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Textile Trail celebrates industry founders
Sunday, February 17, 2013
By PAUL COLLINS - Bulletin Staff Writer
As he watched the grand opening ceremony of the Martinsville-Henry County Textile Heritage Trail on Friday, L. Dudley Walker was only a short distance from a trail interpretive sign that lists him as one of the local textile industry’s founding fathers.
“I think it’s certainly very nice that they are recognizing the role the textile industry played in this area,” Walker said after the ceremony. “I’m delighted,” he added, that the textile industry is being recognized as one of the good things about the area, which once was known as the “Sweatshirt Capital of the World.”
Walker, of Martinsville, noted that the local textile industry is “mostly gone now.” But he added he’s “glad it’s coming back.” And he praised the work the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corp. is doing.
Walker spent 24 years as chairman and president of Bassett-Walker. After it became part of VF Imagewear, he served on VF’s board of directors until 2000, according to a 2002 Bulletin article.
According to the Textile Heritage Trail interpretive signs:
“Like Father, like son
“In 1952, L. Dudley Walker became president of Walker Knitting Company, while his father was at the helm of Bassett-Walker Knitting Co. After his father’s untimely death, he became president of Bassett-Walker Knitting Company as well and was responsible for merging the two companies in 1964. In the 1960s and 1970s the company continued to expand. ...
“In 1979, the company changed its name to Bassett-Walker Inc. after buying Johnston Mills Company, a yarn manufacturer. L. Dudley Walker credits William Pannill with offering tremendous assistance to Walker’s father and serving as his mentor.”
The other founding fathers of the local textile industry are listed as L. Dudley Walker’s father, Samuel S. Walker, and his father, Robert Lee Walker; William Letcher Pannill; Ernest Ashton “Mike” Sale; and William F. Franck.
Robert Lee Walker, “the founder of the textile industry in Martinsville,” served as president of Martinsville Cotton Mill, the area’s first textile mill in 1910.
Pannill founded Pannill Knitting Co. in 1925 to compete with the mills in New York and North Carolina. “Pannill Knitting was the first mill in the South to knit cotton textiles (rather than spin yarn or weave cloth).” Pannill ultimately became a mentor to many future leaders of textile companies in Martinsville and Henry County.
“In 1928, Samuel Stanhope Walker organized a new company with assistance from William Pannill, Virginia Underwear Corp.
“Martinsville Cotton Mill was sold by the Walker family shortly after the untimely death of Robert Lee Walker. Samuel Stanhope Walker’s Virginia Underwear Corp. took over the manufacturing of women’s and boys’ underwear as well as children’s sleepwear. In 1937, he created Sale Knitting Co., operated by his son-in-law Mike Sale, which manufactured fleece goods.
“Pannill Knitting Co. was purchased by Sara Lee Corp. in 1989 (when it employed over 5,000 people) and ceased operation in Henry County in 1994.”
Franck headed Tultex Corp., a knitting company that also owned Sale Knitting, according to a 2006 Bulletin article.
Here are some other excerpts from the interpretive signs:
“Fieldcrest Mills, built by Chicago’s Marshall Field & Co., was one of the first in the succession of textile mills in the area, producing towels starting in 1919. ... Not only did the company build a mill in Henry County, but within a few years they created an entirely new town, Fieldale, on nearly 2,000 acres just outside of Martinsville.
“... In 1937, Marshall Field & Co. discontinued its wholesale division, and Fieldcrest Mills began distributing their merchandise directly to retailers other than Marshall Field, including Sears and JCPenney. In 1953, Marshall Field & Co. relinquished its stake in their mills and Fieldcrest Mills, Inc. was born, bringing into the mix the manufacture of sheets, blankets and bedspreads. Fieldcrest Mills also included the Karastan Carpet company.
“In 1986, Fieldcrest Mills acquired Cannon Mills, a chief competitor. The company was renamed Fieldcrest Cannon and effectively doubled its size. When the national economy began to slip in the 1990s, so did profits at Fieldcrest. In 1993, the carpet and rug division was sold to Mohawk Industries Inc. and in 1997, Fieldcrest Cannon was bought by Pillowtex, under which name it operated until the facility closed in July 2003.”
“Introduced to the world by DuPont in 1938, nylon was the world’s first synthetic fiber.
“Not all textile success in Martinsville and Henry County was in knitting. In 1941, E.I. DuPont De Nemours Inc. chose Martinsville as the location for the world’s largest textile nylon yarn factory. The plant was built on 500 acres on the Smith River and supplied the South’s expanding textile industry with nylon for use in blended fabrics.
“... At its beginning, the Martinsville DuPont plant was best known for producing nylon yarn for women’s hosiery, a popular novelty that had been presented at the 1939 World’s Fair. The first pair to be made from nylon yarn manufactured in Martinsville was presented to Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1942, World War II required DuPont’s sole focus to be shifted to production of nylon for parachutes. By 1945, an expansion had doubled the plant’s capacity; capacity would quadruple over the next few decades.
“At its height, DuPont employed over 4,000 people. ... The facility closed its doors in 1998.”
Textiles in Martinsville and Henry County today
“... Drake Extrusion supplies polypropylene fiber to companies all over the world for applications such as automotive textiles and home furnishings. ...
“With the Nylstar acquisition, Nilit became one of the world’s largest nylon 6.6 producers for the apparel industry. Today, Nilit’s fibers can be found in some of the world’s leading clothing lines. ...
“DDI Logistics is one of the country’s leading order fulfillment, logistics and warehousing companies, offering critical services to manufacturers in a variety of industries. ...
“Solid Stone Fabrics is a part of the new face of the local textile industry. Providing fabric for items such as swimwear and dance costumes, they take advantage of less expensive overseas labor but also have the capacity to manufacture locally. ...
“Applied Felts (is) the world’s leading cured-in-place (CIP) felt liner manufacturer. This high-tech textile company makes liners for aging sewer pipes.”