Given the South’s deep agrarian culture and strong affinity for cheap and free labor, spinning yarn into cloth could have been a natural progression for South Carolina dating back as early as the 17th or 18th centuries.
Still, even though land was plentiful and crops such as cotton quite profitable, many obstacles delayed the rise of textiles as an industry in the state and, more generally, in the South.
For many years, England, for instance, held a proprietary stranglehold on the industry, which forced the North American colonies to ship their crops to England to be manufactured into cloth. Then, once textile technology finally reached the U.S. mainland, the New England colonists didn’t rush to share their secrets with Southerners.
To top it off, white Southerners were ambivalent about going to work in textile mills in an antebellum South where slave labor had been the order of the day. “But there were people who ran their own little mill operations,” said Joann Zeise, history curator at the S.C. State Museum.
Small, individualized mill enterprises existed in South Carolina in the early 1800s or maybe even late 1700s, though it took renowned industrialist William Gregg of Graniteville to put the state, and largely the South, on the map for textile manufacturing. “He’s considered the Southern cotton manufacturer father of the South. He was pivotal,” Zeise said.
Gregg journeyed to New England in 1844 on a fact-finding mission to study textile mills, then returned to the state and founded The Graniteville Company in 1845. The mill operated through the Civil War, World War I and World War II, the Great Depression and other landmark points in United States. The company was taken over by Avondale Mills in the 1980s and operated until the 1990s.
Other major textile mills operated across the South and in the Upstate and coastal areas of South Carolina. About 1.3 million people worked in textile mills nationwide in 1948, according to published reports.
Cheaper labor overseas, technology and automation, international trade agreements and other conditions consistent with modernization, wages, education and economic diversification led to the demise of the textile industry in South Carolina from the 1970s through the 2000s.
About this series: The inaugural edition of The State newspaper was published Feb. 18, 1891. In anticipation of the 125th anniversary, the Palmetto section and this section at thestate.com are recounting each day how The State covered newsmakers and events vital to South Carolina's history.