Textile bowl in the national spotlight

In the late 1970s, the textile industry, which had long supported the economies of North and South Carolina and employed more than a million workers in both states, suffered some serious blows.

On March 2, 1979, 20th Century Fox Studios released the film by director Martin Ritt. Norma Raea fictionalized account of Crystal Lee Sutton’s real-life struggle to organize the J.P. Stevens clothing factory in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, and to get her co-workers to join the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union.

The film was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar that year (losing to Kramer versus Kramer), and Sally Field won the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Sutton, a single mother with three children who earns $2.65 an hour folding towels at the factory, who led the dangerous organizing campaign in a notoriously anti-union North Carolina.

In 1980, the Charlotte Observer tasked half a dozen reporters and four editors to investigate the bi-state textile industry for a high incidence of byssinosis, a rare asthmatic-like respiratory disease caused by breathing in dust particles from untreated cotton .

Comparable to coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, or “black lung disease,” in coal miners, this incurable condition has become known as “brown lung disease.”

On April 14, 1981, the Observer won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service Gold Medal for his series “Brown Lung: A Case of Deadly Neglect,” in which a total of 22 articles and eight editorials exposed the lack of industry scrutiny and the concern for the health of its workers, many of whom have applied for disability compensation for lost wages after contracting the disease.

Needless to say, the textile industry which provided more manufacturing jobs than any other industry in both states at the time needed a major positive publicity boost to bring it back to pre-Second World times. World War, when textiles accounted for 40% of the state market. Workforce.

A football solution

The North Carolina and South Carolina Textile Manufacturers Association came up with an idea: The Textile Bowl, a regular-season college football game between NC State and Clemson at the culmination of textile week in both states. They even asked the Greenville, South Carolina-based Textile Hall Corporation, the longtime promoter of the Southern Textile Basketball Tournament, to present a trophy to the winner. The NCTMA and SCTMA also launched $500 for each of the school’s textile scholarship funds.

At the time, NC State and Clemson were among a dozen universities across the country that had textile programs that offered a full range of textile degrees, from undergraduate to doctoral, to enhance the design and production of clothing and textile manufacturing. . The largest and most important of these schools were NC State, Clemson, Georgia Tech, Auburn, and the Philadelphia School of Textiles.

On the eve of that inaugural match, hopes were high, as one industry official put it, that the two states were in the “early stages of a new textile revolution.”

Oh, how that prediction came true – but not in the way industry leaders wanted it to.

The Wilson College of Textiles has over 1,000 degree-seeking students.

Despite and because of multiple interventions by federal leaders in Washington, the textile industry began a rapid decline throughout the 1980s, losing jobs to Asian manufacturers offering low-priced products and lower labor costs. work depressed. Hundreds of textile manufacturing plants in northern South Carolina and western North Carolina have been closed as jobs and raw materials have been shipped overseas.

Following the adoption of the Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement in 1988 and the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994 – created to eliminate trade barriers in participating countries – the textile manufacturing in both states collapsed. In 2003, the Fieldcrest-Cannon factory in Kannapolis, once the largest textile manufacturing plant in the world, closed permanently. Overnight, 5,000 employees lost their jobs.

When the Great Recession of 2007-09 hit, there seemed to be no hope that textiles would return as a major manufacturing sector for Southern economies. Clemson even closed its textile school and consolidated its textile degree programs into departments within its engineering school, following the pattern of many other universities. It still does pioneering work in the field, but without a separate college dedicated to it.

In search of innovative solutions

This left NC State as the only university in the nation with a school or college devoted solely to textiles, with more than 1,000 graduate students enrolled each year. This led, according to Wilson College of Textiles Dean David Hinks, to NC State to usher in a new era of textile manufacturing, production and innovation.

Slowly, he paved the way for the restoration of the once dominant industry through advanced technology.

Student standing on a loom.
NC State’s industrial-grade textile labs are filled with cutting-edge technology.

“While I regret that other universities felt like eliminating their textile schools, we took advantage of it,” says Hinks. “We stepped up in tough times, and we helped the industry through some of those tough times.

“Right now, the future is bright. I’m really optimistic about NC State’s leadership in research innovation.

