American Textile Worker celebrated for answering PPE call during crisis
Posted December 23, 2020
By Devin Steele (DSteele@eTextileCommunications.com)
For the first several weeks of 2020, things were going swimmingly. The economy – and our businesses – were chugging along. Yarns were being spun, fabric was rolling, polymer melt was being extruded. Sales calls were being made. Plans were being made to attend trade shows and industry events.
All signs pointed to another year of growth and success for the U.S. textile industry.
But an invisible enemy entered our borders and turned everything upside down. SARS-VoV-2 moved in and spread swiftly and, hour by hour, day by day, the world began to grind to a virtual halt. Businesses were shuttering, sporting events were being cancelled, stay-at-home orders were being issued.
And all lives and livelihoods were affected in some fashion.
The coronavirus was taking hold. Cases were growing, hospital beds were filling up and mortality numbers were rising.
Healthcare heroes began to issue urgent pleas as the shortage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) – and our dependence on foreign sources for this lifesaving gear – was becoming Issue Nonpareil in the fight against this proliferating pathogen. Our nation was caught flat-footed.
But your industry – our industry – heeded the call and rallied around this burgeoning problem to help fight the spread. Many of our companies pivoted production into materials for PPE, others volunteered to offer inputs for these products. You connected, conversed and collaborated to find the best path forward. You discovered that strangers in your midst – and even competitors – had some of the answers as you sought solutions, learned best practices and identified the direst needs of those on the frontlines. You formed supply chains virtually overnight, which allowed you to turn and churn in an impressive and unprecedented timespan.
And none of you could have done so without your most important asset: your employees. They agreed to come to work with a dangerous virus lurking. They agreed to learn new methods and new products. They agreed to come forth and do their part to help others, their fellowman.
As such, by demonstrating the true spirit of what our industry is all about by stepping up BIG TIME to address the dire shortage of PPE when our citizens needed it most, the American Textile Worker has been named eTextileCommunications.com’s 2020 Industry Champion. These individuals have proven the resilience, flexibility and aptitude that we always knew existed by pivoting, in many instances, to produce this critical gear for our health staff, first responders and the general populace.
In a year when it felt at times that partisanship divided us and lockdowns separated us, we were united in knowing the U.S. textile industry and its thousands of people who spin the yarns, weave, knit and cut and sew the fabric and finish the product are the true champions behind the scenes.
Today, we celebrate the noble, compassionate, skilled people behind those scenes, seams and machines. On this page, some of the thousands of people who answered the call to serve others are highlighted. This feature is not designed to be all-encompassing, as every company who joined the effort isn’t included. But this diverse group of individuals, including two with nearly 50 years of experience in the industry, represent the plethora of people who put others before self and plied their trade during this great crisis. Each has a personal story to tell, so we encourage you to click on their links to read more about what makes the American Textile Worker tick.
Chain, chain, change …
From face masks and coverings to isolation gowns, from head caps to hospital curtains – our textile/apparel companies have risen to the occasion to either manufacture these products or the equipment or components needed to make them, including yarns, threads, fabrics and antibacterial and DWR (durable water repellent) materials. And still others have shifted their focus to providing services such as cut and sew or dyeing and finishing to support the effort.
This year, eTC documented dozens of these companies’ journeys into the PPE realm. Among those companies was Contempora Fabrics, a Lumberton, N.C.-based knitter that supplies fabric for Major League Baseball jerseys and many other partners. The company saw its normal fabric business abruptly decline the week of March 16 when the crisis started to heavily impact the Western Hemisphere and its customers began shuttering operations, according to company President Ron Roach said.
“During that week, every hour, something changed,” he recalled. “You couldn’t plan anything for the next day. By the end of that week, for the first time in my 35-year career, we had to lay off 185 people on that Friday.”
