A nondescript metal building with a faded sign along an industrial/commercial stretch of Wilson Road in Harlingen houses Texas Thread, a manufacturing enterprise that is unique in the Rio Grande Valley.
“We are the only thread maker in the Valley,” owner Kavanaugh Francis said. “Actually, we are the only one west of the Mississippi because most of our competitors are in the east in states like the Carolinas. And, being in the Valley, you could say we are the only one in the country this far south.”
Texas Thread manufactures heavy-duty nylon and polyester threads used mostly for industrial applications such as sewing tents, tarps and other products made from materials like canvas, plastic and leather. While it is a small operation with about 10 employees, the company has found its niche. “Our customer base is all over the place,” Francis said. “And we have a good customer base in Texas. One thing you learn is that Texas companies like doing business with other Texas companies.”
Francis, who also owns the Harlingen Compress, first became involved with the thread business in 1988 as a landlord leasing his property to a national manufacturing concern out of Pennsylvania. “Back then this was a 24/7 operation with about 100 employees,” he said. “But the market changed and the company began to scale back operations down here.”
By 1991 the company was on the verge of closing the Harlingen operation when Francis stepped in to take over the plant. “What we bought at the time was really just the machinery. I thought I could be a clever entrepreneur.” He has owned and operated Texas Thread since then, and shows no signs of slowing down, moving back and forth between the thread factory and the Harlingen Compress, a business that compresses ginned cotton and warehouses the bales before shipping.
In addition to the industrial applications, one of Texas Thread’s biggest customers is Tandy Leather Products, which buys a variety of threads intended for sewing different leathers. “At last count, we had about 28 different products in the Tandy catalog.”
Texas Thread sells product to various distributors in the United States that supply large factories, many of which are overseas. Some of the company’s threads also end up being used to sew buckskin to recreate Native American costumes, as well as stitching heavy fabrics to make other historical reenactment garb.
While manufacturing for modern industrial uses, the Harlingen factory is filled with older equipment. A steady hum emanates from rows upon rows of machines that feed thin strands of material from bobbins to be woven into final products of varying thickness and strength, depending on the product it will be used to manufacture. Another machine winds the finished thread onto spools for packaging, while some threads are run through equipment that applies special coatings for specific industrial applications.
“The technology for making thread hasn’t changed much,” Francis said. “A lot of the equipment is very old but still very functional. The original patents for some of these machines date back more than 100 years. And, like my wife says, ‘They are all paid for.’”
Texas Thread is a member of the Industrial Fabrics Association International, a nonprofit trade association founded in 1912 to offer support, educational programs and industry resources for members representing a broad spectrum of the international specialty fabrics marketplace.