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A career in textiles?
Feature: 3/12/2001



A story in director-e News (Wednesday 5 December) revealed how students at a Leicester Community College have been involved in designing a new playing strip for the Leicester Riders basketball team - confirming that textiles and garment design are still an important element in the city that once led the world in textile design education.

In the US, North and South Carolina are similarly part of a major centre for textiles - and it seems there is a revival taking place there among students considering the industry as a viable future career.

In two years, textiles will be Josh Cox's career. Now, it's a one-word question. "Textiles?" . . . friends ask, so do relatives. They want to know why the 20-year-old textile engineering student at N.C. State University would choose a career in an industry that's slashing jobs and moving plants overseas.

"When I say, 'I'm going to the College of Textiles', they think I'm going to college and coming back to sew socks", says Cox, a junior from Mount Airy. "People don't realise all of what it is".

Despite current problems, Cox and his classmates are staking their futures on an industry they and their professors say will bear little resemblance to its "Norma Rae" image. Where others see a dying industry, textile students see exciting opportunities brought about by technology.

They stress that textiles are more than just clothing: Companies are developing fabrics stronger than Kevlar, which is used in body armour and bulletproof vests. Others are improving the medical uses of textiles, such as composite materials used in artificial hearts and replacement joints.

Even on the clothing side, technology is driving changes such as faster looms, water-free dyeing techniques and new fabrics, such as artificial leathers and imitation denim.

Tomorrow's leaders

On the front line of this new technology are Carolinas' schools such as N.C. State and Clemson University. There, undergraduate students are being schooled in high-tech processes that, some say, are vital to preserving a domestic industry that still accounts for tens of thousands of jobs in the Carolinas and Georgia. Today's students will be tomorrow's textile leaders, they say.

"You've got to have new people with new ideas and new skills if you're going to survive and compete", says Blan Godfrey, dean of N.C. State's College of Textiles. "You're not going to make cheap white towels. There's somebody else who can do that (overseas) with 20-cent-an-hour labour".

Even those most optimistic about the industry's prospects acknowledge that the past few years have been rough. Mills have shut down, and companies have folded. Others are struggling financially. In the past five years, employment in textiles in the Carolinas has shrunk by 77,000 jobs, or nearly one-third, according to figures from the employment security commissions in North Carolina and South Carolina.

Only last month, Greensboro-based Burlington Industries Inc. - once the world's largest textile company - filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. And Kannapolis-based Pillowtex, one of the nation's top home-furnishings makers, filed for Chapter 11 protection last year.

Those two and other large textile companies in the Carolinas - including VF Corp., Unifi Inc., Guilford Mills and Cone Mills Corp. - have announced hundreds of layoffs in recent months. Industry officials blame many factors. Free trade with Mexico and other countries has made cheap labour abroad appealing. New, automated machines eliminate the need for certain workers. The success of discount retailers such as Wal-Mart has suppressed prices.

Long-term confidence

While confident in the industry's long-term outlook, some students admit that recent cutbacks are unsettling. "It's become more touchy lately, especially hearing a big company like Burlington declaring bankruptcy", says Tim Cherry, an N.C. State senior from Gastonia. "That stuff kind of hits home".

Still, those in the industry say there are plenty of quiet success stories. The media, they say, have done a poor job of spreading the good news.

They point to companies such as 3Tex Inc. in Cary, near Raleigh, which makes super-strong fabrics and composites using a three-dimensional loom, and to Polymer Group Inc., based in North Charleston, S.C., which is the world's third-largest producer of engineered nonwoven fabrics.

Even old-time textile companies say they'll continue to prosper. "There are companies that are doing well that are going to remain leaders in their industry", stresses Reid Baker, human resources director with Parkdale Mills Inc. in Gastonia, which hires about a half-dozen new college graduates a year. "Certainly a student should not be discouraged because of the press or the economic situation".

Textile college recruiters say the recent layoffs have made recruiting more difficult, because parents especially are wary of their children entering dead-end careers. But the layoffs, they stress, are mostly mill workers - not the high-tech or managerial spots for which college students prepare.

