It's Like Getting Fleeced

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

But starting in the mid-1990s, with the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, these companies began to suffer from foreign competition and falling prices. The more labor-intensive apparel work went first, with sewing shops moving to Mexico. The textile industry has two components: textiles, the business of knitting, dying and cutting cloth; and apparel, the assembly or sewing stage. Many companies do both and labor statistics tend to group textiles and apparel together.

After the Asian financial crisis of 1997, which devalued currencies, overseas textiles became even cheaper.

The final blow was the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, according to textile lobbyists, which left the industry with the bleakest outlook since the Great Depression. Since 9/11, 42 mills have closed or announced closings, including VF, the last of the sweatshirt makers in Martinsville.

Also, President Bush is under pressure to lift textile tariffs on Pakistan, the third largest cloth maker in the world, as a way to say thanks for the country's help in fighting terrorism.

"The industry is doomed," said Wayne Hill, VF's vice president of textiles. "We used to compete against the mill down the street. Now we're up against the world."

Today, 85% of VF's manufacturing jobs are offshore, compared to 20% just six years ago. Since 1997, VF has added 13,000 employees in Mexico and Honduras, while cutting 24,000 jobs in the United States. The company is paring its domestic operations to a handful of mills in the South.

"It's four to five times cheaper to make sweatshirts offshore," said Cindy Knoebel, a VF spokeswoman. "We don't have a choice."

These business realities leave huge holes in communities like Martinsville.

Blankenship had built a life around the yellow-brick sweatpants factory where she labored from March 9, 1966, before graduating high school, to Dec. 12, 2001, when she was laid off.

She played third base for the factory softball squad, won "pace setter" awards for speedy stitching and spent hours kibitzing with other women--as cloth raced through their hands--about husbands, children, hopes and fears. Sometimes, when she was feeling inspired, she averaged as much as $11.39 an hour. (Like most textile workers, she was paid by the piece, explaining how she knows the number of sweatpants she made.)

Her eyes glow when she thinks of these days.

"I worked real good there," said Blankenship, who's 53 years old. Then she began to cry.

Her employment officer, Pat Gusler, tried to cheer her up during a recent advisory session.

"Miss Margaret, I'm not sure what we're going to do with you, but we'll find something."

Advisor Seeks Industry, Industry, Industry

Across town in a new office in the Henry County government center, Wayne Sterling is looking for that something.

The county hired him in November as an economic development advisor for $200,000 a year, more than twice the next-highest paid official and about 10 times the earnings of a veteran mill worker.

Sterling is best known for leading the team that persuaded BMW to locate its first North American production plant in Spartanburg, S.C., which provided 4,000 jobs. He also helped attract $6.2 billion in investment capital in the five years he headed the Virginia Economic Development Partnership.

His philosophy is industry, industry and more industry.

"Are we chasing the wrong thing?" Sterling asked. "I don't think so. Our people have worked with their hands for generations. They understand the culture of shift work."

It's hard to talk about jobs in Martinsville without Sterling's name coming up, whether in the halls of the county center, at the employment office or during lunch at the D & A cafe, where a plate of chicken and taters costs $3.90 and people who don't know each other cram into booths and swap stories about getting laid off.

"Wayne better produce," DeHart said, "unless he thinks he looks good in tar and feathers."

Martinsville's leaders are bracing themselves for the summer, when the last of VF's 2,300 textile workers are let go and the jobless rate is expected to hit 20%.

"Let's be honest," said Tim Hall, Henry County spokesman. "Most of our people are not ready to step into some new economy gig."

There are other problems too. Martinsville's population is beginning to slip, from 21,000 in the 1960s to 16,162 in 1990 and 15,416 in 2000.

"You can see people deciding: Do I stay or do I go?" said Sharon Dodson, superintendent of schools.

The school population is falling even faster, a 37% drop in the last 25 years. After VF announced it was closing, taking with it $1.3 million in tax revenue, county officials said they need to shut one special education and three elementary schools and consolidate two high schools.

Many parents and teachers say the proposal is premature, and they're trying to block it.

"We like our schools, our sense of community," said Jody Dalton, a Martinsville schoolteacher. "We don't want to become a retirement town."

Race Issues Provide Uncomfortable Subtext

Dodson said the unspoken issue is race. The county is 74% white, 23% black, with a small but growing Latino population. The textile industry used to be all white but that changed in the last 30 years, bringing more people of color to the area.

"Remember, this is still the South, and we're trying to combine a majority black high school with a majority white one," Dodson said. "There's apprehension on both sides."

Few in Martinsville ever imagined it would come down to this: silent, padlocked mills and the town contemplating life without them.

Many can't let go. Blankenship's mother still pulls a 10-hour shift in a furniture factory, sanding chair backs. She's 75 years old.

"And when I asked her if I could take her job," Blankenship said, "she looked me straight in the eye and said, 'I love you, honey. But no way.' "

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Times researcher Edith Stanley contributed to this report.

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