Saturday, August 29, 2009

Developing a Future for Textiles in the U.S.

I read a study once a few years ago regarding the attrition of fabric mills across the US. The study suggested a closure rate of 2 mills per month at the time, which I would believe to have flat-lined by now probably somewhere around 1 per month or less. In addition, the rate of new talent entering the sewing trades has declined 70% in the last 3 decades, meaning less and less available talent for apparel and accessory markets. The contradiction is that retail fashion and accessories continue to grow. The obvious culprit is overseas labor, offering low cost alternatives without the employment restrictions and oversight that we are accustomed to here. This serves the consumer by offering lower cost items at comparably measured quality standards, while building the sales and marketing arms domestically. A transformation that has both good, and perhaps equally negative, attributes.

While globalization has bred this transformation in the market, we have a responsibility to maintain some reasonable vocational abilities here in the US . Given the right opportunity, and building value in domestic manufacture, we can continue to grow the US textile market through strategic planning and minor investment in vocational training. Small pockets in historically textile-friendly cities like Portland and San Francisco are tasking their local communities with reinvesting in sewn goods and labor to provide, however, is this a futile effort in the face of government trade imbalances - ie. fabric quotas, tariffs, etc. I cannot fault the efforts of local politicos and commercial ventures for attempting these reinvestment acts, however, I will challenge them to not ignore the larger issue that if we do not have any enforcement or initiatives towards balancing dominance of imported textile products, our efforts may be fleeting, however noble.

In the end we need to establish a base for manufacturing in the US again. Our continuing path towards a 'service-based' country fails to build value beyond the point of sale, and the reliance on foreign labor and raw materials disables our nation as an integral cog in the supply chain. I wish somewhere in Stimulus 2009 there might have been a reinvestment in some of our lost arts and abilities, rather than chasing the next flashy energy idea that is still an unknown. It will be up to small companies like ours to rebuild this textile industry - a noble cause, however fleeting it may seem...

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