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US Textile Industry Finds Itself On Front Lines of Coronavirus Crisis

While it’s generally out of the wheelhouse for most companies, the U.S. textile and apparel industry is stepping up in a big way to answer the call for much-needed medical equipment in light of the coronavirus pandemic that’s sweeping the country and, in some cases, overwhelming health care facilities.

The coalition

Kim Glas, president and CEO of the National Council of Textile Organizations (NCTO), told Sourcing Journal that it all started with a call from White House trade advisor Peter Navarro “challenging the industry to produce more masks to help out front line workers.”

Navarro did this in lieu of using the National Defense Production Act to force companies to manufacture certain materials. He did say, however, that the act may need to be deployed in certain situations across the supply chain. But based on the reaction so far, that seems unlikely.

“The industry stepped forward to help supply a critical need,” Glas said. “We weren’t making masks and for now we’ll be making masks. It’s a great American story of big and small companies coming together to create an innovative partnership to help supply and meet some major demands across our hospital system.”

Parkdale Inc., a large yarn spinner in Gastonia, N.C., helped lead the effort to build the coalition, along with Hanesbrands, Fruit of the Loom, American Giant, Los Angeles Apparel, AST Sportswear, Sanmar, America Knits, Beverly Knits and Riegel Linen. Together they set up a manufacturing supply chain and begin ramping up production of the masks.

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The companies began production Monday and will make the first deliveries by mid-week. The companies are dedicating their assets, resources and manufacturing capacities to create a high output of face masks. Once fully ramped up in four to five weeks, the companies expect to produce up to 10 million face masks per week in the U.S. and Central America.

The industry, Glas said, is literally turning over its equipment and innovating, while also reaching out to cut-and-sew operations across the spectrum to help fill the need created by the health crisis.

“Some companies already produce medical-related textiles, while for others it’s a small component of their business, but they are now trying to ramp up their operations to fill the need,” Glas said. “You have other companies that weren’t really in this space that are looking to help because we make the most innovative textiles in the world with antimicrobial properties that are needed right now, that are looking to retool as quickly as possible.

“We’re in a crisis management mode and we just need to deploy materials,” Glas added. “Some hospital are working directly with these companies, while others are tapping into their own supply chains.”

Through Parkdale CEO Andy Warlick, American Giant CEO Bayard Winthrop  was able to get involved in the coalition and has converted his factory in Middlesex, N.C., from T-shirt production to medical mask manufacturing.

Production should start Tuesday, according to Winthrop, as fabric arrives from Miami, while special machinery he has purchased is in place.

“Seeing a bunch of people in our industry who are generally competitive by nature dropping everything and coming together is incredible,” he said. “Our target is 35,000 masks per week when we get up to speed, but we can scale up from there by adding more binding and folding machines.”

Beverly Knits Inc., which is involved in the effort led by Hanes and Parkdale, is ramping up production to provide face masks by retooling its production lines. The company is coordinating the production of up to 1.5 million masks produced domestically per week, according to CEO Ron Sytz.

The Americas Apparel Production Network (AAPN) set up a special message board to expand the number of companies wanting to participate in the effort. AAPN members have shared specs and patterns, along with resources and company contacts to aid the movement.

“It is amazing to see the industry come together to source masks and gowns for the medical industry and patients,” Tricia Carey, director of global business development for denim at Lenzing Fibers, said. “I have received calls, even over the weekend, from various companies and it is the old-fashioned way of one person connecting with another through network organizations like AAPN, USFIA, INDA, NCTO. It is reassuring how we can come together during this time.”

Across the spectrum

Outside that specific effort, many companies are pitching in on their own to ease the burden during the COVID-19 crisis.

Milliken & Company said it has increased domestic production of its BioSmart fabric. In light of the current critical need for protective medical garments, the company prioritized the advanced material in its supply chain to do what it could to better protect healthcare professionals regularly exposed to bacteria and viruses.

BioSmart integrates anti-microbial protection into the most common medical products like scrubs, lab coats and privacy curtains. The patented, bleach-activated technology harnesses the proven power of chlorine bleach to kill 99.9 percent of bacteria and viruses. Manufactured in the U.S., BioSmart fabric is available through Prime Medical and is equipped with advanced molecular engineering that binds chlorine to fibers to turn otherwise passive textiles into one more layer of active defense against inadvertent microbial exposure, contamination and infection.

