History of the hosiery industry
Here, Smith recalls some of the changes occurring in the hosiery industry during the 1960s and 1970s. Technological innovation spurred a bit of a price war, and changes in fashion presented new challenges. As companies met these challenges and established themselves internationally, smaller producers began to drop away.
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
Can you take a few minutes and describe the broad character of the consolidation on both sides, [the] factors most responsible [and] the character of the entities emerging from--?
SS: Let's talk about the sheer business first. Remember, we've got to deal with them like two sectors. There were several hundred sheer hosiery manufacturers in the United States -- probably three, four, five hundred -- back after World War Two. They were making stockings. But, it was that advent of the switch over from stockings to pantyhose in 1965 through '70. It was a guessing game. Is this a fad or do I go into this? Do I start making these pantyhose or are stockings going to come back? There are people that guessed both ways. There are people that said, “No. I'm going to keep making stockings.” Of course, stocking sales were going down. Pantyhose sales were going up. We were making pantyhose as fast as we could make them, and the demand in the market was wonderful. Oh, it was just fantastic, and we were getting whatever prices per dozen that we needed in the market place. [Retailers demanded,] “Just get me the product because women have to have this!” We were producing them hand over fist. A lot of companies were jumping into it. It was about the time that speed on that old stocking machine was beginning to pick up; so, we could make them faster. Then, three things happened. First of all, equipment changed. The old slow stocking machine that some pantyhose were being made on, because you were making a cylinder and then sewing it together. There was a new machine being developed that would make pantyhose, high speed -- doubling, tripling, and quadrupling the speed of the knitting. It was designed to make this pantyhose product and there were companies beginning to buy it. You can imagine where that left this old stocking manufacturer, who decided, “I'm not going to sell my old stocking machine because they're going to come back. This pantyhose thing is a fad.” So, machinery changed and the ability to make them fast really went up. Second thing is, there was a foreign--. Pantyhose are made all over the world by this time. There was a firm that decided from overseas, that it was going to buy its way into this market. It was the biggest market for pantyhose there was. They made pantyhose. They came in at very low prices.
JM: Who was that?
SS: It was a company called Schulte-Diekoff out of Germany. Their family is still in business today here in America, as one of our companies. They began to enter the marketplace with very competitive prices. Many of the American family owned pantyhose companies said, “We're not going to give this away. We're going to go down in prices with them.” They went and they decided, “I'm going nickel for nickel, penny for penny. They go down; I go down.” The last price I heard during, let's call it a price war--. The last price I heard quoted on the screen in New York was three dollars and fifty cents a dozen wholesale. That doesn’t cover the cost of the yarn that makes a dozen to make the hose, okay. But, everybody went down. Everybody went down.
JM: This happened right about when?
SS: About 1970. It's the beginnings of it -- '70, '71, '72 was when we were going through it
JM: So people were having a tough time.
SS: Then fashion changed. It changed away from the mini-skirt about 1971, '72. It didn't go back to a skirt. Remember this is Vietnam. This is the hippie era. It went to jeans. We went to pants, which is the antithesis of what hosiery needs in a fashion. That market just slammed to a stop. In 1972, when I joined the Association, over one hundred women's sheer hosiery companies shut down in the first twelve months that I had come to work here. I started going, “What in the heck have I got myself into?” So, it was a very compacted, very ruthless consolidation. But, there were about fifty or sixty companies left in ladies' sheer hosiery. Now that consolidation from 1972 until 1999 has continued, but it has been tapered. The companies that were left then and that are left now are bigger; they are stronger; they are more technologically advanced. They've got excellent management teams. They've got a handle on national branding. They are competitive on a worldwide basis.
JM: Fair to say generally a trend away from family owned and controlled to corporate owned and publicly financed and so forth or not so much?
SS: Yes, that has occurred. Though, there are still a number of family owned entities in the sheer business that have good size to them. Today --from the 1972 era where we had about sixty of them -- we're down to about twenty or twenty-five women's sheer hosiery companies. But even out of that, you could probably count on one or two hands, the principle players, that have the lion's share of the business. There are still some people that make specialty products or niches and things, and they'll always be there.