02 Dec 2020
A Biscoe knitting mill is keeping our textile tradition alive
By Ray Owen » Photos by Mollie Tobias
Belevation is a small knitting mill in neighboring Montgomery County, producing maternity and postpartum pregnancy garments and facemasks. Created in 2017 by Tom and Susan Miles, they’re driven by the belief that know-how and finding the right niche are the future of local manufacturing.
The textile industry has traditionally been the backbone of North Carolina’s economy, providing thousands of jobs. And while the state leads the nation in the total value of textile exports, since the 1980s mergers, automation and trade agreements have marked the industry.
The effects on smaller towns dependent on a single mill for their economy has been particularly devastating and once these factories closed, the towns were almost deserted. Storefronts were boarded up, and many local businesses never returned.
“For Tom and me, textiles never really left, but it’s not rebounded either,” says Susan Miles. “One way or another, we’ve continued to work in the industry nonstop. I have degrees in fine art and textile technology, and after college I started working for a small
“When the business closed, a lady I met said her resume looked like an obituary list. It was kind of a joke, but it really hit home. All the small knit converters in New York were closing. I wasn't ready to cut off my ear like Van Gogh, but my career wasn't going too well.”
In the early 1980s, computers were just coming into widespread use. Machines that had previously been mechanical were moving toward a digital interface, eliminating jobs while dramatically expediting the creative process. During this period, Susan met her husband.
“Tom has worked in textiles for over 50 years,” she says. “He has undergraduate and graduate degrees in textile technology, and his father worked in the industry in the United States and abroad.”
“We had a successful business in New Jersey, Circular Knit Services,” says Tom Miles. “We were making designs that went into men’s knit shirts, brands like Polo, Tommy Hilfiger and Abercrombie & Fitch.”
“In 2005, we relocated to a small studio in Fort Mill, South Carolina. By then, our design business was more or less in a downward spiral. I was retirement age but didn’t want to stop working.”
Fortunately for the couple, they had the money to invest in technology. “I started buying different machines and dyeing equipment and that’s where the idea for the Belevation product line originated,” Tom Miles explains.
In 2017, they purchased an old textile factory in Biscoe and created a small vertical company that starts with yarn and ends up with finished garments. “There were highly trained workers in the area, making it a prime location,” says Susan Miles. “We have 8-10 employees and craft top-selling products.”
“A nice benefit is being within commuting distance of Pinehurst and Southern Pines where there’s arts and culture,” she says. “We have a vegetable garden at home and it’s the most tranquil place. When you’re working a lot, being active outdoors and eating fresh fruits and vegetables – that’s the best.”
The passage of transnational agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) seriously impacted small textile firms, and workers often faced hardships finding new employment after spending a lifetime in a single factory.
“NAFTA basically sucks,” says Tom Miles. “Ross Perot had that one right, the giant sucking sound.” Perot coined the phrase during his unsuccessful 1992 presidential campaign, referring to the sound of United States jobs heading south to Mexico when the free-trade agreement went into effect.
“It didn’t really affect me so much,” Tom Miles continues, “but it affected all the people who worked in these factories that were once prevalent. To be quite honest, people couldn’t care less where stuff is made as long as it costs a dollar a piece. As far as I see, that’s the truth.”
Other serious issues for small factories are unfair and deceptive trade practices. “We get ripped off by the Chinese or maybe it’s Amazon through the Chinese,” says Tom Miles. “They copied our best products and undercut our prices.”
“Amazon may be behind it,” says Susan Miles. “In July, Congress interviewed Jeff Bezos and asked him if his staffers were stealing data from third-party sellers. I was sitting on the edge of my seat saying ‘absolutely’ because that’s what they did to us.”
“We’ve been trying to do the right thing but it’s more and more challenging,” she says. “Not only are they stealing our ideas, they’re using our photography. When I go on Amazon, there’s nobody home. You’re lucky if you can get somebody on the phone.”
“We’re really subterranean compared to Amazon, with their search engine optimization,” she says. “The key word is algorithm and I’m stuck facing ‘Susan against the world of algorithms’ as Amazon staffers work in favor of competing products to disadvantage our listing.”
The Miles are making a very valiant effort, considering they’re not digital natives. “When I went to college, there weren’t even computers,” says Susan Miles. “I’m just learning on the fly and it’s getting more and more difficult. We’re coming up short on answers.”
An added problem is fake reviews from unscrupulous competitors who purchase products and then demand refunds after intentionally soiling or tearing garments. “It’s hard to know what’s going on,” says Susan Miles.
“A gentleman called two days ago and said he brought all of our products, implying he was going to copy them. When we started out, we didn’t have enough capital to get patents on these things. We have trademarks on our name, but Target started using it and we couldn’t find a lawyer to help.”
“Growing our business, having the bandwidth to manage scalability is daunting. We’ve done everything state-of-the-art, repurposing equipment as the industry continues to shift. Change is constant and if you can’t adapt, you die. We’re at a point where keeping up is all uphill.”
With the world in uncharted territory due to Covid-19, Belevation began manufacturing a line of patent-pending cloth facemasks. Forever the innovators, they’re selling the masks at regional craft markets to directly reach consumers.
Supporting manufacturing in the United States isn’t a partisan issue, it’s an American issue. Tom and Susan Miles have proven things can be made in this country, but companies like theirs can only survive if people choose to buy local products.
To see Belevation’s range of fashionable maternity garments including activewear leggings, postpartum pettipants, maternity & postpartum belly bands, visit belevation.com.