Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Robert Sidney Smith, January 25, 1999. Interview I-0081. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Technological innovations in hosiery manufacturing

In this excerpt, Smith describes some of the technical innovations that drove the hosiery industry forward.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Robert Sidney Smith, January 25, 1999. Interview I-0081. 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

JM: You haven't mentioned technology. Any important--. Obviously there are technological aspects say to the development of just the right machines to make pantyhose all in one unit and so forth. You mentioned nylon. You mentioned the crimping that allowed for elasticity. Are those the principle things there or are there other more recent [developments] say in fibers or in-- SS: Knitting technology. JM: Speed and quality? SS: There’ve been several. If you go all the way back to the turn of the century--. We have to be careful what we say now, we mean the last century, back to 1900. If you go back to the turn of the century, most hosiery was still knitted on a flat bed knitting machine. It was still knitted fabric but it was flat. You would take a pattern for hosiery whether it would be socks or ladies' stockings. You would lay that pattern down just like you would for a shirt pattern. You would cut around and you would roll it over and you would seam it and that was what created the seam in the back, called fully fashioned or full fashioned or seamed hosiery. That's why the seam was there. You had to sew it. By the mid-1920s and '30s, technology had come to where we could knit in a circular tube or seamless cane. The majority of the industry had made the switchover to seamless or circular diameter knitting by the 1920s. The next biggest change really was when computers took over the machine--. JM: Which would have been about--? SS: First introductions could have been as early as the late '60s, early '70s. To acquire machines and get large banks of them up and running probably was not until the '80s and now the '90s. It did a couple of things, but there's a step in the middle. If you had just a basic circular knitting machine, it was a mechanical entity. It had chain drives and cogs, and the chain would move, and the cog would hit the bottom of the needle and make it jump up, and it was totally mechanical. The next step was to put in electronics in place of mechanical. The next biggest technological change was to put electrodes in place of a lot of mechanical cogs so that electronic circuitry could drive things. That increased speed. We could now drive these machines much faster. In the 1970s and into the '80s, very roughly and the technical people in the industry would be better at this than I am, but approximately the circular knitting speed for a pair of ladies' sheer hosiery jumped from 300 revolutions to 1200 revolutions because of electronics. Once you got electronics in place, the next attachment is computer control. Now computer control has kicked in in the last ten to fifteen years, which would put us into the mid-‘80s and of course on into the '90s. When you had a mechanical machine, to change the pattern or change the product that that machine made, you had to physically tear the machine down. You had to have a mechanic with a pair of pliers and a screwdriver that would take the machine and tear it down, reconfigure the cogs and the chains, put it all back together and start it over. It generally took eight hours to change over a machine. So, if you had a hundred machines in your plant, you took 800 man-hours to change a style. Guess what? Nobody wanted to do that. So, you had very little versatility and the consumer had limited choice because nobody could be going through all these pattern changes all the time. Once you get electronics and then computers hooked up to it, we now change the pattern on the computer. You either direct wire it or use a cassette to drop in the new configuration into the knitting machine. Rough rule of thumb is we can change patterns--. Not considering design time, we can change what the machine is doing in about sixty seconds. So, it increased the flexibility and the versatility of the mill. [So] that if in the old days somebody would come to you and say, “Can you make this product for me?” You’d say, “Forget it. No. I can't. I'm not changing over to that.” Now, a retailer comes to him and says, “Can you make this product for me?” There may be two hundred dozen switches [which is] nothing as far as a run. “Sure. I'll be glad too.” [I’ll] make the two hundred [and] I'll be off making something else in another hour from now. That tremendously changed our flexibility and our ability to change and really let marketing and designs and patterning take off. JM: All come to the fore. SS: It’s made the industry more responsive. JM: How capital intensive was the computerization phase? Did this represent the replacement of one generation of plant equipment with another – say, between the '60s and the '90s? SS: Yeah. There is a phase in there that one could--. If the mechanical machine had electronics to it, you could kind of do an add on the computer. But the computer really could not initiate changing functions that well as an adaptation. Maybe you could track what was being produced through a computer, but you really couldn't make pattern changes that much. So, it did require recapitalization of the industry and that is still going on. In the sheer business, it took off very quickly because the sheer business with this advent of pantyhose and this advent of new marketing and with the fact that it was very much nationally branded [and] owned by the hosiery producer, had been consolidated into the hands of a few people that were bigger companies and had more capital available to them. Therefore, they made that transition fairly quickly. The sock business has not been populated by that kind of adaptation. It's been smaller companies and therefore, making that capital transition has been much slower. It has been more difficult for some. There are some that have not even made it today, as we're speaking and maybe never will. But that's going to have an impact in the next few years about the competitive nature of some individual companies in the sock business. The capitalization from the sock side has been a bigger hurdle because they've been generally smaller firms.