Thursday, October 21, 2010

2010 Elizabeth Lyon Fellowship Project Update

Georgia’s Textile Industry in a Global Context

Are closed textile mills in Georgia, like the shuttered Goodyear Clearwater Mills in ATCO, shown below, a sign of progress? [Photographer Unknown]

Countries and regions have consistently turned to the textile industry to spark growth and modernize an economy, but time and time again the industry falls into decline. Britain’s textile industry lead the way during industrial revolution in the late 18th and 19th century, and textiles became one of Britain’s chief exports, making a world superpower even more powerful. As late as the early 20th century Britain was responsible for as much as 70% of the total world textile trade, but currently its employment and output remain in a decade long decline. The New England states turned to the textile industry to help it move away from agricultural and farming, thus sparking industrial growth in the early 19th century. In an attempt to lower labor cost, the northern textile industry began shifting south in the late 1880s, and by the mid 1920s the South surpassed the North in number of operating spindles, and the United States as a whole was becoming ever important on the worldwide textile market. (Operating spindles are the most consistent measure of strength and size of the textile industry) By the mid 1930s; however, Japan, which had turned to the textile industry in an effort to modernize, was the leading exporter of textile products in the world. Following World War II it appeared that the United States, with its textile industry strongest in the South would take prominence on the world textile stage, even helping Japan rebuild its war torn textile industry, but the US’s predominance would not last. Although the decline has been gradual, the United States (and for the purpose of this project the South and Georgia), lost most of its competitive advantage in the textile and apparel industry in the decades following World War II to developing countries in Asia and Eastern Europe, who have themselves turned to the textile industry to drive improvements and modernization, just as Britain, the northern and southern states, and then Japan had previously done.

Even though there has been decline, there is, however, still a textile industry in Georgia. The 2002 Economic Census reported that 75,753 individuals worked in the textile industry, equaling about 16.7% of manufacturing employment (These numbers may be lower today with textile interests continuing to shutter). This however is a shadow of the 103,325 people employed in the textile industry in 1950, which accounted for 35.4% of manufacturing employment. Why the decline when the economy through this same time period generally improved? The textile industry is such that with advances and success in the industry and economy comes improved machinery and processes which improve manufacturing capabilities and thus decrease the amount of labor needed. Thus textile mills must be ever cognizant of improvements in technology, and if improvements are too costly as they often are, then closing may be the only solution.

For this project, the additions and alterations I will examine are generally part of modernization or diversification meant to improve a mill’s competitiveness or increase efficiency, and thus placing Georgia’s mills in a global context is essential.

Steven Eubanks is
a graduate student at West Georgia University and recipient of the 2010 Elizabeth Lyon Fellowship. The Elizabeth Lyon Fellowship provides financial assistance for projects that acquaint undergraduate and graduate students, and young professionals with preservation programs and practices.

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