Textiles & Apparel



The textile industry has traditionally held a fundamental role in North Carolina's economy, providing thousands of jobs and revenue for local economies. North Carolina has several assets in the textile industry, ranging from a long history in textile production to being the location of several of the most important global companies, industry associations and educational resources. Whereas the industry has been shrinking in absolute terms the last 20 years, it has also continued to thrive and evolve into market segments that are more technical in nature. The sections of this website will explore the different areas of the textile industry and the evolution of the development in North Carolina.

In this section we introduce the key sections of the website, including the structure of the industry using a value chain framework, an overview of the industry across multiple areas including the labor market, international trade and policy, and the key trends and dynamics that are shaping this industry now and in the future. In each section the past and present trends in the industry are analyzed from the perspective of North Carolina, the United States and North Carolina’s footprint compared to other states.

Textile & Apparel Value Chain

In one sense, the textile industry is easy to define - the creation of fabric or cloth out of original fibers, using mechanical or chemical processes. Traditionally, most people think of textile products as feeding directly into apparel. Yet the textile industry is expansive, with textile components showing up in a variety of end markets, from construction materials to air filters, from automotive fabrics to upholstered furniture. Specifically, the industry can be broken down in a number of different ways, including:

  • By fiber type (including natural fibers like cotton and wool, and synthetic fibers like nylon)
  • By fabric production process (including using yarn in knitting or weaving, or using nonwoven processes)
  • By fabric finishing process (including unfinished fabrics, coated fabrics, and a variety of other treatments)
  • By end product use (including apparel products, but also including medical products, construction products, automotive products, and a host of other end uses).
Overview of the Industry

North Carolina has a long history in the textile industry dating back to the early 1800s. The table below provides a historical perspective of the growth of the North Carolina textile industry between 1810 and 2000.

