Carolina textile district

Carolina Textile District and Opportunity Threads:  Rebuilding a Traditional Industry

Maine’s economic history is similar to rural areas throughout the country that had a large manufacturing sector. Free trade agreements and mechanization have dramatically reshaped these regions and resulted in massive job losses. In the absence of well-paying manufacturing jobs that were the economic backbone of these regions for generations, communities were left to struggle and frequently could, at best, fill the void with a limited number of low-wage retail and service sector jobs.

On a recent visit to western North Carolina, we witnessed the green shoots of an effort to comprehensively respond to an economic crisis strikingly similar to what we’ve seen in rural Maine. The Founders of Opportunity Threads and the Carolina Textile District are harnessing their manufacturing heritage and the remaining textile industry knowledge in their region to meet modern demand and shape a new labor vision for the South.

In the early 1990s, North Carolina's Burke County ranked high among best places to live and its natural beauty provided the setting for the film "Last of the Mohicans." However, changes in technology and global trade resulted in the loss of 120,000 manufacturing jobs between 1995 and 2010 across the state. It seemed like an era was ending. Today, the remaining 30,000 people employed in North Carolina's apparel industry are mostly in small to mid-size firms. And the textile market is changing too, with demand growing for smaller runs, organic fibers, a "made in USA" label and assurance of humane working conditions.

Worker-owners at Opportunity Threads in North Carolina.

Enter the Carolina Textile District (CTD), a manufacturing value chain network whose mission is "to revitalize the textile industry in a way that builds on and sustains local people, assets and heritage." It was formed in 2013 by three organizations that recognized the potential in networking small producers to meet the emerging demands in the textile market: the Manufacturing Solutions Center (a research and development organization), Opportunity Threads (a worker-owned, contract cut and sew facility) and Burke Development, Inc. (the economic development entity for Burke County).

First, the partners developed a client intake system run by a Project Specialist that helps clients identify the firms in the region best suited for manufacturing their product and assists local firms in responding to those customers. The District has also hired a Network Coordinator, who is dedicated to supporting the shops in the network and exploring joint marketing efforts.

One of the founding partners, Opportunity Threads, is a worker-owned firm (founded by Burke County-native Molly Hemstreet) that promotes environmental values by using mostly organic cotton, upcycled materials, and sustainable production methods. Most worker-owners are Mayan immigrants who came to North Carolina from communities in Guatemala that also had a strong textile history. Opportunity Threads has grown from a two-employee shop to a bustling production facility of over 20 full-time workers. Many worker-owners have moved from precarious to stable livelihoods. They have bought homes, have savings accounts and have equity in a growing business.

According to census statistics, over 75% of US manufacturing firms employ 20 or fewer employees. The CTD and leaders of The Industrial Commons (a 501(c)3 organization established to support this work) are demonstrating that these small- to mid-size firms can collaborate to build networks that create positive social, environmental and economic impacts in rural communities. To learn more, visit Carolina Textile District and Industrial Commons.