The numbers tell the tale, and the story is of the breathtakingly rapid deterioration of one of this country's bedrock industries: textiles.

Run these figures through your mental calculator:

  • 185,000 — the number of textile jobs lost since 1997, almost 1 of every 3 textile industry jobs in the U.S. (66,000 in just the last 12 months), vanished, gone, kaput, unlikely to ever return.
  • 450,000 — the number of industry workers left. Who knows how many of those will be gone a year hence?
  • Over 100 — the number of textile mills that have closed their doors in the last 12 months. Giant Burlington Mills is operating in Chapter 11 and Greenwood Mills has shut its denim operation. Others are for sale or are expected to shut down. Hundreds and hundreds of small garment and sewing operations that provided thousands of jobs in many rural areas — out of business.
  • 11.3 million — the number of bales of U.S. cotton the American textile industry was using per year as recently as 1997. The industry for decades had been the best customer for U.S. cotton.
  • 7.3 million — the number of bales of U.S. cotton the industry used last year, a 35 percent decline in less than five years. And USDA's Chief Economist Keith Collins says although retail cotton sales are expected to move higher this year as the economy recovers, the benefit to U.S. mills will be “slight.”
  • 5 million — the increase in yearly raw cotton bale-equivalents that imports have claimed during that period.
  • 40 percent — the amount the value of the dollar has risen against the top Asian currencies, making imports cheaper and cheaper.
  • 1 billion — the number of square meter fabric equivalents from virtually anywhere in the world that would be granted duty-free status under the House-passed, Senate-pending Andean Trade Expansion Bill. Industry leaders say this bill alone will wipe out thousands more textile jobs.
  • 500 million — the dollar value of textiles/apparel that the industry projects Pakistan could send to the U.S. over the next three years under the proposed White House aid package to that country.

There are more numbers, equally grim, all portraying an industry on the ropes, fighting to stay alive.

“Our industry is in horrible shape,” says Van May, president of the American Textile Manufacturers Institute. “In just four years, we've gone from a healthy, vital condition to one of depression and uncertainty.”

In the face of intensifying competition from overseas in the 1990s, the U.S. textile industry went high tech and was able to overcome its higher labor and environmental compliance costs, May says, “but a 40 percent currency advantage for our competitors is something we just can't overcome.”

U.S. trade deals have further put the industry behind the eight ball, he contends. “We've been shortchanged in every one of these agreements, and it's got to stop. If not, we're going to wipe out in four or five years an infrastructure that took 150 years to build.”