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A different textile industry

For much of the 20th century, textiles dominated the North Carolina economy and really the economics of much of the Southeast. But in the last 30 years, both textile production and employment have been on a downward spiral in our state. Is there any hope for change? N.C. State University economist Mike Walden responds.

“Well, first of all, a look back. Since 1990, no other manufacturing industry — no other manufacturing industry in the country — has seen such a big drop in employment than we’ve seen in textiles, and I should say, its sister sector, apparel. For example, for every 100 jobs in 1990 in textiles, today there are only 31. And for every 100 jobs in apparel in 1990, today there are only 15.

“So that industry has shrunk dramatically. And of course, that’s had a big, big impact on North Carolina, particularly rural and small town North Carolina, where most of the textile and apparel jobs were.

“But the future is not all gloomy. The gap in production costs between U.S. textile and apparel production and foreign-made textile and apparel production has actually shrunk. That gap is around 20 percent today. A few years ago, it was above 50 percent.

“And also, experts say the U.S. has advantages in, for example, quality control, access the markets and actually, in developing more technologically oriented production. So some see a revival but not for example, of all of the common textile products — the socks, the undershirts, the sweatshirts, etcetera that we used to make — but probably in terms of more high-tech textiles. Some see a revival in North Carolina and the other Southeast states in the future. However, it’s likely not going to be a revival that’s going to carry many additional jobs with it.”