This innovation includes a wide variety of applications, from finding greener ways to dye jeans (once North Carolina’s largest textile product) to developing safer shelters for firefighters trapped in wildfires. .

Famously, A. Blanton Godfrey, former dean of NC State’s College of Textiles, said in 2012, “Norma Rae would have a hard time finding a job [at a textile plant]. But if she wants to sit at a computer terminal and schedule the reboot, that’s different. It’s a very different world.

Higher transportation costs, tariffs and rising wages in China and other countries have helped revive national interest in textiles, as well as an emphasis on “Made in America” ​​brands by big-box retailers.

In 2004, NC State even teamed up with UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke, six other research institutes and industry partners to create the North Carolina Research Campus on the site of the former Fieldcrest-Cannon manufacturing plant in Kannapolis. It is a thriving 350-acre research park dedicated to studying human health through nutrition and developing safer and healthier foods.

In 2018, with a $28 million gift from Frederick “Fred” Eugene Wilson Jr. and three generations of the Wilson family, the College of Textiles was renamed in the family’s honor, becoming the second college appointed to NC State.

In recent years, the college shares some of the responsibility for a modern resurgence of the textile industry – in the state, nationally and internationally – through a focus on technological efficiency, sustainability and l advancement, as well as development on the centenary campus of the world’s first Institute of Nonwovens.

Several programs specifically help restore textile manufacturing to North Carolina towns that once relied heavily on local factories for employment by partnering with local community colleges to produce workers trained in new technologies. Earlier this year, Wilson College of Textiles signed agreements with Gaston Community College in Dallas and Catawba Valley Community College in Hickory, creating 2+2 degree programs that allow students who graduate from two-year associate at these schools to be automatically accepted to NC. State. A separate agreement also allows the two schools, among the oldest in the North Carolina community college system, to be part of NC State’s collaborative dual-enrollment community college program.

Student working with spools of thread.
Wilson College of Textiles students learn about product design and development, quality control, and production.

In August, these schools partnered with the Technological University of Central America in Honduras to launch textile training courses, with certificate programs, associate’s degree programs, bachelor’s and diploma programs. higher education and the financing of scholarships, fellowships and internships.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in February 2020, Wilson College quickly pivoted to help companies scale up production of personal protective equipment and continues to develop new and efficient processes. Today, more than 600 North Carolina textile and nonwoven manufacturing plants export $2 billion worth of goods and products.

“There was a perception that the textile industry was almost over in the United States, and it never really was, to be honest,” Hinks says. “It may be a shadow of what it once was based on employment and certainly many businesses have moved outsourced or have not survived the competition.

“But we have seen a resurgence of textiles made in the United States. It’s coming back much more automated, with much better technology, and with much better paying jobs.

Once again in the national spotlight

But what about football? Wasn’t that the point of the Textile Bowl?

Well, 41 years ago this year, NC State took an early lead in the inaugural game, thanks to a 13-yard touchdown from Larmount Lawson in the first quarter, the first rushing touchdown dropped by the Tiger defense in its seven first Games.

Clemson rallied with 10 points in the second quarter, held the Wolfpack to just 63 total rushing yards and cruised to a 17-7 victory. It was the seventh straight win en route to winning the school’s first of three national football championships.
In recent years, the Tigers have dominated the series, which dates back to 1899, winning eight straight. The Wolfpack, however, broke the streak last year with a double-overtime victory at Carter-Finley Stadium, bringing the overall record for games known as the Textile Bowl to 28-11 in favor of Clemson.

The Textile Bowl trophy.
The Textile Bowl trophy.

Both teams are currently ranked in the Top 10 in the Associated Press College Football Poll, Clemson at No. 5 and NC State at No. 10, and will meet in the 41st Annual Textile Bowl at 7:30 p.m. at Clemson’s Memorial. Stadium. This is the first time the Wolfpack have played in a match with two top 10 opponents.

The game will be broadcast nationally by ABC in its 7:30 p.m. time slot and ESPN will host its popular pre-game show, GameDay, at the venue from 9 a.m. to noon at the stadium and immediately before the game.

The two football programs will always be rivals on the pitch, but it is the collaboration, cooperation and commitment of institutions in the worlds of textile research, education and awareness that has contributed to the rebirth of the textile industry in both states.

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