WASHINGTON — Fabric imports from China, India, Taiwan, Turkey and Indonesia all posted double-digit increases in January — a potential sign that a rebound in U.S. apparel manufacturing is taking hold.
The monthly trade report released by the Commerce Department Friday showed textile imports to the U.S. from the world, which includes fabrics, rose 14 percent to 2.9 billion square meter equivalents in January from a year earlier. Apparel imports, meanwhile, increased 3.4 percent to 2.1 billion SME. Combined textile and apparel shipments to the U.S. were up 9.2 percent in January to 5 billion square meter equivalents.
While there has been anecdotal evidence and some data supporting a small but burgeoning rebound in Made in America production, the new import data appears to bolster the argument that there is growing momentum in U.S. apparel production. Though apparel employment fell by 900 to 136,700 jobs in February, mills making apparel fabrics and yarns added 1,100 jobs to employ 117,500 in the month, another potential sign of a domestic production turnaround.
“I would think that it is a sign that there is some uptick in domestic manufacturing,” said Nate Herman, vice president of international trade at the American Apparel & Footwear Association. “Just because apparel employment went down, doesn’t mean apparel manufacturing is not on the rise.”
Experts have said greater automation will diminish job gains even as manufacturing increases. Imports of knit fabrics, primarily used to make apparel as opposed to home or industrial goods, to the U.S. from the world rose 45 percent. China, the number-one supplier of textiles to the U.S., posted a 19.9 percent increase in shipments to 1.5 billion SME. Fabric shipments from China to the U.S. rose 37 percent to 300 SME, and knit fabric imports were up 56.8 percent year-to-year from China.
Textile imports from India, the second-largest supplier to the U.S., rose 24 percent to 275 million SME. Within that category, fabric shipments rose 51 percent to 93 million SME. Taiwan posted a 23 percent increase in textile imports and a 51 percent increase in fabric shipments, while textile imports from Turkey rose 24.4 percent as fabric shipments were up 34 percent. Textile imports from Indonesia rose 24.1 percent, while fabric imports gained 269 percent.
In apparel, Vietnam saw a 11.6 percent increase in imports to 238 million SME, the biggest gain among the top 10 suppliers. China, tops in the category, had a 5.5 percent gain to 919 million SME.
“Vietnam is still doing remarkably well,” said Herman. “Its industry is staring to improve and achieve efficiencies and is getting better at making a wider variety of products. If companies make a jump from China, they are going to Vietnam, because of the problems people are experiencing in Bangladesh, Indonesia and Cambodia.”
Cambodia, beset by labor strife over its minimum wage, saw a 9 percent decline in apparel shipments in the month, while Bangladesh, also struggling in the wake of two major factory tragedies, posted a 2.7 percent increase in apparel imports.
“We are not really seeing trade go down in Bangladesh because companies have made a commitment to sourcing in Bangladesh and improve working conditions,” said Julia Hughes, president of the United States Fashion Industry Association.
The U.S. trade deficit widened in January to $39.1 billion, an increase of 0.3 percent from December.