Tennessee Knitting Mills

Representative of the many textile mills that opened in Middle Tennessee in the early twentieth century, Tennessee Knitting Mills began operations in Columbia, Tennessee, in June 1931 as Massachusetts Knitting Mills. In that year, a group of Bostonians led by Jacob S. Gordon bought the floundering Cadet Hosiery Mills and renamed it the Massachusetts Knitting Mills (MKM). Under the leadership of Saul Kaplan, MKM made its first shipment of full-fashioned hosiery to New Orleans in July 1931. The company maintained a large labor force of 585 employees. Potential employees worked for a trial period of two weeks at no pay before signing contracts. Mill hands often worked ten to twelve hours a day at a rate of ten cents per hour until legislation set minimum wages and hours.

In 1941 management promoted Frank Cover to general manager of the newly renamed factory, the Tennessee Knitting Mills (TKM). The war with Japan soon limited the male labor force and restricted any available silk to parachute production. In response, TKM began hiring and training female workers and experimenting with cotton and nylon. After the war, hundreds of returning veterans resumed their TKM jobs once the mill made the transition to postwar production.

During the 1950s in an effort to improve labor relations, management created two men’s baseball teams, the TKM Knitters (affiliated with the Alabama-Tennessee League) and the TKM Nighthawks (composed entirely of night shift workers). The mill also sponsored a female interdepartmental softball association and a 16-member TKM Choir.

Despite such efforts, TKM did not escape labor problems. In 1954 the American Federation of Hosiery Workers lost a National Labor Relations Board election at TKM by the close vote of 125 pro-union to 147 antiunion votes. Labor problems, economic depression in the hosiery industry, and the decline in demand for full-fashion hosiery resulted in a drop in TKM’s employment to three hundred workers. Union organizers continued their efforts, and in 1956 mill workers voted in the Hosiery Workers of America Union (HWAU). Cover refused to accept the union and, following a year of failed negotiations, announced that TKM would cease most operations.

During the summer of 1957, many unemployed mill hands began crossing the picket line set up by the striking knitters. After several minor scuffles, the strike erupted in violence on September 25, 1957, when shots were fired into TKM’s water tank and strikers overturned a car attempting to cross the picket line. Police quickly arrested strikers and broke up demonstrations. Cover eventually rehired those knitters who wanted to return, but at a rate of one or two at a time to prevent reorganization of the union.

Economic conditions declined after the 1957 strike. In response to changes in fashion, the mill began manufacturing leotards, sweaters, and seamless nylon panty hose, marketing these items to J. C. Penney’s, Sears-Roebuck, and other major chain stores. By the early 1980s, TKM could no longer compete effectively in the apparel industry, and the mill ceased operations on October 30, 1981.

Suggested Reading

Brian Russell Eades, “Early Twentieth Century Factories in Middle Tennessee: A Historical Analysis of Tennessee Knitting Mills and the Fly Manufacturing Company” (M.A. Thesis, Middle Tennessee State University, 1997)

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Tennessee Knitting Mills
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date June 20, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018