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NAICS: 31-4129 Household Textile Product Mills, not elsewhere classified

SIC: 2392 Housefurnishings, not elsewhere classified

NAICS-Based Product Codes: 31-41291, 31-41293, 31-41295, 31-41296, 31-4129W


The oldest meaning of linen is cloth woven from the fibrous portions of the stem of the flax plant, the oldest source of textile fibers. Industrial-style production of flax yarn goes back at least 5,000 years. Neolithic grave remains hold residues suggesting that prehistoric humanity already harvested and processed flax stems to make clothing as far back as 8000 years before the current era. People started weaving cloth from wool a little later in history—in Nordic climates. Flax is native to a wide global region extending from India to the Mediterranean. It produces the strongest and longest plant fibers and is more than twice the strength of cotton. The fabric is soft, light, and absorbs moisture better than any other on the market. Its natural color is ivory to grey with some kinds tinged a light tan. The characteristic white clothing of the ancients in the Mediterranean regions, from Egypt to Europe, were made of linen yarn, not least the famous Roman togas. Flax has yielded to cotton over time. Cotton is easier to produce and weave. Flax, however continues to be the source material for a variety of useful products. In addition to textiles it is used as the strong fiber in currency, in cigarette paper, and its seed yields linseed oil.

The dominant role linen played in the history of textiles—its excellent performance in garments, its ability to absorb moisture easily, its softness, its durability, its light color suggesting cleanliness and purity—made it the fabric of choice for direct contact with the body. For this reason linen acquired a more generic meaning long ago. The word is used to designate textiles used in the bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, and in the dining room regardless of the fibers actually employed to weave modern sheets, covers, slipcovers, mattress protectors, pillowcases, comforters, towels, washcloths, shower curtains, napkins, and table covers. The word linen is also still used for undergarments, a meaning present in the word lingerie, despite the fact that most such goods are now made of cotton, synthetics, and of silk.

In this essay we shall focus attention on linens as a generic category, thus on bed, bath, and beyond, but excluding underwear. The delimitation of the subject in this manner is in part motivated by industrial reporting conventions that define a major industry as Household Textiles nec. The nec (not elsewhere classified) addendum suggests that the industry produces miscellaneous goods—which these products certainly are not. Considering the amount of time we spend each night in bed and washing and drying after waking, the household textiles category is a rather major part of our daily life. Linen as a fabric is a relatively small proportion of this industry—as it is also a small percentage of the apparel industries. As appropriate, linens will be discussed, if only peripherally, also as they occur in the apparel category.

Textile Fibers

Textiles form a kingdom divided into natural and man-made categories. Natural fibers come from animals and plants whereas man-made fibers are classified as inorganic and organic.

The major animal fibers are sheep's wools, cashmere from goats, and silk from the silkworm. Wool is the largest category within this subdivision; silk is the most expensive. Plant-based textiles derive from cotton, flax, sisal, jute, hemp, and bamboo. Cotton is King, of course—a phrase introduced as the title of a book by David Christy in 1855. Cotton has had to yield the global throne since those day but remains the sovereign among natural fibers. Hemp and flax are sometimes confused because both are tall plants with fibrous stems from which textiles are made. Hemp and marijuana both belong to the Genus Cannabis; hemp used for its fiber, however, Cannabis sativa, has a very low content of tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive drug, compared with Cannabis indica, marijuana itself. Flax belongs to the Genus Linum.

Inorganic fibers, made of carbon, ceramics, and glass are used in industrial products principally, including insulation materials. Organic fibers fall into two further categories. Of these cellulosic fibers are made from wood. Rayon, once thought of as artificial silk, is the best-known category. Non-cellulosic organic fibers come from petroleum and include polyester, nylon, olefins, and acrylic. The first two account for the greatest volume. In the modern world organic (also called synthetic) fibers are the new king of the Age of Oil. They represented approximately 58 percent of all fibers made in the first decade of the 2000s; cotton accounted for 38 percent; all of the other fibers combined, including wool, silk, and linen claimed for a mere 4 percent of fiber consumption.

Within the household textiles industry, the proportions are more skewed toward natural fibers—in large part because the products are in close contact with the skin and have superior moisture-absorption characteristics. Based on 2006 import data—and imports dominate this industry—cotton accounted for 64.0 percent, man-made fibers for 34.8 percent, linen for 0.8, silk for 0.3, and wool for 0.1 percent of fiber consumption.

