- Associated Press - Monday, December 1, 2014

ASHEVILLE, N.C. (AP) - One might call it karmic capitalism.

Rather than compete, business owners who belong to the Carolina Textile District refer customers to each other.

Take Molly Hemstreet, general manager of Opportunity Threads, a worker-owned, cut-and-sew factory in Morganton.

“Molly was happy to pass along one of my clients who was looking for help making patterns for dresses,” said Darlene Martin, a founding partner of Apparel Prototyping and Design Solutions in Mauldin, South Carolina.

That type of cooperation among textile-industry personnel is what those who created the Carolina Textile District last year envisioned, said Sara Chester, who is on the district’s management team and also works in economic development for Burke County.

“We want to take the concept of one mill doing every part of the supply chain and break that into seven to 10 companies that each employ 20 to 50 people,” Chester said.

“Those autonomous businesses would collaborate with each other,” she said. “Everyone would focus on what they do best. That’s the ‘value-chain’ concept.”

The approach represents an innovative way of reviving Western North Carolina’s textile industry.

The roughly 80 manufacturers, businesses and organizations that belong to the district aim to generate enough work among district members to create new jobs that pay living wages.

Chester, Hemstreet and Dan St. Louis, director of the Conover-based Manufacturing Solutions Center, founded the district in February last year.

The district celebrated its first member in March. Member businesses work in an area stretching from Greensboro into eastern Tennessee, and also including areas of Upstate South Carolina and northern Georgia.

The for-profit corporation draws funding from a combination of federal and state grants, grants from nonprofits and service fees charged to entrepreneurs.

“The goal is to become non-reliant on grants by 2018,” Chester said.

What makes the region - and North Carolina - particularly well-positioned to achieve the district’s goal is the state’s “built-in heritage of infrastructure,” said Brent Glass, director emeritus of the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of American History.

“Textile manufacturing was an alternative almost from the very beginning,” said Glass, who wrote the 1992 book, “The Textile Industry in NC: A History.”

Surrounding states developed plantation- and agricultural-based economies with cash crops, he said.

But North Carolina’s abundance of water and labor enabled people to build and staff mills cheaply and easily, Glass said.

The water supplied the power and immigrant and migrant groups such as Quakers, who weren’t interested in owning slaves, became the labor, Glass said.

Power remained cheap into the early 20th century with the introduction of hydroelectric systems, Glass said.

Labor did, too, as people from the Appalachian Mountains and the Piedmont joined the mill economy that paid cash rather than relying on bartering.

“That was a huge change,” he said.

While many facets of the industry were homegrown, textile manufacturers did rely on machines and engineering skills imported from elsewhere, Glass said.

Jobs in textile mills and textile-product mills in the 24 westernmost counties of North Carolina and Greenville and Spartanburg counties in South Carolina cratered by about 300 percent to 10,028 in 2001 from 30,056 in 2013, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

But since hitting a low of 9,245 in 2010, jobs in those sectors have climbed for three consecutive years.

Today, textile-manufacturers such as Mariano deGuzman, cofounder and CEO of Appalatch Apparel Co. in Weaverville, are doing what his North Carolina forebears did.

His company is the first in the world that custom fits wool sweaters to the bodies of his customers, he said.

District networking in 2012 enabled deGuzman to “cobble together my supply chain,” he said.

And like the North Carolina textile manufacturers before him, deGuzman uses machine expertise from others to produce his wares.

He uses a high-tech knitting machine that “functions like 3-D printer” called a Stoll, deGuzman said. Made in Germany, the machines run between $125,000 and $150,000 each.

The district management team “helped me to think through the process and get up and running,” deGuzman said. “There are so many textile resources here.”

So many, in fact, that Donna Brin, owner and founder of Pueri Elemental, moved to Longs, South Carolina, from New York because “now all my business partners are within a few hours’ drive, instead of a bunch of hours-long flights,” she said.

The sewing for the children’s bopper toys sold by Pueri Elemental is done in Morganton. The printing is done in Gibsonville. The backup printing is done in High Point. And the milling of the fabric is done in Lumberton.

“The Carolina Textile District changed the way I brought the product to market,” Brin said. “I never would’ve been able to do what I’ve done without them.”

Molly Hemstreet entered the textile industry because she was “interested in an alternative labor model.”

At the Opportunity Threads cooperative, Hemstreet developed a worker-owner structure.

In Hemstreet’s shop, which is housed in a building used for cut-and-sew operations, the wealth produced by the hardest workers stays with the hardest workers.

“We have payouts (for the worker-owners) from the profits,” Hemstreet said. Annual wages range between $25,000 and $30,000, and up to two family members may work at the plant, she said.

Another difference: Opportunity Threads laborers are cross-trained. Unlike the classic factory model in which each employee did one repetitive task all day every day, Hemstreet and her colleagues offer an array of skills.

They hand sew and hand tie. They operate serger, coverstitch and single-needle sewing machines, among others.

“We don’t want to be just an anomaly,” Hemstreet said of her business, which now employs 20, covers 6,000 square feet and uses about 50 industrial cutting and sewing machines. “We don’t want to be just a cottage industry. We want to change the supply chain.”

Hemstreet founded her company in 2008 with a staff of three volunteers. The first paid employee came aboard in 2010, she said.

“The whole reason we do this is for jobs,” said St. Louis, the Manufacturing Solutions Center director. The center is affiliated with Catawba Valley Community College in Hickory.

He identified two aspects of the district model that boost its success: enabling manufacturers and supply-services companies to locate near each other and forming textile companies that can perform quick-turnarounds for small, customized orders.

“The one rule in manufacturing is that if something can go wrong, it will go wrong,” St. Louis said.

Most of the current U.S. manufacturing system operates within a structure that places supply-chain partners thousands of miles apart.

“When you have something wrong with the product and the containers are in different parts of the world, you still have to make deliveries and you got to get rid of that stuff and start all over again,” he said.

“If you can do smaller runs (over shorter distances), you might still have problems,” St. Louis said. “But you have smaller quantities and you can replenish right away. That’s a huge advantage.”

___

Information from: The Asheville Citizen-Times, https://www.citizen-times.com

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