Textile manufacturing workers prepare natural and synthetic fibers for spinning into yarn and manufacture yarn into textile products that are used in clothing, in household goods, and for many industrial purposes. Among the processes that these workers perform are cleaning, carding, combing, and spinning fibers; weaving, knitting, or bonding yarns and threads into textiles; and dyeing and finishing fabrics. Textile, apparel, and furnishings workers hold more than 1.1 million jobs in the United States.
History of Textile Manufacturing Worker Career
Archaeological evidence suggests that people have been weaving natural fibers into cloth for at least 7,000 years. Basket-weaving probably preceded and inspired the weaving of cloth. By about 5,000 years ago, cotton, silk, linen, and wool fabrics were being produced in several areas of the world. While ancient weavers used procedures and equipment that seem simple by today’s standards, some of the cloth they made was of fine quality and striking beauty.
Over time, the production of textiles grew into a highly developed craft industry with various regional centers that were renowned for different kinds of textile products. Yet, until the 18th century, the making of fabrics was largely a cottage industry in which no more than a few people, often family groups, worked in small shops with their own equipment to make products by hand. With the industrial revolution and the invention of machines such as the cotton gin and the power loom, a wide variety of textiles could be produced in factories at low cost and in large quantities. Improvements have continued into the 20th century, so that today many processes in making textiles are highly automated.
Other changes have revolutionized the production of fabrics. The first attempts to make artificial fibers date to the 17th century, but it was not until the late 19th and early 20th centuries that a reasonably successful synthetic, a kind of rayon, was developed from the plant substance cellulose. Since then, hundreds of synthetic fibers have been developed from such sources as coal, wood, ammonia, and proteins. Other applications of science and technology to the textile industry have resulted in cloth that has a wide variety of attractive or useful qualities. Many fabrics that resist creases, repel stains, or are fireproof, mothproof, antiseptic, nonshrinking, glazed, softened, or stiff are the product of modern mechanical or chemical finishing.
Of the textiles produced in the United States today, only about half are used for wearing apparel. The rest are used in household products (towels, sheets, upholstery) and industrial products (conveyor belts, tire cords, parachutes).
The Job of Textile Manufacturing Workers
Most textile workers operate or tend machines. In the most modern plants, the machines are often quite sophisticated and include computerized controls.
Workers in textile manufacturing can be grouped in several categories. Some workers operate machines that clean and align fibers, draw and spin them into yarn, and knit, weave, or tuft the yarn into textile products. Other workers, usually employees of chemical companies, tend machines that produce synthetic fibers through chemical processes. Still other workers prepare machines before production runs. They set up the equipment, adjusting timing and control mechanisms, and they often maintain the machines as well. Another category of workers specializes in finishing textile products before they are sent out to consumers. The following paragraphs describe just a few of the many kinds of specialized workers in textile manufacturing occupations.
In the transformation of raw fiber into cloth, staple cutters may perform one of the first steps. They place opened bales of raw stock or cans of sliver (combed, untwisted strands of fiber) at the feed end of a cutting machine. They guide the raw stock or sliver onto a conveyor belt or feed rolls, which pull it against the cutting blades. They examine the cut fibers as they fall from the blades and measure them to make sure they are the required length.
Spinneret operators oversee machinery that makes manufactured fibers from such nonfibrous materials as metal or plastic. Chemical compounds are dissolved or melted in a liquid, which is then extruded, or forced, through holes in a metal plate, called a spinneret. The size and shape of the holes determine the shape and uses of the fiber. Workers adjust the flow of fiber base through the spinneret, repair breaks in the fiber, and make minor adjustments to the machinery.
Frame spinners, also called spinning-frame tenders, tend machines that draw out and twist the sliver into yarn. These workers patrol the spinning-machine area to ensure that the machines have a continuous supply of sliver or roving (a soft, slightly twisted strand of fiber made from sliver). They replace nearly empty packages of roving or sliver with full ones. If they detect a break in the yarn being spun, or in the roving or sliver being fed into the spinning frame, they stop the machine and repair the break. They are responsible for keeping a continuous length of material threaded through the spinning frame while the machine is operating.
Spinning supervisors supervise and coordinate the activities of the various spinning workers. From the production schedule, they determine the quantity and texture of yarn to be spun and the type of fiber to be used. Then they compute such factors as the proper spacing of rollers and the correct size of twist gears, using mathematical formulas and tables and their knowledge of spinning machine processes. As the spun yarn leaves the spinning frame, they examine it to detect variations from standards.
