The new textiles

For most of the 20th century the textile industry was a key economic sector in North Carolina. But trade and technology have caused significant changes, with the industry less than half the size it was 20 years ago. But some changes might have textiles looking up in the future, says NC State University economist Mike Walden.

“I was recently in southeastern North Carolina in a county, and they were all excited about a new textile firm that had opened there. And there are really two things going on right now that are helping U.S. and in fact North Carolina textiles:

“One is that our manufacturing sector is much more competitive. It used to be that 20 years ago if you wanted cheap labor you went to China. And they were so much cheaper than us, there was just no comparison. Chinese labor is now very close in expense to U.S. labor. Lower energy costs in the U.S. have also helped U.S. manufacturing. So that’s affecting all of manufacturing, which obviously textiles is a part of.

“The other thing is that the textile industry is expanding beyond where it used to be. It used to be that what textiles did — and its associate apparel industry — is make clothes, make socks, made underwear, make shirts, etc.

“Now textiles is getting into what some call the new tech textiles — for example, I recently read about some advances in the textile industry where you can now where fabrics, or at least eventually, that will heat and cool the individual, that don’t require washing, that also provide some personal protection. These are all things you can’t get now, but eventually you will.

“So if the U.S. and North Carolina is on the cutting edge of that, we would expect perhaps the production, when those things do get online, to occur here.

“So some exciting things happening in textiles. I don’t think we are ever going to achieve the employment we used to have in the textile industry, but it is still a new and growing industry.”