Milliken & Co.
A Finishing Plant for Polyester Cotton Fabrics – Magnolia Finishing, Milliken & Co. , Blacksburg, SC
Contributed by Charles B. Palmer, May 2007
For many years, textile companies often segregated dry side operations such as yarn spinning and weaving into separate mills at separate locations. The idea of an integrated operation where all aspects of textile formation and finishing were in one location was unusual. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Deering Milliken woolen and worsted division was comprised of integrated plants at several locations. Abbeville Mills Corporation, Abbeville, SC was a “fancy” mill. Rayon and acetate fiber arrived by the bale. An opening line blended fiber as needed. The plant ran on a cotton count system. As time went by, polyester and acrylic fibers were added to the mix. The original rayon and acetate 50/50 blend was package-dyed in cross-dyed shades, or after saponifying the acetate with caustic, in solid shades using direct dyes and after treated direct dyes. The blend in the early 1960s was 25% 3.0-denier and 25% 1.5 denier rayon plus 50% 3.0 denier acetate. When Dacron polyester became available, Abbeville ran a 65/35% Dacron/rayon blend and produced fabrics which were sewn into, among other things, washable men’s suiting. Abbeville also began application of the Dow silicones water repellent to many of these fabrics. Further diversification came through automotive seat cover fabric of beck-dyed filament and spun nylon fabrics and an innovative melt-dyed polypropylene, which was warped, woven and calendared before shipment. It was a place to gain wide experience in textile dyeing and finishing.
Excelsior Union, Union, SC was a woolen system mill, which received raw wool, scoured, dyed and finished these coarser fabrics normally used for outerwear coats. Excelsior Pendleton, Pendleton, SC finished polyester/ worsted wool men and women’s suiting and dress goods. The businesses were separated into Menswear and Womenswear. Worsted wool was prepared in top form at Union, and spun at McCormick, woven at Kingstree and finished at Pendleton. The trucking industry was booming and good highways helped to keep delivery times short.
Polyester was first introduced to the textile industry following the opening in 1953 of the world’s first fiber plant by DuPont at Kinston, NC. Polyester/wool blends in worsted count fabrics became increasingly popular for men’s suiting fabrics. Blends of polyester with cotton offered promise for easy care shirting and bottom weight (wash pants) fabrics. Milliken decided to enter the finished cotton/polyester fabric market in a big way bypassing the slow batch process by going directly to continuous open-width dyed fabrics. There was no experience with continuous operations anywhere in the company. In typical Milliken fashion, Mr. Roger Milliken put together a team with a goal to search the world for the best ideas and to incorporate these ideas in a fresh new “green field” operation on the Broad River just off I-85 near Blacksburg, SC. Magnolia Finishing was underway. He chose George Cocoros, his top dyeing and finishing expert at Excelsior Pendleton to head up the operation. Soon afterwards, on a walk through the Abbeville location, he cornered Charles B. Palmer, who was Superintendent of Dyeing and Finishing. “Charlie, I want to talk to you about a new plant we have in mind. Would you be interested?” In typical response mode for Milliken employees, Charlie said, “Of course.” He was interested in facing a new challenge. “Fine, George Cocoros will be in touch.” Soon George and Charlie began visiting finishing plants all over the US and Europe with introductions provided by DuPont and other fiber producers, and of course, Roger knew everyone in the business. They were welcomed with open arms at Burlington, J.P. Stevens, Dan River, United Piece Dye, Union Bleachery, and Springs. Key personnel would have to be chosen from outside the Milliken operation but they were determined that no more than two would be hired from any one company. A team was assembled: Walter Walukewicz, Pendleton, would head the laboratory, Taylor Martin (United Merchants), preparation. Others with a lasting effect were Nick Lazzo and Penn Lewis from Burlington. Ted Colcolough (United Piece Dye), would eventually become Superintendent of Dyeing and Finishing. The first candidate selected from a mill in Alabama soon opted out when he saw the scope of the operation. This was too much responsibility to start up a whole new operation so quickly.
