Standard Knitting Mill and Knoxville’s Textile Industry

The first known textile-related industry in Knoxville was a cotton spinning factory built by William Oldham in 1833. The factory was located along First Creek and featured dams that were destroyed in 1838.

Starting in the late nineteenth century the apparel factories and cotton mills in Knoxville grew to be among the area’s largest employers. Knoxville Woolen Mills, the city’s first major textile manufacturer, was founded in 1884. For the next 25 years, it would become the city’s largest employer, producing thousands of yards of product daily.

In November 1885, Brookside Mills was founded and opened in North Knoxville. Brookside took raw cotton and transformed it into thread and fabric on machinery equipped with 6,000 spindles. By 1895, the company had more capital and overhauled buildings to increase production. By 1902, Brookside passed Knoxville Woolen Mills to become the city’s largest employer.

Inspired by Brookside’s expanding success and capitalizing on the growth of the working-class, several other textile mills opened at the turn-of-the-century: Cumberland Knitting Mills, Knoxville Knitting Mills, Knoxville Cotton Mills, and Riverside Woolen Mills. But the one with the most staying power would be Standard Knitting Mill (Standard).

Standard was founded in 1900 on Washington Avenue with 50 employees and was housed in a small one-story building. Standard initially knitted cotton ribbed underwear and would be an industry leader in every underwear trend for over 80 years. Eventually employing almost 4,000 people and producing over a million garments per week, it would earn Knoxville the title of “Underwear Capital of the World.”

Throughout the 1920’s the owners of Standard provided many services to its employees. Some of these services included providing milk at cost to their employees, providing a public library extension, and regularly hosting a number of lunchtime activities, including music concerts, sidewalk bowling contests, and carnivals. During the holiday season, the mill closed for a week to provide a vacation for employees.

Standard provided a number of health services for its employees with an in-house medical and dental clinic. A new employee was required to undergo a physical examination, which included examining the teeth and tonsils. If the employee’s teeth needed work, they were informed that they must undergo treatment at the mill’s dental clinic. The cost for treatment was provided to the employee at a reasonable cost that was deducted from their wages. If it was necessary to have one’s tonsils removed, the employee was required to have them taken out before they could start work. If for a legitimate reason, the employee could not pay for the surgery, Standard covered their medical costs. Standard owners also kept records of when its employees were absent due to illness and provided nurse home visits. Every morning the foreman of each department took the absentee list to the in-house medical clinic and a nurse would be dispatched to the employee’s home to evaluate them. If the nurse reported a need for a doctor, the mill would send someone. If for financial reasons the employee was unable to pay, the mill paid for the doctor visit.

Standard started each shift with one 1-minute of silent prayer when all employees stopped work. The tradition started during World War I, having a period of hiatus until World War II. The tradition continued until Standard closed in 1989. Standard also had a “25-Year Club” which honored employees who had worked for the mill for 25 years. In 1975, the Club had 1,264 members.

By the mid-1940s, the textile industry was so widespread in Knoxville, that it was estimated that almost

30,000 or ¼ of all Knoxville residents either had a direct family connection or knew of someone connected within the industry. By the mid-1950s the industry began to show a decline. New competition overseas, the high cost of labor, outdated equipment, and popularity of synthetics aided in this decline. Brookside Mills, one of the city’s largest employers at one time closed, in 1956.

Standard continued to grow in popularity throughout the 1950s, becoming Knoxville’s largest employer and claiming to be the second-largest knitting mill in the United States. By the 1980s Standard began to experience hard times, blaming foreign competition and inefficiencies of its large older facility. After a period of layoffs, the factory shut down in 1989, officially ending Knoxville’s domination of the large­scale textile manufacturing.

A New Future

Travelers along I-40 near downtown Knoxville cannot miss the only remaining structure associated with Standard Knitting Mill (circa 1945). For many years the neglected site has been a feature on the annual Knox Heritage list of endangered historic properties. Broken windows and overgrown grounds have become the most noticeable features for this high visibility property.

Knox Heritage has been encouraging stakeholders to make the redevelopment of the structure a top priority since its condition has a negative impact on the surrounding historic neighborhoods. Knox Heritage itself has prepared a National Register nomination to submit to the Tennessee Historical Commission for review. A mixed-use development combining office, retail, and residential tenants would add to the city’s tax base and spur on the renaissance underway in the surrounding historic neighborhoods.

Great news regarding the future of this building began circulating in mid-December 2019. WRS Inc., a South Carolina real estate firm, bought the Standard Knitting Mill building for conversion into a mixed-use development.