But things began to rapidly change when Contempora Fabrics was asked to join the Parkdale/Hanes coalition, which was formed to address the PPE shortage after calls by U.S. government officials. By Tuesday of the following week, the company had reopened operations with about half of its plant personnel, he said. In a short period of time, the company was producing more than 200,000 yards a week of fabric for masks or gowns with DWR or with antimicrobial finishes
“We’ve seen the entire U.S. industry build this so quickly and competitors work with competitors, and people we didn't even know existed are assisting others, including us, on how to get things done and try to help flatten the curve,” Roach said. “There are a lot of 15-hour days, but in many ways, it’s been pretty fun to see and be a part of. One thing we’ve proven is the U.S. textile, sewn products and apparel industry can move quickly.”
Indeed. Another company, LACorp, Lebanon, Va., pivoted almost 90 percent of its production to PPE endeavors. “Our world was turned upside down, just like everyone else's,” said company President Jeoff Bodenhorst Jr. At one point, he said he was having to decline enough requests in one week to equal a year’s worth due to capacity issues.
A global giant, Mohawk – known for carpeting and other floorcoverings – knew virtually nothing about PPE production, but that didn’t stop the company from transitioning into those products. Mohawk dedicated a facility in Dalton, Ga., and its location in Calhoun, Ga., to manufacture face shields and protective gowns.
“When we were made aware that our local hospital was out of these gowns, we were asked, ‘Do you think you can do this?’” Darlene Pasley, sewing department manager, said. “Our quick answer was ‘yes,’ even though we didn’t yet know how to do it and had never done anything like this before. We just knew we had to do what we could to help.”
Pasley’s thoughts epitomized the can-do spirit of many of our companies and production personnel. She explained how the team disassembled a medical isolation gown, measured it, copied the size, cut out a pattern by hand, and sewed it back together. Earl Nichols, senior engineer, and the team broke down every step into a separate process for the team and set up a small assembly line in a day. In total, Mohawk produced 235,000 face shields as well as about 155,000 protective gowns.
Around the country, these type of reverse engineering and problem solving was occurring in textile, apparel and carpet mills as company leaders were on the phone, on websites and on email seeking partners and solutions.
Because of the dearth of PPE and the U.S. textile industry’s willingness and ability to turn on a dime to supply these critical components, the sector had many moments to shine in the national press this year – and you shined brightly, like never before, save perhaps WWII. The importance of American textile manufacturing to the safety, health and wellbeing of our citizenry was demonstrated time and again.
During the year, many of our industry leaders participated in webinars to tell stories about how they made their transitions happen. One of the most ubiquitous was Frank Henderson, president & CEO of Henderson Sewing Machine Co., Andalusia, Ala., which supplies equipment and technology as well as systems integration tools such as robotics and automation systems and standard sewing systems. The leadership and technical teams at the company had to quickly pivot from its normal products into PPE manufacturing technologies in order to support the cause, according to Henderson, the company’s third generation leader of the family-owned company.
In retrospective comments about the industry’s cream rising to the top, Henderson gave one of the most poignant perspectives of the year, sentiments that many of you have thought for years as the industry was virtually forgotten and left to survive by its own devices.
“Some of us have been waiting most of our lives to see this happen,” Henderson said. “For me it’s been 45 years – 45 years of seeing our industry gutted and decimated and shipped all over the world, to now being able to say these are essential items needed in America. These are essential items for the health and wellbeing of our people. And I hope our government will tune in to see that these products are just as essential as a military uniform or ammunition.
He added: “I think for each of us, it’s a new day, a new time, and it's an opportunity for each one of us to share, one with the other, and also I hope it’s an opportunity for us to build this vertical supply chain for things that some of us have waited a long, long time to see come back here to America. We can do that and we can compete with the rest of the world if we're equally yoked – not unequally yoked.”
Whether or not the country gets caught off-guard again remains to be seen. But various pieces of legislation have been introduced that would ensure a made-in-America supply chain, especially for PPE. Some of our companies have invested millions in optimistic anticipation of passage, and we should all continue down this path of collaboration and strategic thinking to build this reshoring model.
But for now, as we trudge forward and work our way out of this pandemic, the industry in general – and the American Textile Worker in particular – deserve its just deserts. We commend you for care, courage and compassion. THANK YOU!