Since no one had experience with continuous dyeing and finishing, they decided to talk to everyone and keep flexibility paramount. The plant would be laid out on one level with horizontal flow, unlike the old mills where material flow tends to be vertical and covered several floors. Unfinished goods would arrive by truck from the various mills, enter one end of the plant and flow in a large U-shaped loop through preparation, dyeing, and finishing to finished goods shipping. Support operations including a lab and machine shop were centrally located. Warehousing would be held to a minimum. One of Roger Milliken’s credos was: “Inventory is something no one else wants.” The turn around in the plant would be held to a minimum.
Layout: Preparation on left; machine shop, lab, offices, other support-center; dye and finish to right. View looking west.
Pre-poured roof panels lifted into place, floor poured and pre-poured sidewalls added later.
Machine shop in center bay of plant.
Images: Charles B. Palmer
The site was cleared and construction began in earnest in March 1963. In order to speed construction, floodlights were mounted on wooden poles around the site to keep things moving beyond daylight hours. After the site was graded, foundations were dug, footings poured and steel girders erected to support roof panels. The pre-stressed roof panels were trucked in and lifted into place. The concrete slab floor was poured, and the pre-stressed sidewalls lifted into place. Installation of equipment began. In the meanwhile, a boiler house was built on the back side and a tank farm added for chemical storage. Eventually, namesake Magnolia grandiflora shrubs native to the south were planted around the entrance of the new plant.
Before the construction began, the team visited machinery manufacturers and decided on range specifications. One interesting machine contained a preparation chamber developed by Benteler Werke, West Germany. In Europe, the three-stage desize, scour and bleach was performed sequentially in the roll-to-roll chamber designed somewhat like a jigger. Milliken and other forward thinkers proposed running three Benteler units with wash boxes in between in succession thereby converting a batch operation into a continuous operation.
Storage for lightweight fabrics run in rope-form was provided in a series of tile-lined pits or bins between preparation and mercerization. Two different mercerizers were specified. One chain type typical of US installations and one chainless, in the European style were chosen.
Rope Range: Entry End
Rope Range: Exit End
Rope range: George Cocoros at compensating scrays
Dyeing of polyester/cotton blends would be achieved using the DuPont Thermosol process. In this process, open width fabrics are padded with cotton-specific dyes and disperse dyes for polyester, evenly squeezed and uniformly dried and cured. Dye application and uniform drying is the key to successful level dyeing. A recently developed West German Küsters S-roll adjustable deflection padder offered the best hope for uniform dye application. The first US installation was made at Magnolia. The curing oven was another uncertainty. Should the oven operate with a hot flue or in semi-contact mode? Eventually a range with one of each was chosen. Equipment from the US and Europe were wedded together to create a new high-speed finishing plant.
In finishing, Butterworth was a leading supplier of finish pads and tenter frames. Kurt Zimmerli, chief engineer with Butterworth met repeatedly with the start-up team to specify the best padders and frames for this intended high-speed operation. The drying and curing “houses’ that contained the air flow were locally built. Permanent press curing of the cotton portion of the blend was well known and used extensively in the US for continuous finishing of batch-dyed polyester/cotton blends. However, the cross-linking chemistry was harsh and caused early failure of these fabrics. Deering Milliken Research Corporation and Frank Marcos developed a unit that used ionizing radiation to promote cross-linking while minimizing the acidic chemistry used in traditional chemistry. The first commercial unit was installed at Magnolia. The Visa process became a Milliken landmark for durable press. Koret of California became a major customer for partially cured fabric. After cut and sew, Koret used post-cure ovens for their line of uniform fabrics.
Entry Road to Gatehouse and Plant
One of two entry towers leading to the plant on ground level or to offices on second level
Second Level Reception Area
Magnolia opened September 3, 1963 after 180 days of construction. And that was when the real problems began: shakedown of the equipment, correction of mistakes, and learning how to run the new equipment and processes. “A lot of people spent a lot of sleepless nights” adjusting and specifying the drive controls. Very few people in textiles had any experience trying to run several machines in a line. During the first year of operation, Magnolia was known as “Ragnolia” … and did quite a bit of commission work. Customers with defective fabric in the greige would commission Magnolia to process it in the chance that it would be ruined and they would have to pay less than the full price. Eventually, Magnolia grew through the pain and became a first class finishing plant for polyester/cotton blends.
Source: Charles B. Palmer, teleconversation May 17,2007; email 2007-2008 and photos.