Halsey Cook has some good news for the frightened American public.
The president and chief executive officer of global textile manufacturer Milliken & Co. said the company’s four offices and two factories in China are now back open, fully operational and taking orders after closing for around a month.
Saying that the company learned a lot of lessons there that can now be applied to the U.S. — how to engage associates who are working at home, how to navigate food delivery and child care among them — Cook said, “Business in China is picking up. We’re just counting the days ourselves and know we have to go through the peak before we come back down.”
Milliken, which traces its history to 1865, is one of the few remaining textile producers in the U.S. and while it also has operations in Asia and Europe, 75 percent of its business continues to be domestic. As most of the textile business moved overseas at the end of the last decade, Milliken pivoted into the production of a number of different fabrics including specialty chemical, floor coverings, performance and protective textiles and healthcare. And while it has more than 40 plants around the world in far-flung places such as Mexico, Belgium, Australia, France and the U.K. as well as China — the company has long been a vocal proponent of U.S. manufacturing.
Roger Milliken, grandson of founder Seth Milliken who helmed the company for more than 50 years, fought for decades against the influx of low-cost imported fabrics and became synonymous with the Crafted With Pride in the U.S.A. movement in the Eighties and beyond.
So it stands to reason that the company would quickly step up to produce fabrics that could be used in the fight against the coronavirus.
Last week, the Spartanburg, S.C.-based textile firm started manufacturing barrier protection fabrics to be used in gowns and head covers for health-care workers and it also charged its research and development team with finding other materials that could be incorporated into protective masks.
Cook said the company operates 34 plants around the U.S. and is using eight in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia to create the fabrics. “They have the ability to run lots of different products. It’s more about ramping up new materials on existing looms,” he explained. And it has also allowed the company to keep production lines open that might otherwise have been closed.
At the same time, the company is increasing production of its BioSmart antimicrobial fabric that uses bleach to kill up to 99.9 percent of common bacteria on contact. It binds to other fabrics to turn textiles into an active defense against microbes, contaminants and infections, the company said. It is being used for scrubs, lab coats and hospital privacy curtains.
“We have focused our development and manufacturing processes to help fight the battle against COVID-19,” Cook said. “We began by engineering our existing textiles into medical-grade fabrics for PPE, and we will continue to seek critical solutions as we navigate this uncharted territory as a company, a nation and a world.”
Cook told WWD that Milliken has the capability to make “millions of yards of fabrics if required” — and they can be made quickly. Right now, the company is using fabrics that would have been made into graduation caps and gowns, for example, as well as roofing materials and other newly created materials, and treating them with moisture barrier technology.
“We’re applying our knowledge of materials to keep the fabrics lightweight but with barrier properties,” he said. Cook said the company has received a lot of inquiries from hospitals and other organizations about obtaining the materials. But because Milliken is a fabric producer only, it does require cut-and-sew plants to create the final products.
Although Milliken’s products may cost more than double what a similar fabric would from Asia, Cook believes this crisis could well shift sentiment back to U.S. manufacturing, regardless of cost.
“We’re able to deliver things in days that it takes weeks to deliver from Asia,” he said. So the inventory is not only more current, but it also cuts down on the environmental impact of transporting materials halfway around the world.
“We’ve been sticking to the same script while most textile production has moved overseas,” he said. “We add value with science and that strategy has paid off for us. It could work for others, too, as they revamp their supply chains,” he said. “I believe that will become a driver in the future.”