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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Gordon Berkstresser III, April 29, 1986. Interview H-0263. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

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 Progress." 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.
Why do you think those particular changes took place?
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 coming. 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.