CLARKSDALE, Miss. — Five-point-eight million square feet. To put it in perspective, says the Charlotte Observer, it is the equivalent of 27 Wal-Mart SuperCenters, the Queen Mary ocean liner next to a rowboat. That's the size of the Pillowtex Corp. facility at Kannapolis, N.C., which makes a wide variety of textile products. The company has announced it will be closing, yet another in the long list of plants — a great many of them in the South — that have fallen victim to cheap imports from China and other low-wage countries. The company's brands are industry leaders, including Cannon and Fieldcrest.

Pillowtex's scuttling will take with it 6,450 salaried and hourly jobs at 16 facilities around the country, including a 288,000-square foot, 350-employee plant at Tunica, Miss.

The flood of imports, said Michael Gannaway, chairman and chief executive officer, has "created a marketplace where we can no longer offer our customers the merchandise they need at prices that are profitable.…"

For well over two decades, he noted, cheap imports have been "flooding the market and driving down prices, while global sourcing has created a new business model for textile companies that we are unable to replicate…."

It is a lament that has been repeated hundreds of times.

The American Textile Manufacturers Institute notes that 250 plants have been shut in the U.S. just since 1997, costing 200,000 workers their livelihood.

In an analysis of China's import increases and price shifts since January 2002, ATMI concludes that if China follows the same pattern in 2005, when most textile quotas will go away, their share of the U.S. textile and apparel market will rise to over two-thirds of market within 24 months.

"If this occurs, the result will be the largest wave of job losses and plant closures in U.S. textile and apparel history, and will likely result in the elimination of textiles and apparel as a major manufacturing employer. Total job losses from 2004 through 2006 could reach 630,000, with over 1,300 textile plants closing over a three-year period."

Not that it's any consolation, but the ATMI analysis also predicts that as much as $42 billion in export orders from other countries will be shifted to China — "probably one of the largest short-term transfers of wealth in the history of the developing world."

One textile executive predicts that the industry could be "closing a plant a day" if China is not restrained.

The U.S. is far and away the world's largest consumer of textiles and apparel. Last year, we imported an astronomical $75 billion worth of those products from more than 70 countries.

Can anything be done? Must we watch as one of the country's largest manufacturing sectors goes down the toilet?

A coalition of a dozen fiber and textile organizations, joined by the National Cotton Council, is trying to persuade the Bush administration to put in place safeguards under the World Trade Organization and to take other steps to curb the massive flow of Chinese imports.

It will depend, in part, on how strongly the administration feels the industry is worth saving.

States, counties, cotton farmers, suppliers, and related businesses are being urged to contact Washington and voice support.

e-mail: hbrandon@primediabusiness.com