I owe a lot to cotton. Except for a few months when my dad tried, unsuccessfully, to break free from the silver shackles of the Carolina textile industry, the clothes on his five kids backs, the food on the table and the college education that he somehow made certain we all received came out of a cotton mill.
For nearly 50 years he worked in hot, noisy, sticky factories that turned cotton into cloth. He knew cotton mills from bale to broadcloth, from opening room, where they prepared the fluffy fibers for processing, to weave room, where they took bobbins of fine thread and wove them into cloth suitable for blue jeans or high fashion.
He could tear a loom apart and rebuild it. He could look at a defective swatch of cloth and tell you what was wrong with the machine that wove it.
At times he was responsible for hiring a crew and assuring that enough of them showed up sober on Monday morning, or for the graveyard shift on Friday night, to keep the plant running.
He worked when he was too sick to go in and when roads were too bad to drive. He epitomized the work ethic.
We sometimes cursed the cotton mill for demanding so much of him and for paying him so much less than he deserved for the time and commitment he gave. But in mid-century, in upstate South Carolina, the textile industry kept a lot of folks clothed, housed and fed.
At one time, Greenville, S.C., was known as the “Textile Capital of the World.” You couldn't throw a rock in any direction without hitting a cotton mill.
The first paying job I ever had was picking cotton for a neighbor. Actually, my mom, no slacker either, picked while the kids dragged cotton sacks across the dirt and complained about the heat or being bored. I may have received (not earned) 50 cents for my labors and may have picked enough cotton to put on the end of a Q-tip. Mom picked enough to buy school shoes.
The summer I graduated from high school, I worked in the dye house, a hot, humid, smelly section of the mill where vats of vinegary dye emitted vapors that stung your eyes and irritated your nostrils. I made enough money to help pay for my first semester at college.
At the end of the summer I was happy to go off to school and the need for an education had never been clearer. In fact, every time I mentioned the possibility of dropping out and joining the Navy or something equally foolish, dad would make certain I was able to get a few days' vacation work in the mill.
I doffed cloth (removed heavy rolls of woven cloth from the looms), swept lint off the floors and cleaned the overhead lights, which would get plastered with a foul combination of lint, dust and grease.
A few days of such drudgery would convince me that world history, French and biology were endurable. As I said, I owe a lot to cotton.
I owe a lot more to my dad, however, who endured such drudgery for most of his life and made certain that his kids had enough education to “have a choice,” as he often put it.
And I tried to support the industry that supported us. Buying a 100 percent cotton shirt made in the U.S.A. always seemed a good way to keep the mills operating so folks like my dad could continue to send kids to college. I would no more have bought him a garment made in China than I would have sassed him.
Buying U.S. cotton garments gets harder every day. Most of the mills near where I grew up have closed down. Economies have moved on to electronics, health care and computer technology. Mills have moved overseas.
That, it seems to me, is one reason why the cotton industry struggles. I understand the theories of the shrinking earth, the global village and an international marketplace. But when a factory worker turned raw material raised within 10 miles of the plant into useful, durable goods, small towns thrived, rural economies survived and people found pride, if not wealth, in jobs well done.