Another nail was hammered into the coffin of the American textile industry last week when Avondale Mills, the oldest textile manufacturing concern in the U.S., announced it is considering closing all its plants.

The company, which has 20 plants in Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina, and some 4,000 employees, said the shutdowns could come in late July.

Spokesman Stephen Felker Jr., manager of corporate development, said Avondale, which has a history reaching back to 1845 and annual sales of more than $500 million, is exploring the possibility of a sale or restructuring. Unfortunately, there haven’t been a lot of either for U.S. textile operations over the past few years — most have just shut their doors.

“We’re still exploring our options,” he said, “but it’s clear we’re unable to continue operating as we’re currently operating.”

Avondale, headquartered at Monroe, Ga., is, according to the company’s Web site, one of the nation’s largest producers of ready-to-dye (griege) fabrics, one of the top two producers of denim and sales yarn, and a leading producer of sportswear, workwear, coated specialty products, and quality sales yarns for knitted and woven fabrics.

It is also one of the nation’s largest consumers of raw cotton and at some of its locations is the largest employer. Sixty-day notice of job terminations started in late April.

As if the Damocles sword hanging over the entire U.S. industry from the flood of cheap textiles from China weren’t enough, Avondale was dealt a blow in early 2005 by a train wreck and chlorine spill near its Granitville, N.C., plant that forced the evacuation of more than 5,000 residents and killed nine people, including six Avondale employees.

From 1997 to date, some 370 U.S. textile plants have closed, according to the National Council of Textile Organizations. From November 2000 to November 2005, more than 400,000 textile workers were given pink slips (add apparel workers, and it’s over 650,000).

For decades, textile plants have been the economic backbone of many small rural communities in the South, often the largest employer and the largest taxpayer. When such an operation shuts down, the impact is felt at all levels — family, business, church, government, etc.

In 2002, the textile sector represented more than $60 billion of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product and ranked third among basic manufacturing industries in terms of contributions to the U.S. economy. Salaries, on average, are 13 percent higher than for jobs in the service/retail industries, with better health care/pension benefits.

Over the last 10 years, it has invested more than $30 billion in new plants and equipment, making it one of the most modern, productive textile sectors in the world.

And yet…the plant closings continue as more and more operations find it impossible to compete with the dirt cheap labor, undervalued currency, direct government subsidies, illegal export tax rebates, and other factors that give China’s textile industry a major economic advantage.

China’s trade practices, the National Council of Textile Organizations says, “have allowed (it and other Asian governments) to set prices for world trade in textile/apparel products at artificially low levels and to crush free market competition.”

e-mail: hbrandon@farmpress.com