By  on August 11, 2006

WASHINGTON — Apparel and textile imports hit an all-time high of 4.8 billion square meter equivalents in June, an increase of 4.4 percent from a year earlier, according to a Commerce Department report Thursday.

The rise was fueled by increased shipments from countries such as Pakistan, India and South Korea, which counterbalanced a decline of 1.3 percent in imports from China, which are restrained by quotas on some goods.

The U.S. trade deficit on all goods and services narrowed to $64.8 billion in June from $65 billion in May, the Commerce Department said.

Apparel and textile imports of 25.1 billion SME in the first half of the year were a 2 percent increase over the year-earlier period and also set a record. Those imports were valued at $42.9 billion. Despite the dip in June, China is still the largest fashion exporter and a potent force, commanding a third of the U.S. market and spurring the six-month gain with shipments of 8.1 billion SME, a 3 percent rise.

Stripping away textile goods, apparel imports from the world fell 2.4 percent in the first half to 10.2 billion SME, driven down by a 14.6 decline in China's apparel shipments to 2.4 billion SME.

This is partially due to a U.S.-China three-year deal struck in November that set quotas on 34 types of goods. The deal followed events stemming from the end of the global quota regime in January 2005, which saw Chinese imports surge and led to the Bush administration imposing safeguard quotas on a range of categories.

The move created much uncertainty in companies' sourcing plans and a strategic shift in where firms manufactured. The new restrictions on China added to the need to diversify production and have been a boon for apparel producers in other countries, especially in Asia.

The import picture is somewhat different when looking at just apparel, thanks in large part to the scuttling in January 2005 of a global system of quotas that regulated trade for three decades.

Bangladesh, with strength in cotton trousers; Indonesia, with a focus on cotton knit shirts and blouses, and Vietnam, moving ahead in several kinds of cotton apparel, all posted double-digit increases for the six months."For many of those countries, their industries were afraid of China," said Julia Hughes, vice president of international trade at the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles & Apparel. "What we have seen is that, while China is strong, it has not overwhelmed other suppliers and that there are many countries that are doing well in the U.S. market."

Without restraints on China, however, the import situation could look quiet different. Domestic textile companies fought for continued restrictions on China, hoping it would result in a stronger apparel manufacturing base in the Western Hemisphere to buy their products.

Missy Branson, senior vice president of the National Council of Textile Organizations, said the restraints on China are working to some degree.

"Are we losing some business to other Asian producers that don't use U.S. yarns and fabrics? Yes," said Branson. "We're also maintaining and sustaining business in this hemisphere, as well."

Separate Commerce Department figures show exports from U.S. textile mills, which include yarns, fabrics, sheets and carpeting, increased 2.1 percent for the first five months of this year and were valued at $5.2 billion.

Shipments to Canada increased 9.1 percent to $1.2 billion. Goods going to Colombia rose 32.2 percent to $64.6 million and those headed for Costa Rica gained 23.6 percent to $49.5 million. Exports to China have also been heading up, rising 25.9 percent to $163.5 million.

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