By Callie Hietala
Martinsville’s legacy as the former sweatshirt capital of the world and the history of the once-thriving textile industry was celebrated last weekend at the Martinsville-Henry County Historical Society’s annual Founders Day celebration.
Will Pannill, the grandson of William Letcher Pannill, who opened the Pannill Knitting Company in 1925, addressed a crowd of more than 80 (many of whom were former employees of the textile industries) in the courtroom of the historic former Henry County courthouse, now the Heritage Center & Museum, about the history of some of the textile companies that were founded in Martinsville and Henry County.
Pannill shared brief histories of companies like Dupont. Executives chose to open a plant in Martinsville in 1941 due to the “human factor,” Pannill said. Those charged with selecting a location “reported stability in every phase of community life.” The plant, Pannill said, made nylon fiber and yarns, including producing yarn for parachutes during World War II.
Fieldcrest Mills (later Fieldcrest Cannon) and the town of Fieldale, Pannill told the audience, was built by the Marshall Field and Company at the turn of the century. “They built a post office, hotel, two churches, a barber shop, a community center with two pools, a drug store, produce store, theater, and a bank” and provided low-rent housing to their employees. Fieldcrest Cannon was purchased in 1997 by Pillowtex Corporation, which closed in 2003, Pannill said.
He also discussed Jobbers Pants Factory, which he said opened in 1933 in the Spencer Brothers Tobacco Factory on Fayette Street in Martinsville. A second plant opened in an old tobacco building on Adele Street and a third on Elizabeth Street. “The plan specifically opened to employ black women in 1936,” he said, and added that by 1939, the more than 1,000 women employed there produced 1,200 pairs of pants a day.
Pannill discussed a number of other textile manufacturing companies that established themselves in Martinsville and Henry County, highlighting the impressive number of plants that provided jobs for many in the area, including the Virginia Underwear Corporation, Hampton-Wrenn Inc., the Pannill-Walker Underwear Company, Lacy Manufacturing, and Pluma Inc.
One of the histories Pannill recounted was that of his grandfather. William Letcher Pannill, he said, was born in 1880 in North Carolina and went to work at the Mayo Cotton Mill in Mayodan, N.C. at the age of 23. “He had a photographic memory and a phenomenal understanding of complicated machinery,” Pannill said, adding that his grandfather was sent north to Utica Knitting Mills, which made long underwear, to learn the intricacies of that process.
Eventually, Pannill began his own knitting operation, but left when P.H. Hanes of Winston-Salem, N.C., offered him a job as superintendent of the P.H. Hanes Knitting Company.
He soon realized that “making long underwear in the south from southern-made yarn could easily compete with the northern knitting mills using the same yarn,” Pannill told Sunday’s audience. He said his grandfather chose Martinsville to open his new plant in part because his soon-to-be wife was from nearby Spencer, and because “the wives of the men working in the furniture factories would make excellent sewing machine operators and it would give them a good sense of pride.”
Pannill purchased a building on the corner of Cleveland Avenue and Water Street from the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, which had recently closed a plant at that location. There, he opened Pannill Knitting Company. The company was sold to Sarah Lee Knit Products, owner of the Hanes brand, in 1990.
However, Pannill’s impact on the textile industry in the area extended further than one company. Sale Knitting (later Tultex) was opened by Pannill in 1937 in a building on Moss Street in Martinsville. Mike Sale, Pannill’s son-in-law, was the company’s first president.
Sale Knitting, Will Pannill said, “was the first of 3 companies to make sweatshirts and the first company in the south to do so.”
By the 1930s, he said crewneck sweatshirts had become hugely popular, but companies in Connecticut and New York had monopolies on the products. Pannill challenged that monopoly by setting up a sweatshirt division of his own.
The company, which eventually changed its name to Tultex, ceased operations in 1999, Pannill said.
The Pannill name is associated with the founding of the Bassett Walker Knitting Company as well, according to Sunday’s talk. Samuel Stanhope Walker came to Martinsville after serving in the military during WWI and, with help from Pannill, started Virginia Underwear Corporation (later Walker Knitting Company) in a building on Cleveland Avenue built by Pannill.
Eventually, the company merged with Bassett Knitting in Bassett and became the Bassett-Walker Knitting Company.
Pannill said the sweatshirt producers in Martinsville “enjoyed friendly competition for many years,” employing thousands of people in Martinsville and Henry County. The companies even had bowling and softball teams for both men and women, Pannill said.
He told the audience that several factors led to a rise in the sale of sweatshirts in the 1970s, including an energy crisis which caused people to “turn down their thermostats and put on their sweats.”
Another factor was the growing popularity of UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) sweatshirts overseas. Pannill said that, though most European and other foreign buyers had no idea what UCLA was (he said many pronounced it as a word, Ucla, rather than an acronym), the iconic sweatshirt was purchased in droves. The popularity of that logo “is really what got sweatshirts going in Europe and it caused a real craze,” he said.
Pannill said the 1970s film “Flashdance” also helped the sweatshirt industry. The film features a character who cuts the sleeves and rib neck from a sweatshirt. “U.S. girls went crazy,” Pannill said. With pastel colors (or “ice cream colors”) also growing in popularity, women wanted sweatshirts in pink, mint, lemon yellow, aqua, and more. “All the girls had to have them all,” he said.
Then, after years of continued growth of the industry, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) took effect in 1994, he said, and recalled that “Ross Perot once referred to NAFTA as a ‘giant sucking sound.’ “Since 2001, over 3.2 million Americans have lost their jobs to China, Southeast Asia, or Mexico. Many of them were in Martinsville, Henry County, and the surrounding area,” he said.
Though the textile industry has largely left Martinsville and Henry County, the memories of that prosperous period remain. A number of those in the audience shared their stories and memories of the industry.
One man, who said he was in the furniture business during the textile boom, recalled that his company always had a good association with Pannill. “Those (Pannill employees) who worked for 50 years got a free grandfather clock,” he recalled. “I know at least 10, because I delivered 10 of them,” he said.
Another, who said he was a quality control manager at a Pannill plant, recalled that at one point, a company had a government contract to provide sweatshirts and sweatpants for the military.
Rusty Lacy, whose father Frank founded Lacy Manufacturing, spoke about how many of the people who owned the various companies were intertwined. Mike Sale, he said, saw the need for a “cut and sew” operation (rather than knitting) and convinced Lacy, who at the time worked at Martinsville High School, “to give all that up and start this business from scratch.”
Lacy recalled his father telling stories about going downtown to buy a cheap nylon jacket and ripping it apart to make patterns. “Back then, he (Frank) said you couldn’t buy zippers because all the metal was going to the war effort, so all the jackets had buttons instead.”
“It’s important to know this history,” said Historical Society board member Andy Doss at the close of the talk. “I know there’s a lot of sadness to it as well, but this is what made us what we are right now. We have to take what that was and figure out how to make the best of what came out of that.”