North Carolina Textile Industry Development Timeline: 1810-2000
Year Event
1810 NC families produced $3 million in domestic cloth; southern states produced more than imported
1813-1825 First cotton textile mill located in Lincoln county on the Catawba River. Schenck contracted with two ironworkers, Warlick and Beam. It had a few cards and spindles for yarn to sell to local farmers to make hand-woven cloth. In 1825, first textile mill, a 1200 spindle yarn mill, opened near Fayetteville by a local merchant, George McNeil. Joel Battle, a planter/merchant in Edgecombe County, spurred textile development by creating an excellent power source at the Tar River near Rocky Mount (1818).
1832-1837 First textile mill in Alamance County; Snow Camp Woolen Mill; first cotton mill in Alamance County, High Falls Mill. Today part of Copland Fabrics. Alamance Factory was the first mill in the South to produce colored cotton plaid fabrics; became famous for making Alamance Plaids.
1835-1870 Factories converted to steam power run by coal to provide a steadier, inexpensive source of power for machinery.
1840 NC had 25 textile mills; contained fewer than 50,000 spindles, about 700 looms and employed 1,200 people. In comparison, Lowell, MA had 31 mills, 228,858 spindles, and 6,304 looms by 1845.
1850s Young girls and boys dominated textile mills. Men were supervisors or machinists. Girls worked 12 hours/day, 5 days a week and 9 hours on Saturdays for a wage between $0.12-0.37 a day.
1860 Census enumerated 5 textile mills in NC that also operated smaller processing units. Up until this time (prior to the Civil War) most NC’s mills just produced cotton yarn.
1884 NC had 75 cotton mills.
1885-1915 1885: only 10,000 workers; less than 10% of the NC work force in textiles. NC textile mills (cotton, woolen, knitting) grew from 60 to 318 with an increase in capacity from 200,000 spindles; 2,500 looms (1885) to 3.88 million spindles; 67,288 looms (1915). First hosiery mill, Alamance (1896). Mill hands worked six, 11-hour days. Men earned $1-2/day; women $0.5-1; children $0.4 (1889).
1890 NC had 91 mills in operation. Only 6.7% of NC’s workers were employed in manufacturing. Alamance County was the leading NC cotton-manufacturing center in terms of looms and spindles.
1900 Typical wage for a family of five with a father and four children ages 14-21 working was $17-$21 per week in a prosperous mill, or not more than $1,000 per year.
1905 Worker hours: 6 days, 10.5 hours/day. Men earned $0.75-$2.75/day, women $0.60 -$1; children $0.40.
1914 NC had 293 mills; value of all textile production: $90.7 million. NC ranked 4th in U.S. in hosiery production, with 74 plants in operation, 8,000 workers, and annual product valued at $9 million.
1914-1930 Many northern cotton mills closed and moved south. Cotton mills employed thousands of Southern farmers and their families.
1915 Over 51,000 worked in textiles and the size of the individual mills grew. An average mill in 1885 contained between 3-4,000 spindles; in 1915 it was closer to 10,000 spindles per mill. NC mills were still smaller than in other southern states (GA and SC) where mills contained twice as many spindles.
1920 Survey indicated that 59% of all mill workers had moved 3 or more times in the previous 10 years.
1921 NC had 343 mills (impact of WWI); value of all textile production $190.9 million; number of workers increased by 25% since 1914.
1923-1924 Burlington Industries began under Spencer Love, taking a chance on the new fiber, rayon, and producing rayon fabrics. NC overtook Massachusetts as the leading U.S. textile-producing state in the value of its product. Workers worked 55-hour weeks, men $2.10-$6.60 day, and women $2.10-2.38.
1925-1927 Southern manufacturers overtook their rivals in New England in the number of active spindles and value added by manufacture (1925) and total number of spindles, wages and number of looms (1927).
1950 Burlington was the “hosiery center” of the South. There were 54 hosiery manufacturers in Alamance County; almost everyone worked in a textile or hosiery mill between 1920-50.
1970 Burlington Industries world’s largest textile-manufacturing corporation
1975 NC had 1,004 firms; 93 were multi-plant firms; 23 corporations controlled 204 operations.
1992 NC textile and apparel production reached a peak representing 16% and 4% of total manufacturing production respectively. U.S. textile production was only 2% of total U.S. manufacturing.
2000 NC had 802 firms; 126 multi-plant firms; top 27 corporations controlled 166 operations and 29% of operations in 1975 were still active under same management.
Establishments, Workers & Wages

Employment and establishments have declined steadily in the United States and North Carolina across all segments of the textile and apparel value chain over the last two decades. In 1992, the U.S. textile and apparel industries employed over 1.8 million people in 53,754 establishments. By 2012 this number dropped to 575,990 workers in 35,206 establishments, a decline of 69% and 35% respectively over the last two decades (1992-2012).

North Carolina is the fourth largest overall employer, representing 9% of U.S. employment and the fifth largest in the U.S. in terms of the overall number of establishments (4% of U.S. establishments). In 1992, North Carolina was the number one employer overall, but has since fallen behind California, New York and Georgia.

Within the value chain, final product manufacturing (specifically the apparel manufacturing segment) employs the most U.S. workers, however within North Carolina the textile component manufacturing segment (yarn and fabric) is the most important in terms of establishments and employees. Although employment has declined and North Carolina’s share of U.S. employment has fallen by 10%, NC has remained the leading employer in this segment over the last 20 years and still accounts for 22% of U.S. employment. Overall wages have increased at a slower rate in NC compared to the U.S. average over the last two decades across all industries (67% vs. 82%). This was slightly more pronounced in North Carolina’s main segment (textile component manufacturing), where U.S. wages increased by 87% compared to 65%.

Geographically, the industry is concentrated in two main clusters in North Carolina. One cluster includes Guilford, Randolph, Alamance and surrounding counties and the other area includes Catawba to Gaston and Mecklenburg counties.

Production & Trade

In 2012, the United States exported $17.6 billion in textile components and textile and apparel final products, of which $2.3 billion were from North Carolina (13%). Over the last 10 years (2002-2012), the value of North Carolina’s textile component exports increased by 36%; faster than the U.S average of 18.4%.

