By Devin Steele (DSteele@eTextileCommunications.com)
SWAINSBORO, Ga. – Cut-and-sew jobs in the United States declined steeply after the passage of NAFTA in 1993, of course. And with the recent resurgence of the U.S. textile and apparel industry, that important part of the supply chain still has some catching up to do to keep up with demand as more manufacturers continue to seek ways to reshore here.
Today, two lifelong friends from New Bern, N.C. – one an apparel industry veteran, the other a cardiothoracic surgeon – invited distinguished guests and partners here to help them officially open and dedicate a cut-and-sew factory, which promises to help fill that supply chain gap.
The opening of America Knits marks the return of apparel manufacturing to Swainsboro in more than 20 years. The company, which opened on July 15, currently employs 52 people, with immediate plans to expand its workforce, according to company leaders. Ultimately, the company would like to employ between 120 and 150 people, they added.
America Knits is dedicated to producing the finest quality, authentic made-in-America apparel available on brand new machinery and equipment featuring the latest in electronics and automation, according to company President Steve Hawkins. Current production focuses on premium knit tops using 100 percent U.S. grown ring-spun cotton. The company currently has about three large customers, including one that supplies T-shirts to the U.S. military, and is about to start a program for a bra supplier.
The company is committed to developing and using the most sustainable production practices available, he added. “This commitment not only reduces environmental impact, it informs and directs the use of technology, ensuring through innovation and automation environmental considerations, including the use of sustainable fibers, are at the forefront of its objectives, Hawkins noted.
“We're trying to build a new story here,” Hawkins said. “The old story was 20+ years ago, when many of the plants in the U.S. closed. Over the last eight years, I've discovered that there is a demand for U.S.-manufactured goods. And the younger folks kind of care about where it's made, the type of fabric that’s used and the sustainability part of it. We felt like if we could find the right place, then the demand was there.”
Hawkins’ buddy from childhood, Dr. David Talton, a cardiothoracic surgeon practicing in Tupelo, Miss., reiterated those sentiments during his opening remarks.
“We’re trying to build a new story in Swainsboro around how we treat people and how we treat our customers, and our employees will reflect to our customers how we treat them,” said Talton, an investor in the company who holds the title of vice president. “So we want everybody to know that we're more than just another plant – we're making a new story here.
“It's really excited to bring jobs back onshore,” he added. “Every employee here who's been in this area for any time know that these type of jobs used to be here and they all disappeared. But we're trying to bring them back and bring them back strong.”
Georgia on their minds
During a journey that started about two years ago, Hawkins and Talton found a skilled workforce in Swainsboro – roughly halfway between Macon and Savannah – and a factory previously owned and operated by Savannah Luggage Co. And area officials said they did everything in their power to support their vision of locating to Emanuel County.
“I really love this project,” said Swainsboro Mayor Charlie Schwabe at the podium. “First of all, it shows that we can reclaim jobs that wandered offshore. Secondly, it shows that we have a solid labor pool, a legacy labor pool for the right industry. And I want to give credit to you guys because you all looked hard and you did it right, and you finally found the match. I know it's the right match and we're so glad, so proud and so appreciative of the effort you put into this.”
Ken Warnock, CEO of Swainsboro-Emanuel County Chamber of Commerce, also thanked Hawkins and Talton for choosing the county: “It's been almost a year to the date that we met on a Saturday morning and looked at the building. I got to know them, and it looked like they may be a good fit for Swainsboro. Over the next few months, we came up with a plan, and this is the culmination of that plan. So thank you for that, and for your investment in and commitment to Swainsboro and our residents.”
“We're really excited about having a cut-and-sew operation becoming part of the supply chain here in Georgia,” Marty Moran, CEO of Buhler Quality Yarns, Jefferson, Ga., whose company will be supplying yarn to their fabric makers, told eTC. “To be able to go all the way from yarn to a sewn garment and keep it in Georgia is really exciting and a great opportunity for all of us. Cut and sew is something we haven't had much in the U.S., and to have it in our backyard is really exciting for us.”
Two other partners who go back about two decades with Hawkins also were on hand for the festivities.
“We are elated that they are opening in the U.S.,” Charles Heilig, president & CEO of the Textile Division at Gastonia, N.C.-based Parkdale, the largest yarn spinner in the U.S., told eTC. “The opportunity to work with a longtime partner (Hawkins) and see his growth and expansion in the United States, in Swainsboro, Ga., it's real exciting for the entire Parkdale family. They say that for every one spinning job there's 16 sewing jobs downstream, so we're real excited to see expansion of cut and sew in the United States.”
Stacey Bridges, sales manager at Carolina Cotton Works (CCW), Gaffney, S.C., said most of the fabric currently in the factory was finished at CCW.
“Steve was one of our largest customers when he was in Honduras,” Bridges said. “So it's extremely exciting. It's been a dream of his and ours to get him back to the United States. As soon as he decided to come back, we were all in to try to help him find some business. I expect them to grow in a big way. It's hard to find people in our business who are as honest and trustworthy and dedicated as Steve Hawkins. He's been a friend and a customer for a long time, so we're extremely excited to be a part of this.”
Special guest Lloyd Wood, deputy assistant secretary for Textiles, Consumer Goods and Materials in the U.S. Department of Commerce, International Trade Administration (ITA), addressed the audience, which also included the entire America Knits workforce.
“What's happening here today is a testament to the resiliency of the domestic textile industry and the potential to reshore apparel production,” he said. The U.S. government and state and local governments and industry stakeholders are working together to strengthen the competitiveness of a vertically integrated sewn product supply chain, including fiber, yarn, fabric, sewn products and some products such as apparel and home furnishings. And we have a strong upstream supply chain. It can always be stronger, but, you know, there's there’s an old axiom out there: ‘Follow the needle’ – and the upstream supply chain will follow the needle. And that's why it's so important to have a strong apparel industry.”
Wood said that one of the strategic objectives of his office (ITA) is to strengthen the global competitiveness of U.S. industry, and proving the competitiveness of domestic manufacturing, including the textile and apparel sector, will boost exports and support job creation, he added.
“I see the Georgia textile and apparel industry as a critical ally in this mission,” Wood said, pointing out that the state is the fourth largest exporter of textiles and apparel, with $1.3 billion in exports in 2018. He added that the state employs more than 45,000 people in the industry in more than 500 manufacturing facilities.
“With a presence this big, there's a wealth of skilled workers and supply chain partners,” he said. “Georgia is also home to many prominent players in the textile and apparel industry. And the value of doing business in this state can be found by the amount of investments or plant expansions that have occurred here recently,” including one by Parkdale to expand its Rabun Gap, Ga., facility, he pointed out.
In closing, Wood said: “I want to thank everybody who works in this industry along every step of the supply chain. You are innovating products, making our homes and workplaces better while creating jobs and opportunities. Your industry makes the textiles and apparel, the uniforms and gear that keep our military clothed, sheltered and equipped. You're responsible for contributing to the growth that underpins our economic and national security. And everybody who works here, please raise your hand. You are the people who America great. It doesn't happen without you guys.”
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