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It's Like Getting Fleeced

Cotton mill workers at a Martinsville, Va., firm will soon be joining the thousands of U.S. textile workers left behind in a landscape of plants closed by globalization.

February 20, 2002|JEFFREY GETTLEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Some people climb mountains. Margaret Blankenship has sewn one--out of sweatpants, 21,565,440 pairs of them, to be exact.

Every single workday for the last 36 years, the bundles of fuzzy cotton kept coming and Blankenship kept stitching, making more sweatpants along the line at the VF Imagewear factory than anybody in company history.

But recently she got laid off. VF is ceasing operations here, the latest in a long list of Southern textile mills to succumb to the pull of globalization. And Martinsville, once the sweatshirt and sweatpants capital of the world, is fast approaching its last batch of fleece.

For years, these mills had eluded obsolescence with an iron-hard work ethic and investments in technology that kept production costs competitive. No more. Just as the textile industry left New England for the South 80 years ago, it's now shipping off for Mexico, Honduras, even Pakistan, thanks to looser trade laws.

Thousands of middle-aged, minimally educated American textile workers have been left behind in a landscape of shuttered plants and cool smokestacks.

The lintheads, as they were once called, have few prospects.

"Dreams? Ambitions? Goals?" Blankenship asked, as if she were talking about foreign lands. "It's funny, but I've never thought about them. I always figured I'd be sewing."

It's the same old story, one that many American steel workers or toy makers could tell.

But the last decade has been especially harsh on the textile industry, which includes both cloth manufacturing and garment making, with 441,000 jobs disappearing, a loss of 44%. Last year, 110 mills shut (most of them in the South), 68,000 workers were laid off and several of the largest companies filed for bankruptcy.

"It's so sad," said Judy Brooks, a bank manager in Andrews, N.C., where a Lee jeans plant just closed. "I got people calling up, telling me, 'Just come and get it. I can't pay for my car no more.' "

Few places have been as hard hit as Martinsville and surrounding Henry County, along the Virginia-North Carolina border. In the last eight years, the area has lost 9,360 jobs, forcing county leaders to consider closing four schools because tax revenues are plummeting and folks are leaving.

From red-brick factories looming over the hilltops and along the churning rivers, Martinsville used to produce wooden furniture, auto parts, grandfather clocks and more sweatshirts and nylon than anywhere else in the world. Its neighborhoods are lined with graceful Tudor homes--mill manager homes--and downtown there's an arts center and history museum, symbols of a grander day.

Now, abandoned trailers sulk outside the old Tultex plant, the DuPont factory is essentially a bulldozer practice pit and Bassett Chair Co., once home to the Chateau Marseille dinette set, is roped off with yellow police tape.

Last month, Martinsville was the first place Virginia's new governor, Democrat Mark Warner, mentioned in his commonwealth address when he got to the part about towns "getting left behind."

But people here are trying to catch up, at least as best they can. Thick-handed mill workers are learning to type, others commute miles to new jobs and a big new Mexican restaurant--a sign of the changing times--is going up on Memorial Boulevard, the main strip through town.

"We thought it was the end of the world when tobacco left," said town historian Carl DeHart. "But then we got textiles. Who knows what's next?"

Drawn by plentiful labor, few unions, low taxes and abundant hydroelectric power, Yankee firms began relocating to Virginia in the 1920s. Martinsville's first mill, Pannill Knitting Co., opened in 1925. It made sweatshirts.

'Sweatshirt Capital' Relinquishes Title

The textile industry peaked during World War II, when 1.3 million workers, mostly women, were swept into factories to sew parachutes, sweats, combat fatigues and other goods. They were called lintheads, because the fabric fibers that swirled in the air dusted their clothes, skin and hair.

After the war, someone in the Martinsville Chamber of Commerce realized the town of 20,000 was producing more sweatshirts than anywhere else and coined the motto, "Martinsville, Va.-- Sweatshirt Capital of the World."

It stuck. In 1989, civic leaders celebrated the opening of a new mall by printing banners with that motto.

Up until the early 1990s, the town's five major mills produced 75% of the world's sweatshirts. VF, the largest employer for miles, had its best year as late as 1996 when it made 70 million pounds of sweatshirt and T-shirt cloth for companies such as Nike, Sears and J.C. Penney.

American companies had kept themselves relevant by specializing in products such as nylon and fleece wear and developing high-tech machines such as the "napper," a computer-controlled contraption that whips sweatshirt fabric with wire brushes to make it fuzzy. VF, a $5.8-billion international corporation, invested $25 million in the last five years for new machines in Martinsville.

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