In Appalachia’s Foothills, a Leaner Textile Industry Rises

By Debbie M. Price

Oxford Dam | Larry C. Price Photo
The Moon set in the west as water from Lake Hickory on the Catawba River outside Conover, NC, flows through the gates of the Oxford Hydro Station dam.,-81.1939601,17z/data=!3m1!4b1!4m5!3m4!1s0x885138ee0f7a51a5:0x7865fe22828fc614!8m2!3d35.8212199!4d-81.1917714

THE CAVERNOUS manufacturing room at InnovaKnits, a contract producer of knitwear in Conover, North Carolina, is empty save for four large flat-bed knitting machines, four linking machines, and four women. German-made Stoll machines knit like lightning, turning out bodices and sleeves for women’s sweaters. The workers deftly hook loops of yarn one by one over tiny pins on the linking machines, which seamlessly connect the sleeves to the bodices. It’s a tedious task and one of the last remaining jobs done by hand here.

“We might be able to take something off the machine so that it requires only one step of labor instead of 10 steps of labor,” says Jason Wilkins, co-founder and managing partner of the company. “Everyone knows the future is to do as much on the machine as possible,” he added.

Catawba County, North Carolina — a former textile production powerhouse decimated by offshoring — is enjoying a renaissance fueled by innovation, high-tech materials, automation, and custom work. Textiles are coming back here, but not the old jobs. “The state-of-the art plant in 1990 had line shafts with a leather belt running the knitting machines. Now we have robots closing the toes and that eliminates half the plant,” says Dan St. Louis, executive director of the nonprofit Manufacturing Solutions Center, a division of the Catawba Valley Community College.

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