By  on January 13, 2009

The dismal holiday season at retail has forced a slew of textile plant closings, dealing another blow to the viability of an already withering domestic textile and apparel industry.

Invista, Milliken & Co. and Gildan Activewear are among the companies that are cutting back.

The frequency of factory closings has gained momentum since late September. As economic conditions worsened through October and November and holiday orders failed to materialize, the pace of layoffs and plant shutdowns accelerated, with North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee particularly hard hit.

The recent spate of layoffs and closures hasn’t been limited to the few remaining independent mills, said Lloyd Wood, director of membership and media outreach at the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition.

“You’re seeing the most efficient people out there closing plants,” Wood said. “The weak sisters have long disappeared, and you’re seeing the best of the best either drastically reduce operations in some instances or shut down plants.”

Invista, which manufacturers products such as Coolmax and Lycra, has made significant cutbacks. In October, the company said it would trim 400 of its 500 workers at a carpet fiber facility in Seaford, Del. This was followed in early December with the announcement that the company would lay off more than 200 out of 600 employees at a facility in Waynesboro, Va. Invista said a plunge in demand for home carpeting forced the company to halt nylon production at the plant. Soon after Christmas, Invista said it was shuttering a yarn processing plant in Athens, Ga., with 50 workers losing jobs.

Milliken & Co. and Gildan Activewear have also been forced to reduce costs. Milliken announced the closing of a textile plant in Barnwell, S.C., on Dec. 30 that employed 125 people. In releasing its year-end financial results on Dec. 11, Gildan said it would “phase out sock finishing operations in the U.S. by the end of June and consolidate operations in Honduras, in order to remain globally competitive in the current economic conditions.”

As a result, the company said it would eliminate 200 jobs at its facility in Fort Payne, Ala., and close a knitting factory in Virginia that employed 180 people. Gildan also plans to expand production capabilities in the Dominican Republic.

Smaller textile players that had been treading water in recent years reached the end of the line when holiday orders failed to materialize and the chance for future orders disappeared. Belmont, N.C.-based yarn manufacturer R.L. Stowe Mills Inc. said on Jan. 5 that it would close within 60 days, bringing the company’s 108-year run to an end.

“Business conditions in the fourth quarter deteriorated suddenly and dramatically,” said president and chief executive officer D. Harding Stowe. “Looking forward, management does not see sales returning to levels sufficient to sustain business.”

The coalition’s Wood said, “It’s not about competence. It really is about the economic conditions and the underlying [government trade] policy. Until one of those things is fixed, it’s going to be tough for anybody.”

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, a total of 2.6 million jobs were lost in 2008. More than half evaporated in the last four months of the year, and the unemployment rate rose to 7.2 percent last month from 6.7 percent in November. Textile mills manufacturing apparel fabric eliminated 2,900 positions last year to employ 138,800 workers. Home furnishing fabric manufacturers, known as textile product mills, cut 1,700 positions to 143,500. Apparel manufacturers eliminated 2,800 jobs to 185,300.

Since the push to manufacture abroad that began in the Seventies, domestic apparel manufacturing has steadily dwindled. In 1973, apparel manufacturing employment topped out at 1.5 million, while the textile industry peaked at 1.3 million in 1951.

The downward trend is expected to continue. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Career Guide to Industries, about 595,000 people were employed in the textile and apparel manufacturing industries in 2006. That number is expected to contract by more than 35 percent by 2016. California, Georgia and North Carolina employ more than 40 percent of all workers in the industry.

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