Ironically, perhaps, linen, the flax-based fiber, played a larger role in all other categories of textiles than in the linens category. Overall its share of textile imports was 4.2 percent, in apparel 2.5 percent, and highest in floor coverings with a 21.5 percent share, second only to wool at 21.9 percent—owing to its great strength combined with its inherent softness. Unlike other categories of textiles, however, total consumption (in contrast with imports) of floor coverings is dominated by man-made fibers and imports do not play as large a role as in the other categories.

Warp, Woof, and More

The industrialization of textiles in the modern sense, dating back to the mid-eighteenth century, represented, in effect, the birth of industrial civilization and also foreshadowed the age of the computer—because weaving is a fundamentally digital technology in which the warp represents the 0 and the woof the 1.

On a weaving loom the warp is formed by lines of thread held rigidly by the machinery. Although warp threads are all aligned in parallel, each is affixed to a movable part of the loom (known technically as the Bolus hook) and can thus be lowered or raised individually. The woof—which is as often referred to as the weft—is a line of thread interwoven with the warp at right angles. If every other warp-holder is lowered during a single pass of the weft, the weft will run under the first, over the second, under the third, over the fourth, and so on. After one pass the upper-lying warp is lowered, the lower level raised, and the weft passes back. As this process continues, an even network of warp and weft produces a web of fabric. This type of weave is known as plain weave. The thread count is calculated by counting the number of threads running in both directions in one square inch of fabric. A good sheet will have a thread count of 180 to 200. The extreme ranges are 80 to 700. The higher the thread count the softer the fabric.

Much as in computers where the artful manipulation of 0s and 1s can create intricate images on a display screen, so also in weaving the ability to manipulate the warp in different ways produces the many types of fabric on the market. The most common four types are plain weave, basket, twill, and satin. As already discussed above, plain weave is a simple web. In basket weave multiple threads of weft, always the same number, pass over and under the same number of warp threads on each pass and, on returning, pass under those they ran over and over those they ran under on the previous pass. This forms a checkerboard pattern. The twill weave is achieved by passing a weft under a single warp and then over the next two, repeating this pattern with a step or shift at each pass so that a diagonal marking of the fabric results. Variations on this theme have produced well-known varieties like denim, gabardine, tweed, and serge. In satin weaves a smooth finish is achieved by moving four weft strands beneath a single warp or the other way around. The multiple threads are said to float over the single thread. Varying the number of floating threads produces different effects. Satin weave is employed on silk. When cotton or linen are used instead, the weave is known as sateen. Warp and weft, of course, need not be the same thickness or color. The vast range of fabrics on the market is built up from variations on a few parameters.

As the nineteenth century was blinking itself awake, in 1801, Joseph Marie Jacquard in France invented a loom in which punch cards activated the lowering and raising of individual warp threads automatically in complex patterns remembered by the cards. The punch cards were large, the width of the loom, and made of cardboard, but they anticipated the much smaller punch cards to be used first in calculators and then in computers. A particular weave pattern, once "programmed" onto punch cards, could be stored for later use. The invention introduced the Jacquard weave, the most complex kind. In the modern version Jacquard weaving is, needless to say, computer-controlled. The highest end of tablecloth, damask, is produced by Jacquard weaving. A lustrous silk satin or linen fabric is produced with a raised design usually executed in the same thread. Very complex and colorful fabrics can be produced using this general technology.

Mechanical knitting and crocheting methods produce non-woven fabrics. Of this type, uncut pile fabrics are used in toweling; a network of threads is further filled by knitting loops to the web, loops appearing on both sides. Cut pile fabrics are made the same way but closed loops are cut open, usually on one side only. Such fabrics are used in carpeting. When producers need padding and want to save money they use felts made of wool. Wool is ideal for non-woven applications because moistened fibers, when agitated, will randomly lock together because the fibers have tiny scales. Felts, however, pull apart easily as well. Shower curtains, a product category included under household textiles, are typically fiber-reinforced or fiber-filled vinyl sheets in which the filler is held by but also reinforces the plastic.

Major Product Categories

In industrial reporting it is customary to divide household furnishings into three large groupings and then to combine the remainder into an All Other category—principally because the major components of this last grouping are sold in many different contexts.

The three major categories are sheets and pillowcases (15.5% of the market in 2005), bedspreads and bedsets (3.3%), and towels and washcloths (6.3%). These categories correspond to traditional departments or sections of retail stores. The largest product category in this industry, however, is represented by pillows of all kinds (22.6% of shipments); but because pillows are sold in all manner of contexts and in several different departments, the product is placed in the All Other bin for statistical purposes. Comforters are the second largest single functional category (17.8% of shipments)—then sheets and pillowcases, towels and washcloths, followed by table covers and napkins (4.9%), mattress covers and protectors (4.5%), shower curtains (4.0%), bedspreads and bedsets, and blankets and quilts (3%). The remaining shipments of the industry are not specified by kind and may be anything else the industry reports under this category of goods.