Futuristic projects

N.C. State's College of Textiles, home to 850 undergraduates, has the traditional textile machines in its basement. But now, students are learning to use looms and other equipment with an eye toward futuristic-sounding products.

In a textile engineering design class one afternoon last month, about 50 students heard Professor Tim Clapp stress that products must look appealing and be easy to use - not just functional, as engineers prefer.

Groups of students then listed products they're designing for a class project: a sleep suit for babies that monitors breathing, to head off sudden infant death syndrome; a knee brace for athletes that measures the knee's angle, to speed recovery from injuries; a garment that measures pressure for the bedridden, to prevent bedsores.

In a studio on the other side of the building, students design sundresses and other garments with the help of a three-dimensional body scanner, which transmits instant body measurements to a computer.

"These are all things we wouldn't have done very many years ago", says Traci May-Plumlee, a textile design professor, as she explained the uses of a laser printer-like machine that makes prototype designs on fabric.

Pioneering research

Graduate students and professors are pioneering research that could transform the industry. Last year, the College of Textiles spent more than $10 million on research - more than twice as much as 10 years ago, largely because of closer relationships with businesses.

One professor is studying how to make fibres from crushed crab shells or from the slime of hagfish, an eel-like creature that dwells on the sea floor. Another is experimenting with ways to make cotton fabric water-resistant.

One researcher, collaborating with commercial dyeing and finishing companies, has nearly perfected a way to dye fabric without using water - a process that, if developed, could save dye houses hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in utility costs.

N.C. State and Clemson are the only universities in the Carolinas with four-year programmes that give students a background in the science of textiles. Other universities, such as UNC Greensboro and East Carolina University, offer programmes in textile design and marketing. Community colleges also offer classes in textile technology.

Does it work?

In the final analysis, it comes down to this. Does it work for the students? And the answer has to be yes, because textile college students are finding success in the job market.

Of the 156 textiles students who graduated from N.C. State last May, 95 percent have found work. About half went to work for textile companies, a quarter went into non-textile employment, and the rest headed to graduate school or are still looking.

Starting salaries are impressive, as well. The average textile engineer in the class of 2001 earns about £34,000 - about the same as other engineers graduating from N.C. State. The average student graduating with a degree in textile management or textile technology makes nearly £27,000 annually. Those figures are well above national averages for students graduating with degrees in fields such as English (£21,600), nursing (£24,400) and psychology (£21,000), and about equal to national averages for business majors (£26,700), according to a spring 2001 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

At Clemson, which has about 125 students studying textiles, students graduate with skills to succeed in many areas, says Professor Clarence Rogers, who teaches yarn manufacturing. "We're problem solvers", he says. "If you can solve problems in my area of yarn manufacturing, you can solve problems in any area".

Many textile companies, such as Parkdale Mills and Fort Mill, S.C.-based Springs Industries, place recent graduates into yearlong management programmes, after which they become supervisors at plants and perhaps eventually plant managers and upper-level managers.

Others, such as Milliken & Co. of Spartanburg hire recent graduates throughout the company. Milliken hires about 200 graduates a year. "The need for textile engineers and textile technology majors is great", says company spokesman Richard Dillard. "They're particularly valued, and we're always looking for talent".

Textile careers

Some students, such as Cox, became interested in textiles through family members who work in the industry. Cox spent a summer internship at Spencer's Inc. in Mount Airy, a children's clothing maker where he studied the company's cost system. He says he now looks forward to a career in textile engineering.

But others are like Cheryl Soule, a sophomore from Gibsonville, who first found out about textiles from an N.C. State recruiter. She says she was drawn by the strong job placement, the high salaries and the flexibility her textile management degree will offer. "You can do just about anything with textiles", she says.

Soule is also studying Chinese and earning a second, interdisciplinary degree focusing on the Pacific Rim. She thinks she might like to go into international business, probably in textiles.

With new technologies, the future for textile students - and for the industry - is bright, says Joe Cunning, executive director of the National Textile Centre in Wilmington, Del., which administers federal research money for textiles.

"If you're interested in having an exciting career in a financially rewarding area - this is it", he states.
Author: John Gibbon
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