“We are committed to protecting our medical community when their health is of vital importance,” Chad McAllister, president and executive vice president of the Textile Division of Milliken & Company, said. “Through scaling up manufacturing, production and distribution channels, we are dedicating the necessary resources to defend those who need it most.”

As an immediate action, Milliken and its production and distribution partners are working together to direct BioSmart inventory, finished garments and curtains to those on the front lines in America’s fight against viruses and infectious diseases by providing the necessary defense.

In response to the national shortage of surgical-grade face masks, designer Michael Costello has designed a cotton-nylon blend protective mask with a 70 percent to 74 percent air filtration effectiveness rate, in comparison to the 97 percent effectiveness of surgical face masks.

Costello, whose operations had come to a halt due to COVID-19, reached out to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to identify the best fabrics for masks, then partnered with a manufacturer to activate specialized machinery that will help his team produce 20,000 protective face masks, which Costello plans to donate to medical professionals, first responders and hospitals in Los Angeles.

“For the first couple of days of this emergency I, like many others, felt frustrated and helpless just sitting at home,” Costello said. “I realized that even if I couldn’t do what I wanted as a designer, I should do what I can to help others that keep our community safe. While I’m not a nurse, doctor or first responder, I knew I can give the one thing I know best, which is fashion, and help design masks that will be crucial for preventing exposure.”

Kitsbow, a premium bike apparel brand based in Old Fort, N.C., decided to pivot its apparel production to making face shields for first responders, as well as reusable face masks.

Company founder Zander Nosler, was able to obtain a design of a face shield from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Makerspace and an initial design was created by Kitsbow last week. The company kicked mask production into high gear, with shipment already on route.

Kitsbow is currently selling the masks at cost to local first responders and medical staff, but plans to distribute internationally as it makes more. Using raw materials on hand, Kitsbow will continue making the masks and shields as long as they are needed. This also allows Kitsbow to keep its employees paid and working, unlike so many businesses throughout the country.

Jay Hertwig, senior vice president of global sales and marketing at Unifi Inc., said the company continues to receive orders from customers and its plants are still running.

“Unifi also stands ready and able to supply yarn, fiber and other Unifi products to our partners who make supplies to support medical first responders, the military and the food packaging industry,” Hertwig said.

Made in America

It may be early yet to talk about whether the crisis will result in a more companies wanting to manufacture in the U.S. to reduce risk in the supply chain, Glas said, but that may be a likely outcropping. Without some of these companies available to step up in the crisis, conditions in the U.S. could be worse off.

While Winthrop noted that it’s an honor to be part of the project, he admitted, “it’s crazy that we have a bunch of T-shirt and sweatshirt producers making medical masks.”

“It is a good snapshot of a larger conversation that we need to be having as a country that has effectively handed over our ability to be making things to a very complicated, very fragile global supply chain that has been pursuing cheap at all costs and we’re now in a situation that we can’t make medical masks, we can’t make ventilators and hospital beds, and we can’t respond,” he added. “I hope there’s a serious conversation after this in the industry and in Washington about turning the tide a bit.”

Thomas, the leader in product sourcing, supplier selection, and marketing solutions for industry, released Tuesday the second phase of Thomas’ February 2020 survey, which examined more than 1,000 North American manufacturing and industrial suppliers to determine the current impact and learn more about the solutions companies are implementing to meet surging sourcing demands.

A key finding in a new survey from Thomas reporting on how the coronavirus outbreak is affecting U.S. manufacturing showed that more than half of manufacturers are “likely to extremely likely” to bring production and sourcing back to North America. Additionally, 47 percent of U.S manufacturers report they are now seeking domestic sources of supply.

“It’s encouraging to see that many North American companies are forging ahead and seeking solutions, including turning toward domestic sources of supply, a trend which will help shape the next wave of manufacturing,” Thomas president and CEO Tony Uphoff said.

When asked what materials were needed to stabilize supply and keep production on schedule, 26 percent cited textiles.