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The American Way of Apparel Production

The unexpected revival of the U.S. apparel and textile manufacturing industry went from promise to reality this year.

U.S. apparel and textile manufacturing industry went from promise to reality this year.

Call it the risk factor. While the importance of diversity in manufacturing, along with buying patterns that have brought a deeper need for quick response and better quality, have spurred a revival of U.S. production in the last three years, the lack of hands-on control, poor factory conditions and labor laws in Bangladesh and other countries also played into the hands of companies touting the advantages of Made in America.

Jeremy Wooten, secretary-treasurer of the Seams Association, which helps promote economic growth for American sewn products companies, said the factory catastrophes in Asia have “sparked a conversation that we haven’t seen in the U.S. in the last couple of decades.…The rising labor and energy costs there have made people look closer at the full value equation, not just the FOB cost — the risks associated with getting the goods shipped on time, without problems, the value of buying domestically. We’re having retailers come to us looking for help finding the right vendors to test product or balance their production.”

While automation and the types of goods being produced have sometimes skewed the numbers against signs of real growth, a report from the United Nations Industrial Development Organization this month showed U.S. apparel production up 3.9 percent in the third quarter compared to the same period a year earlier.

Industry veterans that thought they were witnessing the final demise of U.S. manufacturing have at times been taken aback by the revival.

Jim Andriola, sales manager for Texollini, a vertically integrated knitting mill in Long Beach, Calif., said at the Texworld USA trade show this summer, “I can’t believe I’m even having conversations about the revival of U.S. manufacturing. I really never thought it was coming back.”

Next month, Texworld USA is partnering with Manufacture NY, a fashion incubator for emerging designers, to allow attendees and designers the opportunity to source fabrics and speak with Manufacture NY about their products and services.

Over the last three years, American textile mills, which include U.S. operations of foreign-owned firms, have built 23 plants and invested more than $3 billion in new facilities and equipment, according to the National Council of Textile Organizations. Producers have opened fiber, yarn and recycling facilities to convert textile waste to new textile uses.

Cone Denim’s historic White Oak mill facility in Greensboro, N.C., the oldest operating denim mill in the U.S., installed additional American Draper X3 looms in response to the growing demand for Made in USA selvage denim. The expansion will increase its production of authentic vintage selvage denim by 25 percent.

“We recognize the unique capabilities of White Oak and the growing demand for Made in America denim fabrics and garments,” said Ken Kunberger, president and chief operating officer of Cone Denim and parent company International Textile Group.

Gildan Activewear Inc. said in September that it will invest more than $200 million during fiscal 2014 and 2015 for the construction and ramp-up of two additional yarn-spinning facilities in the southern U.S. This investment will be made in addition to commitments made in November 2012 for a new ring-spun yarn-manufacturing facility in Salisbury, N.C., and the refurbishment and modernization of the company’s open-end facilities in Clarkton, N.C., and Cedartown, Ga.

The Montreal-based company’s total investment in American yarn-spinning facilities, including the two new operations, is expected to create more than 700 jobs and further solidify the “important domestic U.S. component of its vertically integrated manufacturing.”

Then there’s Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which said last month that three of its suppliers have committed to moving production back to the U.S., or expanding existing capacity, as part of the retail giant’s longer-term commitment to buy $50 billion worth of American-made products over the next 10 years.

“Due to changes in the equation — energy costs, rising labor costs in Asia and expansion of the middle class outside of the U.S. that is creating demand outside of the U.S., [this] puts us in a unique once-in-a-generation opportunity to make a change through investment in [U.S.] manufacturing,” Bill Simon, Wal-Mart’s U.S. president and chief executive officer, said at the Obama administration’s inaugural SelectUSA 2013 Investment Summit.

Simon said Wal-Mart suppliers have committed to creating more than 1,600 U.S. jobs and investing more than $100 million in several product categories.

“In categories like [soft goods], we are starting to see movement in the technology-driven aspects of it in textiles and towels…and socks,” Simon said. “So the things that don’t require hand cut-and-sew are more near-term. A little more further out would be hand cut-and-sewn items like [apparel].”