It was the perfect hiding place: that little gap between the bedroom sets and rows of couches, dining room tables, bedroom suits and reclining chairs. My Dad would never find me here. So I sat, curled up and quiet, listening to the sounds of his furniture store. For a seven year old, this was the ideal space to listen to my Mother’s adding machine clicking away in the office, and watch my Father extolling the values of handcrafted furniture and upholstery to his loyal customers.
Eight-way. Hand Tied. Notch-in-Groove. Hand Crafted. These were the catch phrases of my youth heard thousands of times with a particular point of pride. “Let me show you the fabric choices,” my Dad would say, fanning literally hundreds of swatches from which to choose. He would slide his hand across the cloth and ask the customer to do the same as he talked about beauty, durability and richness of colors. As I hid and listened, I would press my small face against the fabric of a couch as I drifted off into my dreams. Sometimes he would wake or pull me out of hiding to say hello to customers. Nearly everyone knew and trusted my Dad and that’s how things work in a small South Carolina town. Few knew more about furniture than he, though his real talent was extol¬ling the virtues of textiles. But that was then.
As a child hiding among the rows of furniture, I could not have known that my small face was pressed against a legacy of labor, progress and innovation. I could not have known that the hand carved and crafted wood furniture made just up the road was a by-product of the textile industry itself and was fueling retail stores like my Dad’s all over the country. In fact, it was all that and more. For the sum total of those thousands of threads against my face was, in fact, symbolic of imperialism and the historic rise, fall and redemption of the American South.
A Danish tale tells of weavers that one day promised an Emperor a new suit of clothes. The suit, they said, would be invisible to those unfit for their positions. The newly clothed Emperor, pretending that he can see the fabric, parades before his subjects who are equally afraid of admitting they actually see nothing at all. After a child cries out the obvious reality that the Emperor has no clothes on, the masses reluctantly begin to admit the same.
The Emperor’s New Clothes has become a standard metaphor for collective denial, or any group dynamic that prevents a healthy challenge to authority when speaking the truth. Similarly, the textile industry of the past 30 years was equally unwilling to admit an escalating problem that no one wanted to address or discuss: that of its gradual competitive demise to foreign countries. Political leaders saw the markets rebounding, and therein lies our tale.
Beauty and creature comforts are the threads, and most enduring themes of civilization. History records garments from 550 B.C. embroidered with “wool from a tree” or cotton. Wool was woven into garments thousands of years ago in ancient Egypt and trimmings were fashioned to adorn the lush tapestries in Persian Palaces. From the days of Pharaoh, cotton has clothed and comforted every civilization and society. Fiber from the flax plant was woven into linen that provided clothing, shrouds and sails for Pharaoh’s realm. And eventually cotton, which made all this possible, would become the dominant material of the world’s textile industry.
From the most basic necessities of our time right up to the most exquisite artifacts of beauty, the textile industry has been the great provider. The industry of fiber to fabric and design to dyes, textiles brought woven beauty into the homes of the world and became part of virtually everything we touch in nearly every moment. The economic crown jewel, American Textiles, ruled that landscape at home and abroad. It fueled emerging economies, created jobs, and provided a living for scores of people seeking a better life. But eventually a changing world pulled at the edges: fraying the fabric as emerging nations offered a less expensive route. Cheap labor abroad and consumer demand for the lowest possible prices set the industry on a collision course that has seen the great textile empire rise, fall and struggle to redeem itself.
Textiles are perhaps the birthright of nearly every emerging economy and developing nation. Today, the nations of China, India, Pakistan, Taiwan and others have emerged to take their turn in this business. But centuries ago, it belonged to England, France and ultimately, to a developing country called America.
The world longed for cotton, and nearly every developing nation answered the call. Centuries ago, England’s powerful new cotton industry was centered in Lancashire where the damp climate was sympathetic to cotton fibers, water power was available and fuel was cheap. The discovery of the power of steam together with the automation and mechanization of spinning cotton created the Industrial Revolution in Britain. From Britain the Industrial Revolution took hold in Europe and then across the seas. Textiles expanded into the US when our Founders removed British colonial restrictions at the time of independence in 1776. Industrialism from then on was the mantra and muscle of the new working middle class.
It first took root in the American Northeast, particularly the New England states of Rhode Island and Massachusetts, because of their geographic location and progressive political climate. Before long, the opportunity moved to the South struggling to reclaim itself from Reconstruction. Cotton had been “king” in the south since Colonial days, but most of the raw fiber had been shipped to the cotton mills of New England and Europe where the Industrial Revolution was in full force. A product of the West Indies, cotton adapted well to the climate of the southern states, though was difficult to process until an American, Eli Whitney, invented his Cotton Gin in 1793 which separated seeds from fiber and pushed the fledgling industry forward into an extensive cotton textile industry in full bloom.
From then on, the South’s economy was almost totally tied to one-crop agriculture and the importation of slaves to cultivate the staple gave it distinctiveness like no other. The problem, of course, with one-crop agriculture is that it breeds dependence and subjugation which imposed upon the country unintended social and political consequences for generations to come.
From fiber to fabric and design to demand, perhaps no one knows the highs and lows of the design end of the industry like Wesley Mancini. He is among the last of the great designers still working his craft in an industry that has fragmented itself across the world. But the name Mancini connotes more than three decades of excellence in the pursuit of the highest perfection. Today his work is sought after for its elegance all over the world.
