly developing new fibers, yarns, and finishes to inspire designers. But these successful mills are inundated—their machinery is thwacking and thrumming to keep pace with orders. “The mills that have remained in the U.S. have become incredibly creative in how they bring new solutions to the market,” observes Susan Lyons, president of Designtex, a Steelcase company. “While there has been quite a bit of contraction, it’s made everybody who is remaining stronger.”
The largest growth areas in the contract textile industry are hospitality and healthcare, which benefit from the creation of new high-performance textiles that can stand up to harsh cleaners like bleach. “For high-end, quality product, the American mills are doing better and they are running more shifts than one would imagine because of the demand for higher performance fabrics,” says Sina Pearson, founder, Sina Pearson Textiles.
In choosing a mill with which to collaborate, designers first decide the type of fiber they want to use, which might lead them to explore mills within a particular locale. European mills, for example, have honed their craft for centuries in working with natural fibers like wool, while American mills are known for innovating with synthetic fibers. Designers also evaluate a mill’s loom set up and the color palette of yarns offered. Once the designer chooses a mill, he or she works closely with the mill’s in-house design team to bring bright ideas to fruition.
Marybeth Shaw, chief creative officer, design & marketing, at Wolf-Gordon Inc., says that she often chooses which mills to work with based on the talent within their design departments. “We get to know who we need to be working with, whether it’s a textile designer or a colorist at a wallcovering mill,” Shaw says.
U.S. mills compete with mills in other countries more regularly than in the past. The U.S. mills quote prices that are competitive with mills overseas, according to several textile designers, and while cost is arguably a big consideration, it’s not always the bottom line. Cosonas, for instance, is a big proponent of continuing to work with U.S.-based mills even if an overseas option is cheaper. “In the end, if the headache [of working with a mill in another country] is greater than the cost, I’d rather pay the difference in cost,” insists Cosonas.
Lower minimums as a benefit
Designers also consider the uniqueness in yarn and consistency in mills’ production, explains Pearson. However, one benefit to working with U.S. mills, she points out, is that they often offer one-piece minimums, whereas minimums are typically much higher when ordering from mills overseas. The lower minimum in this country allows textile designers and distributors to stock less material and lower their overhead while providing a wider selection of products.
The textile industry—requiring large amounts of energy, water, and chemical dyes—is not an inherently sustainable one. Mills must make significant financial investments to create more ecologically friendly work environments and produce greener products. The Association for Contract Textiles has outlined performance guidelines NSF/ANSI 336 for mills, and many have readily chosen to comply. “We are huge supporters of the NSF/ANSI 336 standard and we’d like to see it become a common platform to communicate the level of sustainability or environmental merits of products,” explains Blake Millinor, president of the contract division of Valdese Weavers in North Carolina. Setting a baseline for compliance creates a more level playing field among domestic and imported products, which helps reduce green washing, he believes.
Incentive to select locally made textiles
The continued demand for American-made textiles does have a positive, sustainable impact, though. The demand is partially due to the increased desire for materials originating or produced locally, or within a short distance from mill to end product. Sustainable certification programs such as LEED offer incentives such as locally sourced material credits. “People are hungry for quality, artisanal products again,” Lyons says. “And they want to understand where and how they are made, and know that it was done lovingly.”
The textile industry is rooted in old-world craft. While textiles for commercial interiors are no longer made by hand, supporting textile manufacture at home in the U.S. benefits the economy, saves jobs, and helps to preserve a craft that is woven into the fibers of this country’s history.