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As China sews, few US mills left

With a bedrock US industry on the ropes, quotas on imports could follow.

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The town of Erwin once proudly proclaimed itself the "Denim Capital of the World."

Workers stamped "Hong Kong" and "Tel Aviv" on bolts of high-grade denim as two mills supplied the world with overalls, bell-bottoms, and hip-huggers.

Times certainly change with the fashion.

Today, the looms have fallen silent. Textile jobs here have fallen from a peak of 2,500 to zero. And as this North Carolina town struggles to define its future, its plight suggests a harsh reality: One of America's bedrock industries appears increasingly near extinction, threatening a way of life that has allowed blue-collar communities to stitch together a patchwork of prosperity.

The decline of textile jobs, while familiar, is generating fresh concern this year thanks to a flood of newly legalized imports from China. The Bush administration, responding to industry complaints and a tripling in the rate of mill closures, said this week that it will investigate whether Chinese imports are disrupting the US market. The move could result in reimposed quotas.

But as that process moves forward, the case of Erwin is a reminder of the nearly inexorable nature of the challenge. The last mill here closed five years ago, long before China's competitive potential was unleashed on world apparel markets. The threat from Shanghai and Souzhou now adds to worries that many of America's remaining 677,000 textile and apparel jobs - down from 1.6 million in 1994 - could face a similar fate.

"Ten years ago when NAFTA and GATT [free-trade agreements] were implemented, there was a feeling of, 'We're going to fight it,' " says Mike Walden, an economist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. "Now there's a changed view, a mixture of resignation and reality. Young people know they don't have a future going into the textile mills, and the big question is what will those towns morph into and what will those people be doing 10 years from now?"

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