HEFLIN — Sewing machines at the Sewell Companies plant in Heflin were silent Tuesday morning as country singer Larry Gatlin spoke, and sang, to employees who will make a line of clothing he helped design.
“Let’s sell some of our product,” Gatlin said in between songs.
“Yeah!” the employees yelled back.
Gatlin is the first legend of the American Legend Series clothing line the company, along with Diamond Gusset Jeans, based in Blue Ridge, Ga., will soon start producing for an October launch.
Robin Sewell Worley, chief executive officer of Sewell Companies, said the clothing line is part of a campaign to promote products made in America.
“We’ve all got to fight back for our jobs,” Worley said.
At the peak of U.S. textile production in the 1960s and 1970s, the Sewell plants in Georgia and Alabama employed more than 5,000 people, said Worley, grandson of one of the founders of Sewell Companies. The Bremen and Bowdon plants in Georgia employed about 1,500 people in 1980, Worley said.
During those two decades, six of every 10 suits made in the United States were made in western Georgia or eastern Alabama, he said.
But in the 1990s, American culture started to change. People started dressing more casually, and suits became less common, Worley said. At the same time, the textile industry in the United States started feeling the effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Worley said. The agreement between the United States, Canada and Mexico promised trade free of restrictions and import taxes between the partners. NAFTA promised lower prices for consumers, which it delivered, said Kelli Weaver, co-owner of 2 Marketing Moms, who represent Sewell Companies and Diamond Gusset Jeans. But it also ushered in an era of plant closings and jobs moving overseas, she said.
Sheryl Alewine, who has worked at Sewell Companies for 43 years, has seen the changes first-hand. When she started working full-time at the plant, that was the only job she needed. In 1997, she started working at Walmart to supplement her income, she said.
Today, the Heflin plant, which had employed about 200 people at its peak production, employs about 100, said Travis Prichard, plant manager. While that number is the result of years of decline, it’s an increase from just a few months ago, Prichard added. The company has hired about 20 people in Heflin in the last two months to meet increasing demand and Prichard hopes to add 50 more over the next six months if the demand continues to grow.
Eliza Levy, manager of public relations for the National Council of Textile Organizations, said the textile industry is seeing a resurgence in the United States. With labor prices on the rise in China and the expense of transportation, American prices are competitive, she said.
“In the last six months, there has been $760 million of investments into new U. S. textile plants,” Levy said.
That equates to about 2,500 new jobs in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Louisiana, she said. Alabama is also seeing some recent investment, Levy said.
Worley, though, decided to take matters into his own hands. About three months ago, he talked to an old friend, Randall Redding, founder of Mill Town Music Hall in Bremen, Ga., and they hatched the plan – a new line of clothing made completely in the United States that would be in part designed by an American legend. Gatlin is a solo artist and lead singer of Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers, a country band that had a string of hits in the 1970s and 1980s. He is the first legend in what they hope is a pilot for a program that is a call on Americans to buy the American made goods. If they respond, Worley said, the manufacturers will be able to add more employees and expand further.
Gatlin said he loves good clothes and has designed his own clothes ever since he could afford to. So when they asked him about helping create a line of clothing made exclusively in America, he was excited to do it.
“My dad’s a working man. He’s 87 years old and worked hard all of his life,” Gatlin said. “We’re going to try to bring the jobs home.”
The blazers that will be produced in Heflin were designed in a Western style by company designers and Gatlin is working with them to add his own touches, he said. Worley said the jackets should retail between $300 and $500 when they are launched in time for the holiday season.