In 1992, Shane Cooper’s résumé didn’t exactly shout “captain of industry.” He’d played bass guitar for a band called Graffiti, he’d run a bicycle shop, he’d been a salesman for a food company, and he and his wife, Hope, were racing bicycles semipro. But Shane understood knitting machines because his father had sold them. So Shane gathered up the various loose threads of his life and began to knit them into something new.

At the time the Coopers made their first prototype, high-end bike socks were made with CoolMax, a new invention from DuPont. This polyester yarn was a cloverleaf shape in cross section, engineered to wick moisture away from the skin. The material felt good against the skin, but sock makers were using it on the outside, usually lining the sock with nylon. The Coopers turned the bike sock inside out — CoolMax inside and nylon out, where it could show off its flair for bright patterns and colors.

The new sock worked, and the Coopers were in business. They called their company DeFeet and set up shop in Hildebran, just east of Hickory, North Carolina. The Coopers understood their market well, and their socks quickly found their way onto the feet of top cyclists, including Greg LeMond and Lance Armstrong.

As sales pedaled higher, DeFeet began making socks for runners, skiers, golfers, and more. The company grew to fifty employees and then, in 2001, the factory burned. The fire, which had started in a defective light fixture, was a setback, but not the end. “We had the option of taking the company to Asia,” Cooper says, “but we reinvested and bought new machinery.” Now in a new building, DeFeet has bounced back with forty employees and no plans to leave.

Will DeFeet survive? Cooper hopes so. He’s begun selling DeFeet products directly on the internet, trying to keep prices low to compete with imports. But he worries that his North Carolina-based suppliers may not survive the rising wave of foreign competition, especially now that import restrictions on foreign textiles have expired at the end of 2004. “We buy our yarn from within a seventy-five-mile radius of Hickory,” he says. “If these big yarn mills close down, we may have to go somewhere else. What’s happening in the textile industry, it reaches far and deep.”

Far and deep is right. Statewide, some one hundred thousand jobs were lost in the textile industry and seventy thousand in the apparel industry between 1997 and 2002. (See Endeavors, Fall 2004, “When the Needles Went to China.”) To add insult to injury, the import quotas of an international agreement on clothing and textiles expired at the end of 2004. In January, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, imports of Chinese apparel jumped 47 percent. Will North Carolina’s textiles and apparel industries weather this storm? According to Carolina experts, the short answer is probably yes. But they will never be the same.

“The new textile plant is not coming in with the same model as the old textile plant,” says Patrick Conway, professor of economics. With Alfred Field from economics and Robert Connolly from the Kenan-Flagler Business School, Conway has been examining the North Carolina textiles industry, interviewing industry executives, and analyzing trends.

He and his colleagues say that the future lies in highly specialized textiles aimed a niche markets. DeFeet is one example — a small company tapping a well-defined, well-understood market of choosy athletes. At the other end of the spectrum is Freudenberg, a large, international company whose products defy the label textiles, ranging from roofing felt to high-tech filters. In Durham, the company’s 450-worker plant makes carpet backing for automobiles.

Mike Luger, professor of public policy, business, and planning, and director of the Center for Competitive Economies in the Kenan-Flagler Business School, says companies are using several strategies to counter the flood of cheap imports. One of these strategies is to do things better. “You’re still making shirts and blouses and carpets, but you’re doing it better,” Luger says. “Better production, better marketing — better.”

Another strategy is to take advantage of existing skills and equipment to make something entirely new. “There are niche markets for particular kinds of goods,” Luger says, “and they generally require sophisticated production techniques, and an ability to change with the market.” Carolina Glove, with several hundred employees in Conover, produces a line of tear-resistant industrial gloves made with Kevlar, a DuPont invention used in bullet-proof vests and other products requiring high strength and light weight. And several boat builders have discovered that North Carolina textile workers are readily adaptable to working with fiberglass.

Adopting this kind of strategy usually requires that an old-style mill change its stripes. And that’s what happened at Alexander Fabrics, a family-owned company based in Burlington. In the last few years, as imported apparel flooded the market, Alexander removed its fifty knitting machines and began specializing in the dying and finishing of fabrics, especially for customers who require precision in color or texture.

Click to read photo caption. Photo by Neil Caudle.

“Companies like ours cannot compete where labor cost is an important component of manufacturing cost,” says Richard Witmeyer, Alexander’s vice president for business development. “And we also may not be able to compete in an industry where the newest piece of machinery is going to establish your manufacturing costs. These are multi-million-dollar machines, and you can’t turn them over every two years, so the next company that gets the biggest, newest machine can run bigger-better-faster.”

