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WASHINGTON — Total textile and apparel imports fell 0.2 percent in 2001, with Mexico taking the biggest hit, marking the first yearly decline since 1988, when they fell 6.5 percent, Commerce Department figures revealed Thursday.

For the month of December, apparel imports declined 2.6 percent, while textile imports dropped by 0.6 percent. December’s decrease resulted in a fourth-quarter figure just below last year’s by 0.5 percent and marking the third straight quarterly decline in imports.

The decrease in December contributed to the year-to-date fall of 0.2 percent to 32.8 billion square meter equivalents.

Despite the yearly decline, Donald Foote, director of the agreements division of Commerce’s Office of Textiles & Apparel, said, “Imports stabilized at a high level,” although he acknowledged it came on the heels of four years of double-digit growth that began in 1997. “There were 11 months of single-digit changes, both pluses and minuses.”

He noted that textile and apparel import growth for the 1996 to 2001 period is still in the double digits at around 11.5 percent.

Charles W. McMillion, chief economist at MBG Information Services, painted a slightly different picture.

“Imports are declining a little, but they are not declining as much as the domestic market is and that implies that imports continue to take market share away,” McMillion said. “Textile and apparel production has fallen sharply this past year, which reflects a weak market, but also reflects [the domestic industry is] losing market share to imports.”

Charles Bremer, director of international trade at the American Textile Manufacturers Institute, said the December numbers were “hardly a surprise.”

“We are in the midst of the worst soft goods recession in a decade,” Bremer said. “Business is so bad that imports are down.”

Bremer said he expects to see a slight increase in imports in January due to goods being released from quota embargo by Customs, but he doesn’t expect increases in February or March.

“There is a lot of dead inventory sitting around,” he said.

Natalie Hanson, director of trade policy at International Development Systems, attributed the slight overall decline to weak consumer demand.

“Imports have been growing for so many years,” said Hanson. “That they have stabilized is a reflection of consumer demand and…retailers running down inventory supplies to very tight margins.”

Imports from several leading suppliers were down for the year, while others posted strong growth despite the worldwide economic slowdown.

“Mexico — the largest supplier to the U.S. — was the primary reason for the absence of continued surges,” said Foote.

Apparel and textile imports from Mexico plummeted 9.6 percent for the year. Imports from Canada, the number two supplier, rose 2 percent in 2001, while imports from China fell 0.3 percent and imports from Pakistan rose 9.65 percent.

Mexico’s trade toppled in yarn, blankets, textile bags, man-made fiber and men’s apparel, Foote said. On the other hand, Pakistan’s trade increased in cotton household products, such as kitchen linens, polishing cloths, sheets and curtains, as well as bar mops.

Cambodia’s surge was mainly in pajamas for which it is the leading supplier, while Indonesia’s increase was mainly in man-made fiber textile bags along with several women’s apparel products.