WASHINGTON — Fighting the forces of free trade and reflecting the shrinking industry they represent, the Northern Textile Association and Knitted Textile Association are merging.

The organizations said Friday they have formed the National Textile Association, with 175 companies, created to share resources in building business, but also to heighten members’ presence and influence in Washington, according to Karl Spilhaus, head of the Northern Textile Association, who will now take the helm of the new group.

Meanwhile, as the new National Textile Association is being launched, the industry’s long-time lobbying group in Washington, the American Textile Manufacturers Institute, has lost another member: Guilford Mills of Greensboro, N.C.

John Emrich, Guilford president and chief executive officer, and president of the KTA, said the company last month decided not to renew its ATMI membership largely because of differences over trade legislation.

Emrich cited ATMI’s move to team up with yarn spinners and cotton growers in lobbying Capitol Hill lawmakers on recent trade legislation as one reason for Guilford’s departure. The ATMI and the two factions supported a compromise that expanded T-shirt and knit shirt imports from the Caribbean Basin made from regional fabric, but with U.S. yarn. However, their proposal called for fewer imports than being debated among lawmakers.

Emrich saw the ATMI’s position on the trade bill as contrary to the interests of U.S. fabric makers like Guilford.

"We saw the ATMI as emerging more as a cotton-yarn spinning association than an association recognizing the industry as a whole," Emrich said.

He said former Guilford chairman, the late Chuck Hayes — who earlier this year ended his term as chairman of ATMI — broke the news of Guilford’s departure to ATMI’s former executive director, Carlos Moore. Hayes died about a week later on July 21.

Hayes "was supportive of my decision to withdraw from ATMI," Emrich said. "That was a very, very difficult decision for us as a company to make."

ATMI officials did not return telephone calls made Friday.

The merger is slated to be ratified next month at the Northern Textile Association’s annual meeting in Scarborough, Maine. KTA members approved the merger on Wednesday."We have a very similar agenda in protecting the U.S. fabric makers," Spilhaus said. "With pressures on companies and the economy, it made sense to reap the economies of scale" by merging.

The Northern Textile Association, founded in 1854, has 140 members representing several segments of the textile industry, including makers of woolen fabric and yarn, elastic fabric and flock. The KTA, founded in 1966, has 35 knit fabric maker members.

Spilhaus cited lobbying Congress and the administration to curb textile and apparel import-liberalizing bills, like the one recently signed by President Bush, as key to the new association’s agenda.

"Both associations share horror at what happened in the bill," Spilhaus said.

Of the merger, Roger Milliken, ceo of Milliken & Co., which split from ATMI two years ago over trade policy differences, said in a statement: "Two hard-working groups have joined to form one strong effective voice for the American textile industry."

Last year, Milliken formed a textile-union lobbying group called the American Textile Trade Action Coalition, which includes UNITE, as well as some members of the NTA.

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