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US Wide-Width Weaving Gets Narrower With Mill Closing

And then there were two.

With the announced closing of Alice Mills earlier this spring, there are now just two American greige mills that have wide-weaving capabilities, the kind needed to make bed sheets.

Less than 15 short years ago, the United States was the world’s largest weaver of wide-with goods for the bedding market. Powerhouse American home textiles mills like Springs Industries, WestPoint Stevens, Pillowtex and Dan River ruled the world when it came to making sheets. Mills in Asia and Europe had the ability, though not the capacity to produce the seemingly endless yards of cloth needed for American bedrooms.

All of that changed in the early 2000s when quotas came off of goods from countries like China, India, and Pakistan, and the dynamics changed quickly—and radically.

In less than a decade, the United States’ estimated 95 percent market share in sheets flipped nearly completely with those three key Asian countries picking up the vast majority of the business. Smaller lots came from elsewhere in Southeast Asia and Europe, primarily from Portugal and Turkey, but the days of American dominance were over.

As of the start of this year, there were just three American companies, all family owned, that still produced wide-width (110 to 135 inches) greige cloth, which is essential for the larger queen and king sizes of sheets and bed coverings.

One of them, Alice Manufacturing, based in Easley, SC, is believed to be the largest mill producing cloth used for the residential retail market. Standard Textile, with its headquarters in Cincinnati, Ohio and manufacturing facilities in Thomaston, Ga. and Union, SC as well as operations in 10 countries, primarily in Europe but also in China and the Middle East. Hamrick Mills, located in Gaffney, SC, is moving into its fifth generation primarily serving the apparel and commercial markets.

All three companies focus on products for other end uses, including apparel fabrics and the hospitality and industrial markets. But lately with a burgeoning interest in Made in USA products led by direct-to-consumer sellers, there seemed to be a small resurgence in sheeting for the retail residential market.

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It’s why the Alice closing caught some off guard. In announcing the closing of the company’s Ellison mill in April, company chairman E. Smyth McKissick III didn’t dwell on the reasons for it, but in an interview several years prior McKissick said in reference to the business, “We can make it, we can spin it, we can weave it, we can’t sell it.”

McKissick, famously known within the trade as a man of few words and whose family has owned Alice since 1923, has not divulged many details on how long the mill will remain in production, though industry sources have said it may be at least another several months. The company continues to operate a finished product division under the Ellison-First Asia name, but that unit has been getting most of its greige from overseas suppliers for years.

Shortly after the Alice announcement, Standard Textile said it was introducing a fully domestic-made program for its core hospitality and hotel customers under the Made in USA label. The company said it had invested $65 million in its facilities over the past several years to “bring new life–through advanced manufacturing–to American textile production.” While Standard has been primarily known for its towels for the hospitality market, the new line does include a 100 percent cotton sheet under the UltraTwill name.

And it looks like the company will move beyond the commercial market and into residential. Recent visitors to the company’s website are asked to sign up to be notified when the product will be available for the home market: “We can’t wait to provide our products for your home.”

Hamrick says it can produce both all cotton and cotton-polyester blended sheeting and could manufacture as much as 220-thread-count cloth, through to 135 inches wide, thought he mill has not supplied the retail residential market of late.

Whatever capacity either Standard or Hamrick chooses to devote to residential retail will still only amount to a fraction of the overall market for sheeting and bedding in the United States.

But the Alice closing does severely impact the ability of finished goods producers to offer a totally Made in USA story in their marketing strategies. While there remains both spinning and wet and dry finishing for wide-width products like sheets, when it comes to weaving, Standard and Hamrick will be the last American mills standing.