In the glory days of textiles, not more than three decades ago, the large mill houses of Concord and High Point were teaming with designers, new fabrics, colors and possibilities. It was the ‘70s, and Mancini was early in his career. Born to dairy farmers in Connecticut, Mancini entered Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science (now the University of Philadelphia) where he tried his hand as a fiber artist before determining to become a designer. Looking for jobs after school became challenging as his portfolio had high-end appeal and his work with silks and wools made prospective employers leery that he couldn’t relate to the average buyer.
Mancini followed the industry’s movement to the South when early in his career he took a job with Home Fabrics. Here he literally overhauls a highly commercial line into a more decorative appeal and is ultimately asked to manage a line of bedding. In short time he transformed the line of bedding, trim and upholstery taking the company’s home fashion business from 7M to 70M annually while driving the most important component of the entire textile process: consumer demand. Soon he had created a niche for himself in an industry that had been a dominant force and looked to stay that way. He created his own company and from there continued the association with Home Fabrics for another 23 years.
Walking through his studio, his role and power are clear. He says the upcoming season will be fond of grays – and so it is. The walls of his offices are covered with color and texture groupings to display the many combinations of the new looks to come. This is where style is defined and translated before the world ever sees it, before a buyer ever wants it, before a merchandiser ever sells it, and long before you’ll ever know how much you love it. Mancini is not merely a designer. He is the “decider” of consumer demand. He is constantly collecting fabrics from Europe that are centuries old and re-interpreting them into the look of the future. From the fields to the mills to the designers to your home, Mancini has been creating classics and redefining style through innovative textures and colors for more than 30 years. As creator of home décor accessories, his are the most sought after bedding and furniture brands.
Through the years his design firm experienced constant growth working with the furniture greats such as Clyde Pearson, Hickory Chair, Henredon. There seemed to be no end to the flow of design ideas, opportunities in every market, particularly the market niches that yearned for extravagance and elegance. But then, he recalls, two events helped turn the tide. One was September 11, 2001, and the other was the lifting of trade embargoes. At home, it did not take long to feel the impacts of the reduced consumer spending created by 9-11, and the loss of jobs to offshore opportunities as a result of lifted trade sanctions. The long-standing U.S. policies toward China (and other emerging markets) began to loosen and by the late 1990s, trade sanctions with that nation began to lift allowing for more import/export opportunities.
China was providing product and labor at nearly a quarter of the domestic price and as large brands began to falter the auxiliary divisions, such as bedding and draperies, went with them. The domino effect impacted yarn manufacturers, dyers, finishers, and everyone along the chain. With access to the cheaper labor forces of these developing nations, the large conglomerates turned their eyes offshore. And history began to repeat itself as emerging countries grasped for the opportunity of textiles. Mancini began work with a mill in China, and would be among the first to explain the challenges of such an arrangement. Multiple sources, he says, are needed for anything done in China as there is no yarn inventory and no consistency in color dyes, making it next to impossible to provide a top quality product. The process required one compromise after another in the details that Mancini has spent a lifetime perfecting.
Still, Mancini believed the market would come back. But the tides were changing on a permanent scale and before long the losses mounted. His strength slipped as he held onto staff and resources through the worst of the storm. As mills tried to lower margins and make things cheaper, the situation spiraled and nothing seemed to work. He reflects on a time when America produced its own products – Made in the USA - and the world bought. But in a global economy the name of the game is cost, not quality, and the pressure to cut cost and kowtow to consumer demands created a momentum toward consolidation, offshore jobs and products. The ultimate culprit in our spiral toward mediocrity is, of course, the consumer.
Today his business is international with England as the number one market, followed by Germany, Italy and a growing market in the Middle East. He has expanded his lines to include hardware such as curtain rods that augment the full line home accessories. Mancini’s influence on the shape of the industry’s future will be felt. He is a member of the Board of Directors for the International Textile Market Association (ITMA), the first designer ever to be named to its board; Savannah College of Art and Design; University of Philadelphia; NC State University; The Mint Museum of Craft & Design; The McColl Center for Visual Art; and the Wesley Mancini Foundation.
In the long expanse of time and history, 100 years is barely a blip on the radar. But the century of textile greatness left in its wake a momentum of progress that is still felt today. Although its economic prominence is not what it was, and textiles play a far smaller role in the life of the U.S. and the region, its existence continues to have a powerful influence in the social, economic, religious, financial and educational make up. In pure economic terms, there are fewer mills and far fewer manufacturing employees, but their unit output is far greater due to state of the art machinery that gives more production per spindle or loom in less time with fewer workers. This inevitable economic trend resulted in large part because of advanced technology that made mills more productive and nicer places to work, but required fewer workers to operate the machinery.
The Emperor’s New Clothes, we might say, are now dependent not on a weaver’s tale but on ingenuity, innovation and technology. Today the American textile industry is the world’s most efficient manufacturer of textiles and continually working on new ideas and products to maintain its position as a world-class producer. Against the ever-present threat of cheap foreign labor, research and education have been key factors to the advances in new yarns, fabrics and other products that appeal to consumers. Pharr Yarns, for example, is one of several plants spinning flame resistant fibers, which is ultimately shipping to war zones and reducing second and third degree burns by as much as 44%. Other companies are making constant investments in automation that will allow for high speed, highly specialized and engineered fabrics that cannot be easily copied at a lower cost. Consolidation and control by larger, more diversified firms with greater access to large amounts of capital for modernization and improvements continue to transform the business. These firms are able to institute economies, make long-range capital investments in plants and equipment, and forge new technologies that will keep the industry competitive and cost efficient.