Manufacturing in N.C. isn't dead. But it's different

In the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, a leaner and more innovative textile industry is growing. The Manufacturing Solutions Center in Conover is training the next generation of workers and entrepreneurs.

North Carolina still has a deep knowledge of what it takes to run a textile manufacturing business

CONOVER, N.C. —"Made in the USA does work," said textile technician Mark Bess. "We’re committed to making it work in Conover N.C."

That’s the rallying cry of manufacturers in Conover, where some textile companies are hanging on. According to statistics from the Bureau of Labor, the area has lost more than 14,000 jobs in the past few decades to automation and cheap labor offshore. But here in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains, the Manufacturing Solutions Center (MSC) is passing on the tradition of textile manufacturing to a new generation of entrepreneurs and workers.

"We moved the business here from Florida," said Jason Wilkins, who runs a flat-bed knitting operation called InnovaKnits. "There’s definitely no textile manufacturing in Florida. So, to be here where there’s still some residual textiles in the education system and in the people and some remnants of a supply chain...in Florida there’s definitely no option, I mean your two weeks away from anyone."

The Manufacturing Solutions Center is training the next generation of workers and entrepreneurs

The MSC helps entrepreneurs test ideas, model products and ultimately connect them to large-scale domestic manufacturers. They’re goal is to bring textile jobs back to the area.

"The biggest challenge is getting young people trained on the technical jobs before we lose all the real skilled technical people that are out there," said Dan St. Louis, director of MSC. But the businesses operating today look very different than the ones that were here in the 90s.

Instead of large dusty factories, businesses are smaller, highly automated and doing crazy things with yarn. Take for example, Jordan Schindler. He’s binding medicine to yarn.

"So you actually start with a package of yarn whether it’s nylon, cotton or polyester and almost like a sponge this yarn is absorbing these active ingredients and we’re using a binder to cure it onto the yarn," said Schindler. "From there you’re left with a package of menthol yarn or aspirin yarn or tea tree yarn which can then get woven into a sock like the sock I’m wearing. So instead of having to apply ice-y hot every couple of hours while you’re running a big race or playing a big game, your just wear your sock."

Skilled workers are needed in this new industry

Today, even making a regular sock requires skilled workers that understand how to program, run and maintain the machines. "The technology that goes into making a sock is amazing," said Schindler. "No one ever thinks about it."

Today's machines can make a sock two and a half times faster than before.

"You know I hear the word advanced manufacturing all the time," said St. Louis. "If you’re in business making stuff today and in manufacturing, you’re gonna be advanced. Now it’s all computerized and you have robots that close the toes on the machine where you used to have sewers."

Lauren Brallier is part of this new generation of workers. She’s learning to operate a flat-bed knitting machine.

"So we just finished the medium left sock and now I’m going to upload the medium right from the program on the flash drive that he’s already created," she said, demonstrating how to upload the sock design.

Mark Bess on the other hand has worked in textiles all his life. He’s from Conover, and after being laid off several times by businesses moving offshore, he’s finally found a home at Yu Apparel, a compression sock manufacturer. They moved back to the area because they wanted to make “Made in the USA” part of their brand. "It’s a matter of being committed to 'Made In the USA'," said Bess. "It’s not an overnight thing, but we have everything we need here. And we’re gonna make it work."

"It's about community," said St. Louis. "I teach a swim team and I've watched these kids grow up, they're like my own and I'd like for them to stay here, if they want to."