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US Mill Turns to China to Survive

In the mid-1990s, the L.W.Packard Woolen Mill had one of the most modern textile manufacturing facilities in the world. Three hundred employees worked with luxury fabrics like angora and cashmere for L.L.Bean, Saks, and Lands End. Today, most of the machines that mixed, spun and wove those fabrics have been sold to a factory in China. The company is down to six employees. Margot Hughes has been stitching for L.W.Packard for 42 years.

Mrs. Hughes says, "Everybody in town once worked in here… as long as I can remember when I came in, the punch clock was out there, (people)'d talk to each other, took care of each other…"

These days Mrs. Hughes sits alone in a big empty room, using a 30-year-old sewing machine to stitch blankets out of what's left of the company's wool inventory…

L.W.Packard is 99% closed. Workers are taking apart what's left of the machinery… it too will be sold and shipped to factories in China.

Mr. Glidden says, "Here we are, we're taking some machines apart… these stainless steel dye kettles… we'll have to patch the floor when we're done…"

John Glidden is the fourth generation to run L.W. Packard. His grandfather's uncle, Luther Packard, started the company in 1916. Back then, New Hampshire was one of the capitals of the country's booming manufacturing industry.

L.W.Packard stayed in business through the Great Depression of the 1930s when the economy went south. And the company survived over the next several decades when textile manufacturing went south, geographically, due to competition from developing countries. John Glidden says each time, the company adapted.

"In the last 15 years of operation we concentrated on going upscale in our market," notes Mr. Glidden. "The bottom end was getting consumed by Italians, Uruguayans, Asian markets. We kept going more expensive, higher quality, more value added, right to top of market. But the facility was so large, the volume available in this high-end market so small that it really became unmarketable, unprofitable."

So Mr. Glidden turned a competitor into a partner. He signed a joint-venture agreement with a manufacturer in Beijing to expand a small subsidiary company he started about five years ago. "Minus 33" makes premium long underwear out of super-soft wool and he says the business is starting to pick up.

"Hopefully a small New England company can make some profit manufacturing in China," contends Mr. Glidden. "It's a daunting task, risky task, but I think we can do it. It's our wool, it's our skills, our knowledge, and it still applies [that's still valuable]."

Mr. Glidden believes that Minus33 will allow him and his few remaining employees to stay in the business… even if their product labels say "Made in China."

In the meantime, Mr. Glidden predicts there will be a steady loss of textile jobs- and not just in the United States.

Mr. Glidden says, "Let's take Guatemala for instance, that's now cutting and sewing a lot of U.S. fabric made in the U.S., and that little country is struggling, now they have to compete with China even more head on… the Dominican Republic will lose business, Mexico under a lot of strain, Canada under a lot of strain. So all of our nice reliable close trading partners are going to have an awful struggle. The American worker is not the only loser in this free-trade economy."

With the end of textile quotas and other countries poised to take over the market, some in the U.S. textile industry talk about an apocalypse. John Glidden says it's more like a long, slow erosion….

"Just like getting old, didn't happen all at once," adds Mr. Glidden. "I'm sure my grandfather and my father both would be very sad to see the state of the business, but both would understand, that there was an end coming to manufacturing in the U.S."

Mr. Glidden sees that end as a sign that America doesn't seem to make things anymore.

"Today's economy is a lot of things, just digital this and digital that, lots of virtual things," says Mr. Glidden. "Here, we actually made things, that was a very rewarding feeling for me. I see it's missing in the U.S. economy, it's part of the heartbeat of this country that's going away."

John Glidden plans to close his family's mill completely by the end of the summer.