A local textile manufacturer is building a $3 million, job-creating expansion, indicative of a rebound in an industry that hemorrhaged more than half its area jobs in the past 10 years.
SSM Industries, a flame-resistant fabric manufacturer, will add 13 jobs to the Spring City area by the end of the year and hopes to grow that number to 25 as its factory expansion swings into full production mode.
"We've had lean times like anybody else, but now we're doing well. That's why we're expanding," said Phil Chandler, SSM's vice president for development. "We're reinvesting for the future."
For the past decade, that future has looked grim for textile manufacturers across Tennessee and Georgia. Georgia shed more than 58 percent of the industry's jobs, down to 18,856 from 45,513, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The industry in Tennessee also was hit by major losses, dropping nearly 62 percent to 3,637 jobs from 9,469 10 years earlier.
But so far this year, the textile industry appears to be turning around. Jobs are up 2.5 percent nationally, to 123,000 this June from 120,000 last June, according to the National Council of Textile Organizations, a trend the group expects will continue.
"What you'll probably see in the next 10 years is a slow but steady increase in textile jobs, and I think it's in part because costs are increasing in Asia," said NCTO President Cass Johnson. "That's making U.S. textiles more effective, but also because U.S. textile mills have pivoted and are now focusing on the high-tech and value-added products."
Rossville textile manufacturer Southern Industrial Fabrics has focused on such products for years, always trying to stay one step ahead of low-cost Asian goods.
"We do a little bit of everything, and what we did last year, we're probably not doing this year," said company president Phillip Bryan.
SIF produces filtration, rubber, kevlar, and eco-friendly fabrics with a variety of applications such as bags, floor matts and, like SSM, flame resistant shirts for utility workers.
SSM is expanding to speed up production of the value-added products that are its specialty. Now, the company is dependent on yarn suppliers' varying costs and production and shipping schedules. This expansion will break that chain, creating an in-house yarn production center.
"This allows us to go vertical," Chandler said. "It will allow us to control our cost, but more importantly it'll let us control our quality."
Quality is vital when dealing with military contracts, he said. SSM's campus includes its own military-certified testing lab to make sure everything produced is up to snuff.
"You're protecting people, so we take it very serious," Chandler said.
Military contracts have been a vital part of the domestic textile business since nearly all clothing and footwear production moved from the U.S. overseas in the 1970s and 1980s.
Thanks to a law known as the Berry Amendment, the Department of Defense is required to buy clothes, uniforms, footwear and other fabrics domestically, vaulting the military to one of the largest purchaser of domestic textiles.
"By and large, whatever is made here is probably made for the military," said Scott Elmore, spokesman for the American Apparel and Footwear Association.
For a company like SSM, the Berry rule is the gas keeping the factory running. About 65 percent of the company's textile orders come from finished product manufacturers that won government contracts.
SSM's decades of experience with flame-resistant fabrics such as Kevlar and Nomex have helped it remain relevant not only with military contractors, but in a variety of other markets such as auto racing, utility and industrial workers.
Those markets are enough to keep company operators busy. SSM employs 90 workers and managers and is usually running its machines 24 hours a day five days a week producing the materials for fighter pilot gloves, tank driver helmet liners and NASCAR jumpsuits.
With that foundation, SSM has seen consistent, growing revenue over the past few years, allowing it to expand domestically and, they hope, internationally.
"There's hundreds of uses for what we produce," Chandler said. "We're always looking for the next customer base."
As other textile companies across the country head down the same path as SSM and if growth continues as it has this year, Johnson and the trade group expect the textile industry to bounce back, though not to the same levels as a decade ago.
"The industry has gotten smaller, but I think it's gotten smarter," Johnson said. "People who thought the industry was going to go away were clearly wrong."