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The old textile mills here are mostly gone now. Gaffney Manufacturing, National Textiles, Cherokee clangorous, dusty, productive engines of the Carolinas fabric trade fell one by one to the forces of globalization.

Just as the Carolinas benefited when manufacturing migrated first from the Cottonopolises of England to the mill towns of New England and then to here, where labor was even cheaper, they suffered in the 1990s when the textile industry mostly left the United States.

It headed to China, India, Mexico wherever people would spool, spin and sew for a few dollars or less a day. Which is why what is happening at the old Wellstone spinning plant is so remarkable.

Drive out to the interstate, with the big peach shaped water tower just down the highway, and you’ll find the mill up and running again. Parkdale Mills, the country’s largest buyer of raw cotton, reopened it in 2010.

Bayard Winthrop, the founder of the sweatshirt and clothing company American Giant, was at the mill one morning earlier this year to meet with his Parkdale sales representative. Just last year, Mr. Winthrop was buying fabric from a factory in India. Now, he says, it is cheaper to shop in the United States. Mr. Winthrop uses Parkdale yarn from one of its 25 American factories, and has that yarn spun into fabric about four miles from Parkdale’s Gaffney plant, at Carolina Cotton Works.

Mr. Winthrop says American manufacturing has several advantages over outsourcing. Transportation costs are a fraction of what they are overseas. Turnaround time is quicker. Most striking, labor costs the reason all these companies fled in the first place aren’t that much higher than overseas because the factories that survived the outsourcing wave have largely turned to automation and are employing far fewer workers.

And while Mr. Winthrop did not run into such problems, monitoring worker safety in places like Bangladesh, where hundreds of textile workers have died in recent years in fires and other disasters, has become a huge challenge. “When I framed the business, I wasn’t saying, ‘From the cotton in the ground to the finished product, this is going to be all American made,'” he said. “It wasn’t some patriotic quest.”

Instead, he said, the road to Gaffney was all about protecting his bottom line.

That simple, if counterintuitive, example is changing both Gaffney and the American textile and apparel industries.

In 2012, textile and apparel exports were $22.7 billion, up 37 percent from just three years earlier. While the size of operations remain behind those of overseas powers like China, the fact that these industries are thriving again after almost being left for dead is indicative of a broader reassessment by American companies about manufacturing in the United States. Forum for Supply Chain Innovation and the publication Supply Chain Digest conducted a joint survey of 340 of their members. The survey found that one third of American companies with manufacturing overseas said they were considering moving some production to the United States, and about 15 percent of the respondents said they had already decided to do so. who conducted the survey.

Beyond the cost and time benefits, companies often get a boost with consumers by promoting American made products, according to a survey conducted in January by The New York Times.

The survey found that 68 percent of respondents preferred products made in the United States, even if they cost more,
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and 63 percent believed they were of higher quality. Retailers from Walmart to Abercrombie Fitch are starting to respond to those sentiments, creating sections for American made items and sourcing goods domestically.

But as manufacturers find that American made products are not only appealing but affordable, they are also finding the business landscape has changed. Two decades of overseas production has decimated factories here. Between 2000 and 2011, on average, 17 manufacturers closed up shop every day across the country, according to research from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

Now, companies that want to make things here often have trouble finding qualified workers for specialized jobs and American made components for their products. And politicians’ promises that American manufacturing means an abundance of new jobs is complicated yes, it means jobs, but on nowhere near the scale there was before, because machines have replaced humans at almost every point in the production process.

Take Parkdale: The mill here produces 2.5 million pounds of yarn a week with about 140 workers. In 1980, that production level would have required more than 2,000 people.

Curse of Long Distance

When Bayard Winthrop founded American Giant, he knew precisely what he wanted to make: thick sweatshirts like the one from the Navy that his father used to wear.

They required a dry “hand feel,” so the fabric would not seem greasy to the touch, and a soft, heavily plucked underside. Mr. Winthrop had already produced sportswear overseas, so he looked there for the advanced techniques and affordable pricing he needed.

He wanted to sell his hooded sweatshirt for around $80, between the $10 Walmart version, made in China, and the $125 Polo Ralph Lauren version, made in Peru. He was insistent on cutting and sewing the sweatshirts in the United States a company called American Giant couldn’t do that part overseas, he felt but wasn’t picky about where the fabric came from.

With the help of a consultant, he settled on a mill in Haryana, India, that could make the desired fabric. After several months of back and forth, Mr. Winthrop was ready to ship his first sweatshirts in February 2012.

But he was frustrated with the quality, and the lengthy process. By October of last year, Mr. Winthrop had moved production to South Carolina. Now it takes just a month or so, start to finish, to get a sweatshirt to a customer.

“We just avoid so many big and small stumbles that invariably happen when you try to do things from far away,” he said. “We would never be where we are today if we were overseas. Nowhere close.”

The problems in India were cultural, bureaucratic and practical.

Time was foremost among them. The Indian mill needed too much time three to five months to perfect its designs, send samples, schedule production, ship the fabric to the United States and get it through customs. Mr. Winthrop was hesitant to predict demand that far in advance.

There were also communication issues. Mr. Winthrop would send the Indian factory so called tech packs that detailed exactly what kind of fabric he wanted and what variations he would allow. But even with photos and drawings, the roll to roll variance was big. And he couldn’t afford to fly to India regularly, or hire someone to monitor production there.

He also found that suppliers deferred to his wishes, rather than being frank about some of his choices, which weren’t, he conceded,
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