Bedsets—in commerce usually referred to as bedding or comforter sets—are matched products for formal bedrooms that come in four to nine pieces including comforters, quilts, cushions, shams, tube-shaped neck rolls, sheets, pillow cases, and bed skirting or dust ruffles that hang all around the bed nearest to the floor. In crib sets bumpers are included to prevent babies rolling against the bars of the crib.

Another view of this industry is that its products are principally used in the bedroom or in resting situations where pillows are used for comfort. Nearly two-thirds of shipments are associated with sleep-related products, approximately 10 percent with the bathroom, and 5 percent with the dining room. If we add up the shipments of the three major industry groups which produce textiles—textile mills, textile product mills, and apparel—we see an industry of $109.5 billion in 2005. Of that total household furnishings represented a mere 5.3 percent that year. In looking at that percentile, it is worth a moment's reflection to note that we spend approximately 33 percent of our time on earth in bed—but since that activity is solitary and largely unconscious, we spend enough for comfort but not a lot—in contrast to apparel—on show.


In the textile industry, as in many others in which foreign producers have come to dominate the market, highly reliable industrial production statistics provided by the U.S. Bureau of the Census provide but a partial view of total activity. To get at the market itself, apparent consumption must be calculated. This is achieved by obtaining data on domestic shipments, subtracting from that total the portion shipped out of the country as exports, and adding product coming into the country as imports. In 2005, the last year for which all of the necessary data were available at time of writing, apparent consumption in the United States at the production level (not retail) was $12.2 billion, up from $10.3 billion in 2000, representing an annual growth rate of 3.4 percent per year. The rate of growth fell below that of Gross Domestic Product in this period (4.8% per year) as well as below that of non-durable goods (3.8% per year).

In this same period, domestic shipments declined from a level of $7.1 billion in 2000 to $5.8 billion in 2005, an erosion of 4.1 percent per year. Exports declined from an estimated $471 million to $368 million, dropping at the rate of 4.8 percent annually. In this same period, however, imports grew at a heady rate of 13 percent per year from a level of $3.7 billion in 2000 to $6.8 billion in 2005. Net domestic production (shipments less exports) represented 64 percent of apparent consumption in 2000 but had fallen to 44 percent by 2005. These relationships are presented graphically in Figure 125.

Trade Imbalance and Consequences

The rapid replacement of domestic manufacturing by imports has been stimulated by the shift in production from the relatively high-wage area of the United States to low-wage industries elsewhere. The top suppliers of U.S. textile imports in 2007, shown in order, were China, Mexico, India, Indonesia, and Vietnam—top-ranked China shipping nearly five times more product than second-ranking Mexico. Consumers in the United States, in consequence, have had plentiful products competitively priced, but significant erosion of domestic buying power has been one price we have had to pay.

In this industry alone, some 160 production plants disappeared as a consequence of this shift in the 2000–2005 period accompanied by the loss of 21,000 jobs in the household textiles industry alone. Employment in this industry was declining at a rate of 8.7 percent per year. The domestic industry has suffered instability as a consequence, with well-known firms being merged, acquired, and experiencing bankruptcies. These losses have had their greatest impact on southern states. According to data published by the National Council of Textile Organizations (NCTO), 80 percent of all textile-related plant closings in the 1997 to 2007 period took place in North and South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, and Alabama. North Carolina lost the most plants, 39% of the total compiled by NCTO.

Retail Estimates

Based on projections provided in Manufacturing and Distribution USA, which provides data for NAICS 44-2299, All Other Home Furnishings Stores, retail sales in the 2000 to 2005 period were advancing at the rate of 6 percent per year. Product details for this or any other retail industry are not reported comprehensively enough to trace products down to the retail level, but in rough terms the industry here discussed as linens represented, at retail, approximately $20 billion in consumer expenditures.


What could be fairly described as a major foreign trade assault on U.S. textile producers throughout the 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s has transformed the domestic industry supplying household textiles. Among the top six producers, three have been in bankruptcy in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Two have responded to severe pressures by selling themselves to foreign companies. One has licensed out its product lines to another in the process of being acquired by a bankruptcy turn-around specialist, retaining fabric production activities only. One has reorganized itself into a private corporation with outside investors. Only one company—it had always been privately held—has remained above the fray by specializing in niche markets and focusing on research-based products.

