From the Model T to the space shuttle, this Upstate company has woven itself into history – and beyond
Nine decades ago, the late actor Marlon Brando was born, U.S. President Calvin Coolidge gave the first radio address from the White House, and the Southern Weaving Company was founded in Greenville, S.C.
Formed by two friends of Henry Ford, Fred Murdock and J.W. Burnett Sr., the Upstate business began in 1924 by supplying cotton webbing for the Model T.
With an order for 1 million feet of heavyweight cotton webbing for brake linings, Southern Weaving opened the doors in a building purchased from the Shambo Shuttle Company.
Cotton webbing is a natural fiber grown and later spun into yarn, said Ron Mohling, CEO of Southern Weaving Company. A variety of fabrics can be produced from the yarn, including clothing and belting, he said.
As the automotive industry expanded throughout the 1920s and ’30s, Southern Weaving began making hood lace and anti-squeak webbing for cars while diversifying its product line to include military specification tapes and webbings used for large bearings.
Mohling said a lot of companies were producing products for the U.S. military at the time. During the early 1940s, Southern Weaving’s focus became the war effort, he said. “We made everything from belts to backpacks.”
Following World War II, the American automobile industry exploded and the birth of the seat belt assembly was born. Southern Weaving Company became a strong supplier for the new product, Mohling said.
“I suspect that at one time, we were the largest seat belt producer in America,” he said. The company was making almost 1 million yards each week.
The age of synthetics
During the 1960s, as the nylon seat belt became Southern Weaving’s primary product line, the Greenville fabric company began transitioning from cotton webbing to synthetic materials.
Unlike cotton, nylon is a synthetic material but is more versatile and long lasting, Mohling said.
Synthetic materials have opened a new world of what can be done with chemical fibers, he said. Although synthetics have become more popular, there are remaining uses for cotton.
The webbing technology for seat belts eventually developed into both a nylon and polyester construction until polyester became the dominant fiber in the late 1970s. During that same time, the fabric company began to expand its facility, adding a receiving warehouse, a yarn preparation area and a polypropylene extrusion unit.
Because the narrow fabrics industry is very competitive, the Southern Weaving Company remains focused on purchasing modern equipment and the development of new products.
“You have to reinvent yourself every so often,” Mohling said.
A large number of Asian imports keep the market competitive, and “we have to develop products that set us apart,” he said.
[WATCH: UBJ takes an inside look at Southern Weaving’s 90 years of Upstate success in an interview with technical sales manager Jack Miller. Video by Susana Shetler]
Lifting the Hunley
By the 1990s, seatbelts had become unprofitable and the company began to produce sling web and lifting technology.
Today, the company has evolved into a large fabrics supplier for companies in need of fall protection products and webbing technology including synthetic, cotton, tubular, pasting belts, synthetic web dyeing, and custom product design.
Southern Weaving has played a role in several high-profile events, creating the webbing that helped lift the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley from the bottom of the Charleston harbor, the space shuttle from a barge onto its permanent home on the Intrepid, and the needle onto the top of the World Trade Center memorial in New York City.
“Nearly half of the business is dedicated to making harnesses and webbing for the construction industry,” Mohling said. “We like to think of it as protecting people and property with our product.”
The webbing technology is a safety product designed to lift property or protect people in body harnesses, he said. Additionally, the company creates tubular webbing to contain the burst pressure from hydraulic hoses.
“Into a new generation”
Over 90 years, the Southern Weaving Company has worked with a variety of notable companies and organizations, such as the Ford Motor Company, the U.S. military, Caterpillar, Liftall, Honeywell, Eaton, NASA and Altec Industries.
Miller joined the company in 1959, the same year Alaska and Hawaii were admitted as U.S. states.
“I was a freshman at Furman University looking for a summer job,” he said.
Miller worked part-time after school performing a multitude of tasks until eventually making his way through every department of the company including shipping, production, and the testing lab where he spent 30 of his 55 years.
Miller joined Southern Weaving when Greenville was still considered the textile capital of the world, and during his tenure, has witnessed a variety of technological advances and changes in industry focus.
“We have a lot of specialists now making safety products,” he said. “I like to think someone went home yesterday instead of being killed on the job because of one of our products.”
Having served Southern Weaving for over a half century, Miller has become an invaluable source of information for company officials.
Mohling said weaving is an art form and longstanding employees such as Miller have become artists of the trade and a testament to the company’s longevity.
“We are taking weaving into a new generation together,” he said.