The (R)evolution of carpet (part 3 of 4)

This is the third of a four-part essay on the rise of the Georgia carpet industry.


When a car is small, it’s maneuverable. It can fit places a big car can’t, it can turn on a dime and its costs (from manufacturing to maintenance) are generally lower. If the fledgling carpet mills in Dalton were anything they were small. The very success of the Great Northern Mills meant that they couldn’t easily change their production methods. They were locked into their investments. It was an issue of scale, and suddenly bigger wasn’t better. Once key technology was in place it took less than fifteen years for the carpet standard to shift to tufted over woven and for Dalton to eat the Great Northern Mills’ lunch. How did it happen?

The smaller companies in the south weren’t afraid to try new business models. When one business plan would prove ineffective the mill would close and simply reopen in a few weeks with a new plan. There was very little capital and many businesses were run in what were essentially shacks. Despite shoestring budgets, salesmen went out and convinced skeptical buyers that they were buying carpet from huge firms. Visiting buyers would be shown Dalton’s few large mills from a distance and told that there was where their carpet was being produced. Decades later, small, internet-based companies would present themselves the same way, on an equal footing and sometimes indiscernible (by web presence) from larger corporations.

Making the tufts of carpet stay firmly in place is now accomplished through a process called heat setting. Back then the huge lengths of carpet were washed in very hot water so the cotton face threads would shrink and bind the tufts. Though there were many mills all in competition with each other, there were only a few independent businesses capable of washing the carpet. So the various manufacturers were compelled to share the same limited resources and, as any college student knows, hanging out waiting on the spin cycle to finish is a great opportunity to strike up conversation. This environment fostered a natural collaboration. When one manufacturer made a significant innovation, it inevitably benefited everyone.

But the greatest benefit of the new industry’s flexibility and quickness was represented in the materials used in the production of carpet. Beginning with cotton thread, manufacturers searched relentlessly for alternative raw materials that could be shipped and assembled cheaper, produced faster and could represent advantages over wool which was still the standard. While luxurious and long-lasting, wool was expensive, heavy and difficult to clean. It also comes from sheep. A manufacturer could build a woolen mill wherever he chose, but knew the farther away from the sheep he was, the more expensive the shipping costs of the raw materials. Synthetic materials like rayon and nylon were cheaper and resisted staining, and production facilities could be built anywhere. Companies like Dupont had produced synthetic material in huge quantities for the war effort, but in peacetime had difficulty finding a market. The arrangement for tufted carpet benefited both industries and instead of a traditional supplier-customer relationship, the resulting partnership led to greater innovation.

It was the same for backing materials. From using cotton duck which was the low quality filler in jackets and quilts to jute imported from India as the backing material, manufacturers experimented with every possible combination of materials. When civil unrest threatened the Indian jute supply the manufacturers quickly turned to domestically produced synthetic materials like latex and foam. Like a small car, they could match the shifts in the market turn for turn in a way that the larger companies couldn’t hope to achieve. It was a new world and a smaller platform, proved better at adapting. (to be continued...)

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