Milliken & Company

The acknowledged leader in the fine table covers and napkins category—along with other textile lines—is Milliken & Company, founded in 1865 as a wool fabrics firm in Portland, Maine by Seth Milliken and William Deering. With Deering soon after departing to start another enterprise, Milliken developed into a diversified textiles manufacturer involved in carpets, apparel, specialty and industrial textiles, dust-control products, automotive textiles, chemicals, and interior and household textiles. This last category includes wall coverings as well as table linens. Hoover's, the Dun & Bradstreet publisher, estimates Milliken's 2005 sales at $3.3 billion; of that only a portion was earned in selling linens.

Springs Global US, Inc.

The largest U.S. company in this industry appears to be Springs Global US, Inc. based on its leading role, as indicated by Market Share Reporter, in multiple product segments. Hoover's estimated Springs Global's sales at $2.7 billion in 2005. The company was the top producer of sheets and pillowcases, comforters, and bedding, second in bath towel manufacturing, and third in mattress fabrics. The company acquired Burlington Industries' bedding brands after the latter filed for bankruptcy. In 2006, having closed a number of production plants, Springs Global (earlier it was Springs Mills, later Springs Industries) merged with Cotenimas of Brazil, South America's top-ranked textile company. Springs Global began in 1887 in Fort Mill, South Carolina.

WestPoint Home, Inc.

This company formed in 2005 and is the inheritor of an enterprise once known as WestPoint-Stevens and earlier as WestPoint-Pepperel. J.P. Stevens and Pepperel were once independent textile producers for the household market. The company is now a privately held operation formed jointly by its predecessor and American Real Estate Partners LP. WestPoint holds top share in blankets and bathing towels, is second in sheets, pillowcases, and bedding, and second in comforters. Its estimated sales in 2006 were approximately $440 million.

Dan River Inc.

With sales as estimated by Hoover's of $227 million, Dan River holds third rank in bedding and fourth place in comforters. One of the oldest of the leading companies, Dan River began in 1882 in Danville, Virginia as a cotton mill. Over a century later, in 2004, the company was forced to file for bankruptcy, another casualty of an avalanche of imports. Dan River worked its way out of Chapter 11 by being acquired by Gujarat Heavy Chemicals Ltd., an Indian firm.

International Textile Group (ITG)

Burlington Industries, Inc., once a major factor in household textile products, also filed for bankruptcy and was eventually acquired by W.L. Ross & Company. W. L. Ross, a billionaire, specializes in rescuing bankrupt companies. Ross formed International Textile Group in 2004. Burlington became a part of that group along with Cone Deming and Carlisle Finishing. By that time Burlington had sold off its bedding brands to Springs Global but remains active in the household business as a fabrics supplier. ITG reported sales of $720.9 million in 2006. Of that total $36.4 million were generated by the company's interior furnishings fabrics segment.


Two hundred years before the current era, merchants guided pack animals westward on a route from China to the Mediterranean. The route soon came to be known as the Silk Road. The animals laboring along it carried precious cloth for sale to ancient elites in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and later in the Roman Empire. Although the high value of silk has always made it the most profitable textile to transport, textiles have always moved long distances from their production to points of use, whether as fibers, thread, cloth, or finished goods. Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin in 1793 enabled low cost spinning of cotton fiber. The use of cotton in clothing predates the discovery of silk and goes back 7,000 years. Cotton thread became a major export product from America to Europe and was the most important raw material in the world's first high tech industry. Precisely because no effective machine has ever been invented for spinning flax fiber into yarn—and manual methods are still required for fine linen—flax is a minor fiber whereas cotton is second only to synthetics. Nevertheless, linens have always traveled long distances as well. Manmade fibers, similarly, begin in oil fields concentrated in just a few areas of the world. The oil moves across oceans and crosses continents in pipelines before fractions of it are extracted in refineries and turned into fibers.

The textile industry has a three-tier structure. Textile mills spin thread; thread is sold as a final product to product mills which weave it into fabric; fabric is the final product purchased by those who produce consumer, commercial, and industrial products in apparel industries and other textile mills using purchased materials. The very fact that all three industrial segments are viable and operate independently indicates that textiles generally are not limited by the logistics of materials.