Alexander has learned that it doesn’t take new equipment to make new things. Witmeyer, who has a Ph.D. in materials engineering, begins with the physical and chemical properties of fabrics and dyes, then figures out how to take “grey” — unfinished — goods and add value. “If a company is bringing a product in from overseas, they want a large market,” Witmeyer says. “So if we get their grey goods, then we can add the color, the chemical finish, or whatever’s necessary to make that product specific to a smaller, end-use market.”

Today, Alexander Fabric is a leading producer of high-visibility safety fabrics, such as the bright yellow or orange on the vests of highway construction workers. The standards for color and reflective light from the fabrics are exacting, and Alexander has mastered the process for hitting the specs. Witmeyer believes that the market for technical fabrics will continue to expand. A vast array of modern products require fabrics in their production — for example, the jumpsuits workers wear as they manufacture computer chips and other sensitive electronics, or the fabric used to filter the impurities from milk.

But no matter how successful companies might be at exploiting those niches, no one expects the textiles and apparel industries to replace tens of thousands of jobs. Meenu Tewari, assistant professor in city and regional planning, has studied workforce changes in traditional industries in North Carolina. She finds some hope in organizations such as Bionetwork, an effort of the N.C. Community College System.

“Bionetwork saw a way to recruit and retrain workers displaced from North Carolina’s traditional sectors — textiles, apparel, and furniture — workers who were solidly embedded in the ethic of shop-floor manufacturing,” Tewari says. “With short training courses, from a few months to a year in length, they found that they could channel some traditional-sector workers who’d earned thirty thousand dollars-plus into good jobs paying forty-five to fifty thousand a year.”

But many thousands of displaced workers probably will never have access to such jobs, Tewari says. Workers who are older, poorer, and less educated are being left out of the high-tech job market, especially in isolated rural areas. So rural towns once dependent on textiles, apparel, or furniture are pursuing other options, she says, including a multitude of businesses associated with the growing health-care industry. And North Carolina’s climate and natural resources attract tourism, retirement communities, and luxury real-estate developments, all of which create jobs in construction, services, and retail.

While some communities hope to hit the jackpot by recruiting a big manufacturer into the state, Carolina experts say that home-grown companies are probably a better bet in the long run.

Jonathon Morgan, assistant professor in the School of Government, writing in the Summer 2004 issue of Popular Government, described how a region can use concentrated clusters of related companies to build on its strengths and find its niche in the new economy. In the same issue, Jesse White, director of Carolina’s Office of Economic and Business Development, recommended multiple strategies — among them cluster development — as the best way to stimulate economic growth in the state.

Morgan and White point out that modern, high-tech industries tend to develop as a network of interdependent businesses grouped around a pool of trained workers and the right infrastructure. North Carolina has a track record with clusters. The Research Triangle is one. And Hickory is the hub of two of the nation’s most-concentrated clusters — one in textiles and the other in furniture — both of which get help from Catawba Valley Community College. Several years ago, Mike Luger recommended a cluster-based approach to training in North Carolina’s community-college system, as a way to develop key industries and jobs.

Alexander Fabric’s Witmeyer agrees, and he says textile companies especially need help with training. “A small company like Alexander can’t afford to train people,” Witmeyer says. “We need support for that, and that’s an area where the state could help.”

N.C. State University’s School of Textiles is good at educating leaders for the textile industry, Witmeyer says, but skilled tradesmen still learn their trade on the job, or in training programs tailored to specific skills. High-precision dying, for example, is a way small companies add value to grey goods, but dyers, Witmeyer says, are dying out.

“We have a guy in our dye house who knows some things they don’t teach at N.C. State,” Witmeyer says. “But he’s getting older. Where will next generation of dyers come from?”

Another key investment, Witmeyer says, should be in university-based research that leads to new technologies. He and Mike Luger point to the same example: During the 1990s, research led by Mansour Mohammed in N.C. State University’s College of Textiles developed a technology for three-dimensional weaving, which yielded very strong, lightweight materials. The technology formed the basis of 3TEX, a company with headquarters in Cary and a fifty-thousand-square-foot manufacturing plant in Rutherfordton. Among other things, 3TEX makes bullet-proof vests for police officers and soldiers.

“The key is to infuse research and development into textiles,” Luger says. He predicts that products will emerge from nanotechnology, in which scientists and engineers work very small — at the level of molecules and atoms — to create new materials. “For example, there’s great potential in medicine for synthetic veins and skin,” Luger says. “N.C. State’s School of Textiles has been in the forefront of some of these new technologies, and we have a strong group working with nanotechnology here at Carolina. So we have an opportunity in this state to use cutting-edge science to transform old technologies into something new. That’s where we need to invest.”