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Rebuild the PK: Envisioning a 21st-Century Knitting Mill

The Cutting Machine

The Cutting Machine, about 1960. Courtesy Clark Rice Photography Collection, Perry Public Library.

It has now been more than fifty years since the Perry Knitting Co. closed its doors in 1969. The issue never was the quality of its products (underwear during the first half of the century, children's sleepwear during the second half) but rather economic forces that were described as inevitable. The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle was typical in lamenting how the company "has been unable to compete with more modern southern textile mills. Help has been a problem as more and more of the company's operations turned to sewing" (McGuire). As Perry's largest employer and taxpayer for decades, the PK's shutdown had consequences that are still impacting the town.

And yet during the last fifty years Americans have continued to purchase children's sleepwear. It's just not produced in Perry anymore, and mostly not the United States. In 1965, 95% of the clothing in a typical American closet was made domestically; today, that proportion is less than 5%. It means that an estimated $17 billion in children's sleepwear and underwear, purchased in our country each year, still is produced somewhere--we just don't know where or how. What would it take to re-open a knitting mill in Perry? At each stage of the way we encounter obstacles that render such a project "unrealistic" or even utopian. All of these barriers--economic, political, cultural, even imaginative--reveal collective decisions that have created our world as we know it, and decisions that might change it. The current textiles and apparel industry has produced clothing at lower prices, yet at great cost to communities and ecological systems.

A little more than a century ago, no resident of New York state lived very far from some kind of textile operation. Rather than accepting the inevitability of plastic clothing we might instead ask the best ways to produce sustainable clothing in ways that benefit communities in the long term. Following the model of a watershed--Perry's is the Genesee River--local food activists have proposed the idea of a foodshed, to the benefit of farmers and ecosystems. Ten years ago a weaver named Rebecca Burgess argued that "Clothing is a multifaceted industry that involves many of the same supply-chain dynamics as the food industry, starting with its roots in agriculture and dependence upon the land." She proposed that we clothe ourselves within a 150-mile fibershed. The map below shows that region surrounding Perry, along with all of the locations that had textile operations a century ago. Click on the points to learn more. It would be a mistake to idealize mill work of the early 1900s as the good old days; the goal isn't to recreate their factory conditions but their regional economy, incorporating what we've learned since then in terms of sustainable production. But first it has to be envisioned as something within the realm of possibility.

It would be a mistake to idealize mill work of the early 1900s as the good old days; the goal isn't to recreate their conditions but their regional economy, incorporating what we've learned since then in terms of sustainable production. And a single integrated textile factory, like the former PK, requires massive capital investment. An interesting model to study comes from a region that supplanted the Northeast in knitting production, and then itself suffered job losses as manufacturing left the US during the 1990s. The Carolina Textile District (CTD) is a group of twelve smaller entities that work in a cooperative manner: they share resources in managing customer relationships and discuss common goals. They meet twice a year to tour each others' factories. And they foreground employee involvement and company ownership. The framework of a textile district recalls Perry during the 1920s-30s, when the PK established so-called "branch factories" in Castile and Mt. Morris--primarily due to a labor shortage and the difficulty of employees traveling long distances to work. It was centrally managed and with little worker input, but it suggests that production doesn't necessarily require a single, capital-intensive location. As Libby O'Bryan of the CTD says, “we learned how to be big by being small together.”

The potential economic benefits of of regionalized manufacture are important; for many years Perry benefited from a local multiplier effect due to the PK, and would so again with its successor (Moretti). But just as important, although more difficult to quantify, is a community's pride of creating something together. In 1948 the Herald pointed to national publicity for the PK and the Robeson Cutlery Company, and declared that "Perry is indeed on the map." We also have fleeting glimpses from the Clark Rice Photography Collection to remind us that work is a collective endeavor. A sleeper whose production traverses a global chain of anonymous factories creates isolated people; a sleeper created regionally strengthens regional communities. However idealized the images below, everyone pictured here had a hand in the production, and were visible to each other. How can you put a price on that?

Sources Consulted

--Burgess, Rebecca. Clothing Guide, 2nd Ed. Fibershed.org. 2019. Web link here.

--Clifford, Stephanie. "U.S. Textile Plants Return, With Floors Largely Empty of People." New York Times 19 Sept. 2013. Web link here.

--McGuire, Gordon. "Perry Knitting to Close Plant." Rochester Democrat & Chronicle 6 Feb. 1969: B1.

--Moretti, Enrico. "Local Mulitpliers." American Economic Review: Papers and Proceedings 100 (May 2010): 1-7. Web link here.

--A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion's Future. Ellen MacArthur Foundation. 28 Nov. 2017. Web link here.

--Wenner, Nicholas, and Adrian Rodrigues. “Benefiting Climate & Communities: How Clothing Cooperatives Could Grow Equitable Regional Economies.” Fibershed.org. 15 June 2020. Web link here.

Rebuild the PK!