The new old thing: for many Tar Heel manufacturers, the future looks a lot like the past.

Author:Granados, Alex

While many North Carolina manufacturers end up moving operations overseas, Raleigh Denim Inc. started there, in a small town just north of Donetsk, Ukraine, where Victor Lytvinenko made several trips to visit family from 2004 to 2006. Bored one summer, the Cary native decided to try making a pair of jeans. (A former semipro soccer player in Switzerland, Lytvinenko, 34, has dabbled in everything from photography to winemaking.) He found some fabric, fixed a 19th-century sewing machine and traced a pattern using the pair he was wearing. The result wasn't good, but when he returned to Raleigh, he and wife Sarah bought industrial sewing machines from a liquidator in Lumberton, got rid of the couch in their living room and began making jeans in the apartment. When friends started popping in to order a pair, they thought they might be on to something. "People said, 'Don't you know that all manufacturing has moved overseas?' And we said, 'Yeah, but what we're doing is different.'"

You've probably heard about the rebirth of manufacturing in the state--in fact, you've read about it here. Two years ago, we wrote about Bruce Cochrane, whose family ran Lincolnton-based Cochrane Furniture Co. from the early 20th century until selling it in 1996. Twelve years later, the new owners closed the factory. In 2012, he started Lincolnton Furniture Co. and reopened it. "Sales," he told our writer, "have been very, very good--robust, even." He anticipated employing 130 people by the holidays. That same year, we ran an item on Durham-based School House Inc., which had moved manufacturing of its apparel from Sri Lanka to North Carolina. A year later, we published a photo essay on Stanley Furniture Co.'s plant in Robbinsville, where it had relocated production of its Young America line from Asia.

Lincolnton Furniture closed a year after it opened, School House founder Rachel Weeks now works in marketing for Raleigh-based Inc., and High Point-based Stanley announced in April it was shutting down the plant, Graham County's largest employer. This was the kind of manufacturing that dominated the state's economy four decades ago, when mills and factories employed one of every four workers, but faded like an old pair of jeans as free-trade pacts made it more economical to make or buy goods produced in low-wage nations. Last year, manufacturing accounted for just 12% of North Carolina jobs. But the industry has never been stronger, according to N.C. State...

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