For nearly three decades, the carpet and furniture industries have been moving south, establishing themselves in Georgia, North Carolina and other states.

But northern-bred Mohasco Corp., one of the largest companies in the home furnishings business, was reluctant to migrate with the industry.

Mohasco's roots ran deep in the upstate New York community of Amsterdam, where generations of families and friends turned nylon and other raw materials into tufted and woven Mohawk carpets, which are used worldwide in homes and commercial buildings and in some segments of the auto industry.

But by bucking the trend to move where labor was cheaper and markets were near, Mohasco -- whose name comes from a 1955 merger of two carpet companies, Mohawk of Amsterdam and Alexander Smith of Yonkers, N.Y. -- was losing money.

"With most of the carpet and furniture factories in the South, we were becoming further and further removed from our major markets and competition. Economically, we didn't do well," said Herbert J. Broner, Mohasco's chairman and president.

Mohasco had to move, Broner said. As a result, the company last month became the first Fortune 500 organization to move its corporate headquarters to Fairfax County. Another Fortune 500 company, oil giant Mobil Corp., also has announced plans to relocate to Fairfax, but has not yet completed the move.

Landing Mohasco was a coup for Fairfax, more in terms of what it means to the county's growing prestige as a home for large corporations than as a source of direct economic benefits for the county.

Mohasco, a $757.7 million carpet and furniture manufacturing and rental conglomerate with offices, factories and showrooms in 122 locations in 29 states, will provide about 200 new jobs for Fairfax. Many of those are highly paid administrative positions, but the numbers are not large enough to affect the county's well-being.

But prestige is marketable, particularly in an era when states and communities are competing in high-stakes bidding to lure businesses.

Mohasco, ranked 372 on last year's Fortune 500 list, makes carpet under the Mohawk brand name, manufactures furniture under such brands as Barcalounger, Stratolounger, Trend Line and Stratford, and operates the Cort Furniture Rental chain.

The company had net earnings of $15.8 million ($1.67 a share) last year, a 7.6 percent drop from the $17.1 million ($1.69) in 1985 profits. The 1986 earnings were affected by the costs of plant closings, the sale of Mohasco's Mexican operations and by other steps the company took to improve its competitive posture.

By comparison, the company lost $7.6 million in 1982. Now, home furnishings industry analysts say, Mohasco is on the mend and poised for growth -- an alluring prospect for county officials looking for commercial winners.

"We had three areas we could have moved {to}, three cities," Broner said, declining to name the other two top-of-the-list candidates for Mohasco's headquarters relocation. I"I had five governors call me up to ask us to come to their states," Broner said.

Incentives, such as revenue bonds, were offered to help finance Mohasco's move from Amsterdam. Indeed, Fairfax agreed to let Mohasco have up to $7 million in county-backed loans to help build its new four-story corporate office complex in the Fair Lakes development near the junction of I-66 and Rte. 50.

Other governments offered more, "but we didn't really ask for any incentives from anyone," Broner said. "We didn't go for more because that's not the way we do business. Incentives, we could've gotten from anybody. But we were looking for a geographical location that had a certain kind of people, a certain aggressiveness."

Fairfax and the surrounding Washington area filled the bill, Broner said. The area's large number of affluent, highly educated households perfectly matches Mohasco's target market, he said: The company sees the best market for its products in households with incomes of $50,000 and above, and having adult occupants between the ages of 35 and 49 -- an age group that demographers expect to increase by 30 percent between 1985 and 1995.

Those people will drive the growth of the $18-billion-a-year wholesale furniture industry in the United States, Broner said. And they will play a major role in the continued growth of the $6 billion annual carpet industry and the $700-million-a-year furniture rental business, Broner said.

The idea is to be closer -- in terms of physical proximity and perception -- to the people who are influencing the market, Broner said.

That strategy seems to be paying off handsomely for Cort Furniture Rental, a Mohasco subsidiary that has been based in Fairfax for several years and operates five rental showrooms in the Washington area.

Cort's revenue grew from $44 million, or 8 percent of Mohasco's sales in 1982, to $84 million, or 11 percent of the company's sales in 1986, largely because of a boom in the furniture rental market sparked by the kinds of life styles common in metropolitan Washington, Broner said.

Furniture rentals thrive in areas with an abundance of short-term needs: people moving in and moving out, new businesses setting up shop, government offices undergoing reorganization, young affluent couples starting off in life, older affluent couples breaking up, or young couples deciding that marriage isn't such a good idea after all.

"You have all of those things going on in the Washington area," Broner said. "We believe that by coming to an aggressive area like this, we can't help but become more competitive."

The metropolitan area also has three airports, which helps Mohasco's far-flung executives get to and from meetings at headquarters, Broner said.

"A few years ago, we moved our carpet operations from Amsterdam to Atlanta," Broner said. "Whenever we had meetings, our Atlanta people would take two and sometimes three days, depending on the weather in upstate New York, to get back and forth. Now, they can fly up to headquarters in the morning and be back at their office in the same day."

Broner said that he is aware that moving Mohasco's headquarters from Amsterdam caused some consternation in Montgomery County, N.Y., where Mohasco, had been a fixture for nearly 145 years.

"Sure, there are some people who are disappointed," he said. "But most people in Amsterdam knew what we should've known all along ... that we should not have continued to stay there in a changed industrial environment."

Steve Smeltzer, senior executive vice president of the Montgomery County Economic Development Corporation, agreed with Broner.

"The furniture and carpet industries had moved to the South, and there really wasn't much that Mohasco could do about it," Smeltzer said. "It made sense for them to move, too.

"The major hurt to Amsterdam occurred when Mohasco began moving out its carpet operations several years ago," Smeltzer said. By the time the company moved its headquarters in November, Amsterdam, which also depended on a now-defunct General Electric Co. plant in nearby Schenectady, had begun to right itself, Smeltzer said.