COLUMBIA, S.C. -- The future of the American textile industry isn't in stitching and dyeing, experts say, but in designing and engineering.
That means finding new uses for textiles, new ways to make material that looks like textiles -- including fabric derived from corn, sea creatures or even genetically engineered goat's milk -- and doing it all in a way that requires less labor.
"The industry has moved from manual dexterity to requiring mental dexterity," says John Boland, an "executive in residence" at Georgia Tech's School of Textile and Fiber Engineering. "And that's good. Some of the jobs we had in this industry 20 or 30 years ago were not worthy of human endeavor."
Low-skilled textile production increasingly is moving offshore. "You're not going to make cheap white towels anymore," says Blan Godfrey, dean of North Carolina State University's College of Textiles. "There's somebody else who can do it with 20-cent-an-hour labor."
In the last decade, American textile employment dropped by a third, from about 677,000 to 457,000 jobs. Some economists predict the industry will shed another 200,000 jobs in the coming decade.
What will the remaining American textile workers produce?
Some companies are already making high-tech "engineered fabrics" that require no spinning or weaving. Nonwovens, used in everything from disposable diaper coverings to geotextiles that bind roads together, are growing at a rate of about 5 percent a year, says Richard G. Mansfield, an industry consultant based in Connecticut.
Researchers are also exploring the cutting edge of new materials -- making fabrics out of crushed crab shells and the slime of the eel-like hagfish.
At fashion shows in California and Europe last week, Cargill Dow LLC of Minneapolis was showing off outdoor wear and bedding made from, of all things, corn.
The company takes the starch from the white portion of the kernel, processes it into sugar, then into lactic acid, which is then polymerized into a biodegradable product called NatureWorks. Companies in Tennessee and the Carolinas convert the resin into fibers, yarn and fabrics for use in clothing, carpets and other products.
The Polymer Group in North Charleston, S.C., uses specialized, laser-guided looms to create nonwoven fabrics that are bonded together using a high-pressure water wash.
Robert Johnston, Polymer Group's vice president of strategic planning, says one of the company's fabrics has been used by Nike for a lightweight running shirt that allows heat to escape and doesn't cling to the body.
Polymer's fabrics "look and feel like regular textiles," Johnston says. "But we have a technology that allows us to move faster with less labor."
Labor can account for as much as 20 percent of a textile product's cost. But because Polymer Group has eliminated the spinning and weaving portions of producing fabric, it has reduced its labor to just 2 percent of costs, Johnston says.
At North Carolina State University, researchers are experimenting with new ways to create textiles out of a material that would ordinarily be thrown away. The chitosan from crab shells, for instance, can be extracted by solvents and converted into a complex molecule, or polymer.
"Once you have a solution with a polymer, you can make a fabric," says David Buchanan, associate dean for textiles at N.C. State. The solution can be squirted onto a moving mat like toothpaste and bonded to form a nonwoven fabric.
Like science fiction
Some of the textile research being conducted sounds like the stuff of science fiction.
Nexia Biotechnologies Inc. of Ste. Anne de Bellevue, Quebec, is taking the gene spiders use to spin webs and implanting it in a goat's egg. According to the company, that goat's female offspring would produce milk containing silk, which in turn could be woven, or bonded through a nonwoven process, to form a fabric.
The goal is an unusually strong fabric that could be used in health care, fiber optics and even combat protection.
At Clemson University in South Carolina, bioengineers are working with textile firms and doctors to test fabrics to strengthen skin grafts, grow new tissue or even help create new organs.
Clemson professor Karen Burg is working to create a fabric that will support the growth of patient's own tissue that could be implanted in the body. One use, for example, could fill sunken areas left after biopsy or breast cancer surgery.
Other new products under development include suits for firefighters that let them know when they have reached their heat limit, and baby clothes that can monitor a sleeping infant's breathing.
All of these will come from a new breed of textile worker, who is just as likely to be a chemist or a bioengineer as a traditional fabric weaver.
"We've always had chemistry and engineering in our curriculum," said N.C. State's Buchanan. "But when you talk about new product development ... it takes a higher level of understanding of those principles."
The textile industry has pumped an average of $2 billion a year into capital investments, much of it to upgrade technology.
Industry consultant Mansfield says the future looks bright for some traditional textile sectors, such as broadloom carpeting. But the textile manufacturers who prosper will be the ones that find niches.