In 2005 thread and yarn mills operating in the United States demanded 8.4 hours to produce $1,000 worth of product, fabric mills 8.9 hours, other textile product mills (in which our products fall) demanded 9.9 hours, and apparel production required 10.3 hours of labor. Thus in moving from the lowest to the highest tiers of the industry, labor-intensity increases—and this for obvious reasons: much more automation can be applied to the mass production of uniform outputs. Where labor inputs are low and technology can be applied effectively, the United States is competitive. Thus the U.S. textile industry is the fourth largest exporter of textiles in the world—but these products are threads, yarns, and fabrics. Conversely, the United States is the largest importer of finished textiles at the upper tier. These relationships illustrate that the logistical structure of the industry is dominated by the distribution of low-cost labor rather than materials.


Distribution of household textile products parallels that for textiles generally. The products are sold by department stores, mass merchandisers, warehouse clubs, and specialized retailers. The largest of the specialists is Bed, Bath & Beyond, Inc., a company with sales in Fiscal Year ending March 2007 of $6.6 billion, operating 888 stores across the country. Factory outlet stores with limited product offerings also distributed the goods of the industry.

Products of the industry typical reach retailers through independent home furnishings wholesalers and, to a lesser extent, furniture wholesalers. Large chain operations tend to operate their own distribution centers and, in procuring goods, deal directly with manufacturers and importers. Large institutional buyers of such textiles, like the military, use public procurement methods.


The products of this industry are used by everyone, but certain user groups within the industry have distinguishable profiles. Fine table linens and bedsets used in bedroom decoration are purchased more or less routinely only by the more affluent segments of the population and, within that segment, those portions of it that often entertain formally and live in homes intended in part for display. Most established families, however, with some modicum of means, will own at least one set of formal table linens. The industry also serves large commercial and institutional markets: hospitality, medical facilities, the military, and other institutions that house people, including jails and prisons. Hotels, motels, and resorts are large users of bedding linens, bedsets, and bathroom toweling. Hospitals and related communal institutions (from nursing homes to hospices) are a market similar to hospitality. Medical buyers have a utilitarian orientation and do not buy decorative textiles.


The largest adjacent markets to household linens are furniture markets, especially bedroom and dining room furniture, as well as cabinetry and shelving to hold the products in readiness before use on the bed or in the bathroom. Rugs and carpeting are related textile products; not surprisingly, many producers are also makers of these product lines. Laundry machinery and chemicals in the home and laundry services purchased by institutional users of the product category are adjacent markets. Textile-based, often fire-resistant wall-coverings are an important category producers in this industry manufacture for the hospitality market.


Most research and development in this field is focused on synthetic fabrics, particularly, in this industry category, on developing synthetics with higher rates of moisture absorption and thus good performance in the laundry as well. Most synthetics have half or less the moisture absorption capabilities of plant-based textiles like cotton and linen—characteristics important in bedding and toweling applications. Work on polyester promises the best results for matching cotton's performance, and work along these lines was advancing in the first decade of the twenty-first century with positive results.


The most important trend in this industry in the twenty-first century is the transformation of the domestic industry from a production into a distribution sector. The general shape of this transformation is a shift of manufacturing to other countries, with domestic firms maintaining some production but benefiting principally by stamping their well-known brands on goods made elsewhere and using their well-established distribution networks to sell the product to U.S. consumers.

On the materials side, the major trend is the competition between cotton, the largest natural fiber, and polyester, the largest synthetic fiber. The long-term trend in cotton has been eroding market share, with cotton yielding share to polyester. The latter material, however, is strongly influenced by oil prices which have been rising sharply in the later years of the first decade of the twenty-first century. According to analyses conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, upward pressure on polyester prices has slowed the erosion of cotton in the market. The longer-term outlook appears to depend on the future performance of the petroleum industry worldwide. In the very long run, however—barring exceptionally large new oil discoveries somewhere—cotton may once more emerge as the king of textiles.


The principal buyers of household textiles—as well as textiles generally—are women. Pricier products are targeted at fashion-conscious home decorators, with the message suggesting that these products will enable the buyer to create pleasing home environments and attractive settings for communal entertaining. Appeals to prestige play a role. Top-of-the-line products are promoted as gifts to newlyweds. In commodity-style products (e.g., sheets and pillow cases) the marketing is based on quality, including that of the fabric itself and its thread count. Performance is important to the buyer in these categories, not least the feel of the fabric—its smoothness or softness or ability to absorb moisture—and its durability. Products in many shades of color are provided to let the consumer integrate them into the home's color scheme. The performance of the product in the laundry is part of the performance appeal. Low-end products are promoted on the basis of cost-benefit: good quality but affordable.


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