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As China sews, few US mills left

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Indeed, the end of global textile quotas in January has already prompted apparel imports from China to more than double - in both volume and value - from last year's pace. Americans bought some $1.4 billion in Chinese apparel in January and February. Cotton shirt imports alone are up more than 1,200 percent - a number that reflects China's small but fast-rising share of the market. The Asian nation accounts for 2 percent of cotton-shirt imports, versus 23 percent for Honduras and 13 percent Mexico.

With the US importing some 400 million garments in 60 days, which on average sell 78 percent cheaper than what a Piedmont loomshop can manage - Erwin's plight takes on a new resonance.

The orderly and tight-knit "mill hills" that defined the South's densely populated rural areas became some of America's first planned communities.

In essence, this is where the Southern middle class began, as modern towns with theaters, newspapers, and conveniences cropped up around the mills, and where residents mortgaged cows to buy sewing machines.

E.M. Barefoot, now a trucking supervisor, was the last employee to walk out of a 100-year-old mill when it closed.

As he brushes his dog, Dusty, the a third-generation mill worker explains that his paycheck has fallen by $20,000 a year at his new job. "Nine out of 10 people would go back to work at the mill in a heartbeat," he says.

To be sure, ever since manufacturing employment began waning after World War II, workers have been assured that new jobs and industries would replace the looms and dye rooms. Hiring by government, tourism, and biotech firms has picked up much of the slack of some 176,000 lost textile jobs in North Carolina.

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