TIGHT KNIT: Since its founding 27 years ago, North East Knitting has expanded into medical devices and military gear. Pictured above is owner Rosalie DaRosa with her sons, from left, Alex, Eric and Michael.
The founding of North East Knitting Inc. in Pawtucket from the ashes of a bankrupt elastic-textile maker 27 years ago followed a Hollywood script as much as a business textbook.
Workers who had been at odds with management before the company collapsed, many Cape Verdean immigrants, banded together to purchase enough factory assets to keep their jobs.
Then, during an era of steep decline in the New England textile industry, the reborn company not only survived, but grew.
Last year, North East Knitting posted sales of $11 million.
“We had a lot of people who had worked 16 or 17 years and I knew that they were good workers,” said Rosalie DaRosa, the president of North East Knitting, who spearheaded the worker takeover in 1986. “I felt strong enough to say, ‘if this is going to go in auction, maybe we can buy a few machines and start it up. I know what machines to buy and we will be out of a job anyway, so why not try to make it happen.’ ”
DaRosa first moved from Cape Verde to Italy when she was 14 and family members were leaving the island off the West African coast to seek better opportunities.
After four years in Italy, she followed her father to southern New England and Pawtucket, where he had found a job at the International Stretch factory on Conant Street. Working beside her father on the shop floor she quickly learned how to use all of the textile machines the company had.
While change is now part of North East Knitting’s business model, a series of ill-fated changes by the owners of its predecessor International Stretch led to that company’s demise.
In the 1980s, a younger generation of the company’s New York-based ownership began barring any language but English in the factory and ended the incentive-pay system that had been in place, DaRosa said.
“They didn’t believe in having people who didn’t speak English and they hired more expensive people,” DaRosa said. “They brought in a new manager and within six months everything was cash on delivery.”
After the bankruptcy, DaRosa convinced the former plant manager, who owned a local restaurant, to join her, other workers and a group of investors in a bid to buy the company back.