Here's What You're Allowed to Know About the Textile Technology Center
Advancement in technology has spurred a rebirth of textile manufacturing in the United States. But the downturn of the 1990s left the industry bereft of its most experienced personnel. Now, the Textile Technology Center in eastern Belmont has stepped in to keep innovation flowing.
Don’t ask Sam Buff about the fibers lying in the Gaston College Textile Technology Center’s microscopy lab.
Not because he doesn’t know. Buff holds a degree in textile chemistry and has been the Director of the most advanced textile development center in the country for seven years. He probably knows as much about those fibers as anyone on the planet.
But he can’t tell you. It’s top secret.
What he can say is it’s a state-of-the-art polyester fiber that actually biodegrades; standard polyester is essentially plastic which means it can remain in landfills for a thousand years.
If you ask what's in it that makes it so special, Buff will smile and say “pixie dust.”
Who invented it? “One of our clients,” he replies coyly.
When you think about how much waste could be eliminated from landfills and the market value of such an invention, you can understand his secrecy.
As important as this new product could be, it’s just one of hundreds Buff and his team at the TTC help develop every year. Products that generate billions of dollars for our economy and change our lives every day. And in many cases, those products would never reach our homes if it weren’t for their work.
To understand just why the TTC is so important in the development of these products, it might help to get a brief history of the industry.
A new school supports booming textile industry
By the 1940s, Gaston County’s textile industry had been riding a 90-year growth spurt. World War II only exacerbated the need for more fabric.
In 1943, the Vocational Textile School opened in an attractive brick building on Wilkinson Boulevard, not far from the Catawba River. The new center was a stand-alone community college dedicated to supplying a robust textile industry with an educated workforce.
As the 20th century came to a close, however, the U.S. textile industry dried up. Trade agreements and cheap labor in Asia made local products less competitive. An economic downturn in the 1990s didn’t help.
Many mills closed and the few that remained had to become lean operations to stay afloat. This meant disbanding any teams not actually making product, including research and development.
New technology sparks a textile renaissance, exposes a knowledge void
Two advancements spurred a rebirth of the U.S. textile industry in the early 2000s.
First, companies were developing new technical fabrics. They could wick moisture off of skin and resist fire unlike anything produced before.
Second, advancements in production equipment meant fewer mechanical belts and gears but more computer boards and electronics.
Both changes required a more skilled workforce than could be found outside of the country. So production lines fired back up here. In North Carolina alone textile exports topped $2 Billion in 2017, according to the Economic Development Partnership of NC.
But there was a problem.
All those textile R&D experts that were let go in the 1990s moved on, either retiring or shifting to new industries. Most companies did not have the internal personnel to test new ideas and make them into scalable products. Plus, creating a full time product development team isn’t viable when you’re only creating a few new products each year.
The void of R&D was growing. So the textile school reinvented itself several times over the following decades.
Eventually, the Textile Technology Center emerged. It was folded into Gaston College and given a new mission: become the place that takes new textile ideas and turns them into commercially viable products.
Here’s how the TTC fills a critical void in the textile industry
Along with NC State University and The Manufacturing Solutions Center at Catawba Valley Community College, the TTC makes it possible for large companies and solo inventors to turn textile ideas into products that make our lives better.
Let’s go back to those biodegradable polyester fibers for an example.
Here’s how they hypothetically may transition from genius idea to a new pair of running socks.
A textile mill sees the need for biodegradable polyester fibers. They work with NC State’s College of Textiles to research what it would take to make a prototype.
That prototype fiber, maybe just a handful of it, is sent to the TTC for development. This means the TTC will run the prototype fiber through a bunch of tests to see how strong, or durable, or flame resistant it is.
Most importantly, though, they’ll figure out how to make the fiber at scale. The TTC has three stories of testing and manufacturing equipment for the job. Without this critical step, that little fiber prototype might remain just a great idea.
Finally, the TTC might then send a batch of the new material to The Manufacturing Solutions Center at Catawba Valley Community College. CVCC also does development work, but it’s focused on how to turn material into finished goods. So they might take our new biodegradable polyester and figure out the best way to weave it into a new pair of socks.
As Buff puts it, “NC State is the ‘R’ and we’re the ‘D’ in R&D. I don’t know of any other place you can find all of this so close together.”
And it’s not likely anyone will recreate it somewhere else anytime soon.
“The problem,” he says, “is that even if you throw a bunch of money in and buy all the best equipment, there just aren’t enough people with the experience it takes to create another place like the TCC.”
So lots of companies rely on the TCC to be their development team. In fact, the TCC had more than 450 clients in 2018, including household apparel brands like Nike and Under Armour, large textile mills like Pharr and DuPont, and the U.S. Military.
“Military projects are some of my favorites,” Buff says. “They’re just years ahead of everyone else.”
All that business is great news. The TCC is a non-profit that generates 75% of its own operating budget. The other 25% comes from Gaston College.
“We’re a non-profit in the education sector that operates like a for-profit business,” he notes.
Shifting back to education
As the textile industry continues to rebound, and textile mill operations become more technical, there is a new need for training. So the TCC has been dusting off its educational background to fill that need, too.
“A few years ago, we were 98% development and 2% education,” Buff says. “Now, we’re 90% development and 10% education.”
That education isn’t the same as it was in the 1940s, however. The TCC offers two types of training.
First, there’s an introduction to textiles. Any business can send their workers here to get an overview of how new textiles are made.
Then, there are custom programs. If a company needs a deep-dive training on a particular machine or operation, the TCC will find experts in that field and organize the class.
Organizations from all over the world send their employees here for this training. That’s a lot of exposure for Belmont and Gaston County.
More recently, Buff says they’ve been hosting classes from Johnson and Wales. The school known for their culinary program also has a four-year fashion degree. Students will come to the TCC to learn how fabrics are sourced or dyed, or how a particular type of fiber is spun.
The resurgence of the textile industry in Gaston County means new high paying jobs. And with the Textile Technology Center nearby, it also means amazing new products that will change our lives in unforeseeable ways.
But if you ask Sam Buff when we can expect our new biodegradable polyester running shirt, he’ll just smile and say, “Soon.”