The United States and North Carolina are both primarily exporters of textile components and importers of apparel. The primary textile component export destinations for North Carolina are Honduras (36%), Mexico (13%), the Dominican Republic (11%) and Canada (10%). The main source of apparel is China (40% of U.S. apparel imports).


Policy influences the textile and apparel industries at the local and national level by encouraging economic development and providing assistance to workers. At the international level, global and regional trade policies have historically played a critical role in influencing the structure and dynamics of international production and sourcing networks. For North Carolina, regional trade agreements, such as NAFTA and DR-CAFTA also play critical roles in maintaining a market for yarn and to a lesser extent, fabric exports.

Trends & Developments
Globalization & Domestic Employment Declines

There have been several causes for the decline in NC textile and apparel employment. In the 1950s, the introduction of new machinery and technology (industry) decreased the labor intensity of production. Starting in the 1990s, the growth of foreign products (competition) accelerated due to changes in institutions. These included NAFTA in 1994, the beginning of the ATC quota phase-out in 1995, and currency devaluation and fluctuations in Mexico (1994) and the Asian currency crisis (1997) (5). More recently the list includes the China and Vietnam’s entries into the WTO (2001; 2007), the end of quotas and safeguards (2005; 2007) and the global financial crisis (2008-2010). However employment declines have not been unique to North Carolina; employment has been decreasing in the United States as a whole, as well as other countries, such as those in Western Europe.

Technical Textile Sector Growing

In order to face this challenge, one of the most important trends in the industry is the growing role of technical textiles. Technical textiles are defined as textile materials and products manufactured primarily for their technical performance and functional properties, rather than their aesthetic or decorative characteristics. End uses include aerospace, industrial, marine, medical, military, safety and transport textiles, and geotextiles. Firms in this sector generally use nonwoven processes to manufacture or finish these products (NAICS 31323, 31332). In addition, over 25 percent of the top 40 largest nonwoven firms in the world have plants in North Carolina, as of 2005 (2).

Firms in North Carolina that can position themselves within these higher value-added segments of the industry may be able to protect themselves against increased foreign competition in lower value-added segments, and can often break into new markets. Textile firms operating in non-apparel markets such as automotive, medical and civil engineering products have posted significant growth, as evidenced by the expansion of capacity to their North Carolina plants over the last decade (e.g., Freudenberg, Buckeye Technologies, PGI, etc.).

Despite the overall growth of this sector, it is still susceptible to overcapacity and price competition. For example, spunbond nonwovens for hygiene products or hydroentangled fabrics for baby wipes started as profitable niches, but due to global overinvestment of capacity and rising prices of raw materials like oil, this market has become commoditized and is now characterized by falling prices and low margins similar to traditional apparel-bound textiles (4).

  1. Textiles Intelligence, "Glossary," Website. Last accessed August 13, 2007.
  2. "The International Top 40," Nonwovens Industry, September 2005. pp. 32-103.
  3. Conway, P., Connolly, R., Field, A., & Longman, D. (2003). The North Carolina textiles project: an initial report. Journal of Textile & Apparel Technology & Management: JTATM, 3(3), 1-12.
  4. Frederick, S. (2010). Development and Application of a Value Chain Research Approach to Understand and Evaluate Internal and External Factors and Relationships Affecting Economic Competitiveness in the Textile Value Chain. PhD Dissertation. NC State University: Raleigh, NC.
  5. Bynum, J. (1928). Piedmont North Carolina and textile production. Economic Geography, 4(3), 232-240.
  6. Glass, B. (1992). The Textile Industry in North Carolina: A History. Raleigh, NC: North Carolina Division of Archives and History.
  7. Textile Heritage Museum. (2004). Timeline: Textiles: Ancient to Modern Day. Retrieved June 4, 2008, from www.textileheritagemuseum.org/textileshistory.html