Part of a Series
In this fifth edition of our ongoing series, we visited different types of industry in Knoxville to record what we saw, profiling the scenes and lives that help define our city.
You might drive past it on Sutherland Avenue any number of times without really noticing the nondescript beige warehouse. It's easy to miss the small square sign out front, too, the one that says "Knoxville Glove Company, Since 1914."
But there, in that 20,000-square-foot facility, is what owner Rod Townsend Jr. calls, "the detritus of the entire American glove industry." It's an industry that peaked decades ago, but it's one Townsend is loath to give up on, even though he knows the end is near.
The Knoxville Glove Company was opened in 1914 by the family that owned Standard Knitting Mills and was located on McGhee Avenue, at the point that eventually became Malfunction Junction. ("The interstate ended at the front door," Townsend laughs.) Rod Townsend Sr. started working at Knoxville Glove in the early 1950s. When Standard announced it was going to close the factory in 1959, he stepped in and bought it.
Those days were the beginning of the end of the American glove industry, although the elder Townsend didn't yet know it. In 1963, Knoxville Glove moved to its South Knoxville location just on the other side of the river from downtown. Five years ago, the younger Townsend (who's been running the family business since 1983) sold that property to developers and moved into the much smaller building on Sutherland.
Inside, pairs of industrial work gloves in all colors and sizes spill from stacks of boxes. A small room has a handful of vintage sewing tables. The larger warehouse holds a giant quilting machine for stitching sheets of fabric together to get the thickness needed for tough work gloves. There are machines to turn the finished gloves right-side out and machines to press them.
Like the rest of the textile industry, Knoxville Glove has been hurt by cheap imports. Townsend says that in 1960, Knoxville Glove had 350 employees. They turned out 2,000 dozen gloves a day. There were contracts with the Department of Defense and Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Knoxville Glove designed and manufactured the Teflon bags NASA used to collect moon rocks.
Now, Townsend says, he is down to 15 employees; they turn out maybe 50 dozen gloves a day. However, unlike much of the textile industry, the piecework on gloves actually still requires hands to sew them.
"Gloves have to be sewn in three dimensions," Townsend explains, holding up a large u-shaped piece of fabric and a smaller, more rectangular piece. "This is the thumb. You see how you have to attach this here"— pointing to an edge of the larger piece—"to this?"—pointing to the edge of the smaller piece, rolling the larger piece over, like a tunnel.
It takes highly skilled sewers to do this work, and it takes a year to train them. It's hard work, often tedious, and Townsend says these days, it's next to impossible to find anyone to do it. He says one year he hired 42 people. None of them were still working by the end of the year.
"Training becomes prohibitively expensive when you can't recoup your investment," Townsend says. All but two of his employees have been with the company for more than 30 years. He has one seamstress who is 79, and another who is 78. Both, he says, work 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year—"And they get mad at me when I don't have enough work for them," Townsend laughs.
But lately there hasn't been enough work. Knoxville Glove has been sewing gloves only every other week. The day Townsend walks this reporter through his factory, the lint-covered sewing machines are quiet, boxes of half-sewn gloves at their feet. He says the recession has been crippling, as the majority of his gloves are bought by ironworkers and pipefitters; when the construction industry came to a crashing halt, so did Knoxville Glove's business.
"The only reason we are still in business is the extraordinary loyalty of my employees," Townsend says.
Of course, it isn't just that. It's Townsend's own business acumen. As the domestic glove industry has dwindled from 300 companies to fewer than 30, Townsend has bought out company after company that was going out of business and liquidated their inventory.
"To most people a half-sewn glove is worthless, you know, just something to be thrown away. But to me a half-sewn glove is a half-sewn glove, one that can be finished and sold," Townsend explains.
Those buyouts are why the warehouse of Knoxville Glove is filled with a jumble of machinery and bolsters of old fabric—Townsend really does own the crumbling remnants of the American glove industry. (He notes he once had much more. He sold off a lot when they moved into the smaller building—and even at scrap metal prices, he was able to cover the cost of the move.)
Townsend also sells the imports with which his own gloves compete. He says he can't afford not to. And while there's clearly a market for Knoxville Glove's products—they remain the world's largest manufacturer of bee-keeping gloves, for example—when asked if his current business model is viable in the long term, Townsend bluntly says, "No." His face looks slightly pained as he does so, but it's a fate to which he's long since resigned himself.
"I think that my niche market will be around for a while," Townsend says. "But whether we will continue to do the cut-and-sew operation is doubtful."
So, in a few years, maybe less, the American glove industry will have shrunk again. Townsend will still be selling gloves to his 4,000 or so customers (he sells directly from his website, knoxvilleglove.com, so as to skip any distributor markup that would place his gloves at an even less competitive price point), but he'll be buying those gloves from other operations, or maybe outsourcing the work to a factory in the Caribbean. And when that last sewing machine stops humming for good, Knoxville will have lost another little piece of its past.