A textile production worker adjusts the tension on one of the rapier weaving machines. Once the fiber is spun into yarn or thread, it is ready for weaving, knitting, or tufting. Woven fabrics are made on looms that interlace the threads. Knit products, such as socks or women’s hosiery, are produced by intermeshing loops of yarn. The tufting process, used in making carpets, involves pushing loops of yarn through a material backing.
Beam-warper tenders work at high-speed warpers, which are machines that automatically wind yarn onto beams, or cylinders, preparatory to dyeing or weaving. A creel, or rack of yarn spools, is positioned at the feed end of the machine. The workers examine the creel to make sure that the size, color, number, and arrangement of the yarn spools correspond to specifications. They thread the machine with the yarn from the spools, pulling the yarn through several sensing devices and fastening the yarn to the empty cylinder. After setting a counter to record the amount of yarn wound, they start the machine. If a strand of yarn breaks, the machine stops, and the tenders locate and tie the broken ends. When the specified amount of yarn has been wound, they stop the machine, cut the yarn strands, and tape the cut ends.
Weavers or loom operators operate a battery of automatic looms that weave yarn into cloth. They observe the cloth being woven carefully to detect any flaws, and they remove weaving defects by cutting out the filling (cross) threads in the area. If a loom stops, they locate the problem and either correct it or, in the case of mechanical breakdown, notify the appropriate repairer.
After the fabric is removed from the loom, it is ready for dyeing and finishing, which includes treating fabrics to make them fire-, shrink-, wrinkle-, or soil-resistant.
Dye-range operators control the feed end of a dye range, which is an arrangement of equipment that dyes and dries cloth. Operators position the cloth to be dyed and machine-sew its end to the end of the cloth already in the machine. They turn valves to admit dye from a mixing tank onto the dye pads, and they regulate the temperature of the dye and the air in the drying box. They start the machine, and when the process is complete, they record yardage dyed, lot numbers, and the machine running time. Colorists, screen printing artists, screen makers, and screen printers print designs on textiles.
Cloth testers perform tests on “gray goods”—raw, undyed, unfinished fabrics—and finished cloth samples. They may count the number of threads in a sample, test its tensile strength in a tearing machine, and crease it to determine its resilience. They may also test for such characteristics as abrasion resistance, fastness of dye, flame retardance, and absorbency, depending on the type of cloth.
Textile Manufacturing Worker Career Requirements
For some textile production jobs, a high school education is desirable but may not be necessary. Workers who operate machines are often hired as unskilled labor and trained on the job. However, with the increasingly complex machinery and manufacturing methods in this industry, more and more often a high school diploma plus some technical training is expected of job applicants. High school students interested in a textile career should take courses in physics, chemistry, mathematics, and English. Computer skills are necessary, since many machines are now operated by computer technology.
Even those with postsecondary school education generally must go through a period of on-the-job training by experienced workers or representatives of equipment manufacturers, where they learn the procedures and systems of their particular company. Some companies have co-op programs with nearby schools. Participants in these programs work as interns during their academic training with the agreement that they will work for the sponsoring company upon graduation. A two-year associate degree in textile technology is required for technicians, laboratory testers, and supervisory personnel.
Many machine operators need physical stamina, manual dexterity, and a mechanical aptitude to do their job. Changes are underway in the industry that make other kinds of personal characteristics increasingly important, such as the ability to assume responsibility, to take initiative, to communicate with others, and to work well as a part of a team.
About 15 percent of all textile production workers belong to a union, such as the Union of Needle Trades, Industrial, and Textile Employees.
Exploring Textile Manufacturing Worker Career
High school courses in subjects such as shop, mechanical drawing, and chemistry and hobbies involving model-building and working with machinery can be good preparation for many jobs in the textile manufacturing field. Students may be able to find summer employment in a textile plant. If that cannot be arranged, a machine operator’s job in another manufacturing industry may provide a similar enough experience that it is useful in understanding something about textile manufacturing work.
Most textile production workers are employed either in mills that spin and weave gray goods, or in finishing plants, where gray goods are treated with processes such as dyeing and bleaching. Some textile companies combine these two stages of manufacturing under one roof.
Employment opportunities for textile manufacturing workers are concentrated in the South and the Northeast. Over half of the jobs in this industry are located in the states of North Carolina, Georgia, and South Carolina.
