The textile industry: technologically and methodologically dynamic
Berkstresser describes the textile industry as a laboratory for new technologies and methodologies in this selection. His description defies the stereotype of the industry as rigid and conservative.
Citing this Excerpt
Oral History Interview with Gordon Berkstresser III, April 29, 1986. Interview H-0263. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Full Text of the Excerpt
But one of the things—I must say—that
I've got here in front of me a draft of a report for the
Office of Technology Assessment about the state of the textile and
apparel industry and where they're going. [Note: I asked for
a copy, but he said it wasn't ready for public distribution
yet.] In the executive summary we are talking
about—we've given it the tentative
title—"U.S. Textile Industry: A Revolution in
We're talking about the textile industry being, outside of
agriculture, the nation's oldest industry and yet at the same
time the newest.
That process of change is really nothing new. From the time I can remmber
as a small kid, going into the mills with my father, my grandfather,
there was always some new piece of equipment, being studied, being put
in place, a new system of doing something. It didn't
necessarily have to be the technology of making yarn or fabric or dying
it. Sometimes it was just a new business method.
I remember when everybody was going from the FIFO (
) accounting system to LIFO (), and the
implications to the textile industry of changing your accounting system.
And this whole bit was happening.
So, even though I think the textile industry has this reputation of being
a sleepy giant, that moves terribly slowly, and is if not reactionary at
least terribly conservative, I think that's a bum rap.
That picture up on the wall is a picture of the old Patterson plant in
Roanoke Rapids and I've seen—in my lifetime, that
plant go through huge metamorphoses, of what it produces, the types of
things. The first I can remember of that plant, it was making a very
plain fabric called soft-filled sheetings that went around the springs
in a Beauty Rest mattress. That business departed, basically because
non-wovens came in and could do the job cheaper. We started
then making, in that mill, some fabrics for draperies to be
printed on. One of the first jobs I had after I graduated from
State—my uncle put me to working on making some background
weaves, and we came up with a thing called a bark cloth, simulating the
bark of a tree, and gave a little surface interest. All it was was a few
ancient weaves, we call them Bedford Cords, that we messed up a bit.
I've seen the mill go that way, and it survived on that. Now,
as a part of the J.P. Stevens complex, it's making Jacquard
towels. Same old brick and mortar, a lot of the same people who were
living in houses surrounding it—type of thing.
- PATRICIA RAUB:
Why do you think those particular changes took place?
- GORDON BERKSTRESSER, III:
They're a response to the market, obviously. Part of the big
metamorphosis that I've seen, too, in the industry, even in
my lifetime, has been the forward integration of the industry. Prior to
World War Two, we still had as much horizonal structure in the industry
as there was vertical. Not only in the manufacturing, but in the
marketing vs. the manufacturing. In my own case, my mother's
family came from Leipzig and Dresden in Germany and my grandfather was
in New York and connected with a selling agent for these mills in
Roanoke Rapids, of which my father's family was involved. So
my father married his partner's daughter. But right about the
time of the 30s and on through the 40s, the selling agent, marketing
organization, mostly centered around the Boston-New
York-Philadelphia axis were either acquiring control of the Southern
mills or the Southern mills were acquiring control of the marketing
organization in New York. But that consolidation was happening, and yet
up until that point they were separate entities. Of course, kids in the
manufacturing end in the South, tended to go to Woodberry Forest, Chapel
Hill, and the Varsity Shop, in that order. In New York, you went to
Andover, Yale, and Brooks Brothers. My folks sent me to Andover and then
back to Chapel Hill to span this bridge because they saw what was
There still has existed, even into my generation, and even to the present
time a certain amount of distrust—or dealing at
arm's length—even within same company, between the
marketing end in New York and the Southern mill people. You speak
different languages, you went to different schools, you have different
experiences. That is changing, but it's been there a long
time and it's hard.