Most textile production workers obtain their jobs by answering newspaper advertisements or by applying directly to the personnel office of a textile plant. A new worker usually receives between a week and several months of on-the-job training, depending on the complexity of the job.
Graduates of textile technology programs in colleges and technical institutes may be informed about job openings through their school’s placement office. They may be able to line up permanent positions before graduation. Sometimes students in technical programs are sponsored by a local textile company, and upon graduation, they go to work for the sponsoring company.
Production workers in textile manufacturing who become skilled machine operators may be promoted to positions in which they train new employees. Other workers can qualify for better jobs by learning additional machine-operating skills. Usually the workers with the best knowledge of machine operations are those who set up and prepare machines before production runs. Skilled workers who show that they have good judgment and leadership abilities may be promoted to supervisory positions, in charge of a bank of machines or a stage in the production process. Some companies offer continuing education opportunities to dedicated workers.
Laboratory workers may advance to supervisory positions in the lab. If their educational background includes such courses as industrial engineering and quality control, they may move up to management jobs where they plan and control production.
Earnings of textile industry workers vary depending on the type of plant where they are employed and the workers’ job responsibilities, the shift they work, and seniority. Workers at plants located in the North tend to be paid more than those in the South.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, median salaries for full-time textile workers ranged from $23,200 to $29,500 annually in 2005. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, average weekly earnings of nonsupervisory textile production workers were $487 in textile mills and $443 in textile product mills in 2004, compared with $659 for production workers in all manufacturing and $529 for workers throughout private industry. Median hourly wages of extruding and forming machine setters, operators, and tenders were $14.20 in 2005. Textile knitting and weaving machine setters, operators, and tenders earned a median wage of $11.40 an hour. Textile winding, twisting, and drawing out machine setters, operators, and tenders earned a median wage of $11.30 an hour. Textile bleaching and dyeing machine operators and tenders earned a median wage of $11.16 an hour. Textile employees with supervisory responsibilities can make more than $40,000 a year.
Beginning laboratory testers and technicians with associate degrees in textile technology can earn annual salaries ranging from $27,000 to about $35,000 after a few years of experience, according to the North Carolina Center for Applied Textile Technology. Salaries generally increase with more education and greater responsibility.
Most workers with a year or more of service receive paid vacations and insurance benefits. Many are able to participate in pension plans, profit sharing, or year-end bonuses. Some companies offer their employees discounts on the textiles or textile products they sell.
Work areas in modern textile plants are largely clean, well-lighted, air conditioned, and humidity controlled. Older facilities may be less comfortable, with more fibers or fumes in the air, requiring some workers to wear protective glasses or masks. Some machines can be very noisy, and workers near them must wear ear protectors. Workers also must stay alert and use caution when working around high-speed machines that can catch clothing or jewelry. Those who work around chemicals must wear protective clothing and sometimes respirators. Increasing attention to worker safety and health has forced textile manufacturing companies to comply with tough federal, state, and local regulations.
Workweeks in this industry average 40 hours in length. Depending on business conditions, some plants may operate 24 hours a day, with three shifts a day. Production employees may work rotating shifts, so that they share night and weekend hours. Some companies have a four-shift continuous operating schedule, consisting of a 168-hour workweek made of up of four daily shifts totaling 42 hours a week. This system offers a rotating arrangement of days off. During production cutbacks, companies may go to a three- or four-day workweek, but they generally try to avoid layoffs during slow seasons.
Machine operators are often on their feet during much of their shift. Some jobs involve repetitive tasks that some people find boring.
Textile Manufacturing Worker Career Outlook
The U.S. Department of Labor predicts a decline in employment for this field through 2014, even as the demand for textile products increases. Changes in the textile industry will account for much of this decline. Factories are reorganizing production operations for greater efficiency and installing equipment that relies on more highly automated and computerized machines and processes. Such technology as shuttleless and air-jet looms and computer-controlled machinery allows several machines to be operated by one operator while still increasing speed and productivity.
Another factor that will probably contribute to a reduced demand for U.S. textile workers is an increase in imports of textiles from other countries. There is a continuing trend toward freer world markets and looser trade restrictions. The U.S. Department of Labor expects the textile manufacturing industry to decline by 46 percent through 2014.
While fewer workers will be needed to operate machines, there will continue to be many job openings each year as experienced people transfer to other jobs or leave the workforce. Workers who have good technical training and skills will have the best job opportunities.