WASHINGTON — The textile and apparel manufacturing sectors lost a total of 2,900 jobs in January, as imports, no longer controlled by quotas, continued to affect the domestic employment base.

The Labor Department jobs report on Friday also revealed that the overall economy had a weaker-than-expected gain of 146,000 new jobs in the month.

Apparel factories cut 1,900 positions to employ 271,300 people, a decline of 24,000 compared with a year ago. Textile mill employment fell 1,300 to 233,000, a year-over-year drop of 9,000, while textile mill product employment increased by 300 to 179,100, a boost of 4,200 in the 12-month period.

“This has been the story for the ages for this industry,” said Carl Steidtmann, chief economist at Deloitte Research. “This industry has been and will continue to go, for the most part, offshore.”

The latest jobs report came as China safeguard petitions seeking to limit imports and save U.S. jobs are the subject of a federal lawsuit and a political debate over China’s potential to dominate global apparel and textile production.

During the past 10 years, the twin apparel and textile industries have lost 876,300 jobs, or 56.1 percent of their workforce. With total employment in the sectors at 683,400, trade groups are fighting to protect the remaining jobs and stem the flow of imports, particularly from China, which is likely to dominate global production in a post-quota world.

In the overall U.S. economy, the job gains were primarily in service industries, such as construction. The unemployment rate fell to 5.2 percent from 5.4 percent, but the drop was largely because of people giving up on the job hunt in January.

The employment gain last month pushed the Bush administration’s jobs record back into the plus column, after overall job losses in most of the President’s first term.

“Today’s unemployment rate of 5.2 percent is the lowest since Sept. 11, 2001,” said Labor Secretary Elaine Chao. “We have created 2.7 million new jobs in the last 20 months — after benchmark adjustments — or a net gain of jobs in President Bush’s first term.”

However, manufacturing employment continued to fall and concern economists. The sector lost another 25,000 jobs overall in January after shedding 7,000 in December, continuing the debate over the rising federal budget deficit, the widening trade deficit and currency weakness.

This story first appeared in the February 7, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“The primary culprit [for large declines in manufacturing] is the growing trade deficit, which is now more than 5 percent of GDP [Gross Domestic Product],” Peter Morici, professor at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, said in a statement. “Were the trade deficit cut in half, GDP would grow at 5 percent a year and up to five million more jobs would be created over a period of three years. About 1.9 million jobs would be created in manufacturing.”

In the retail sector, apparel and accessories stores cut 2,300 jobs in January to employ 1.4 million. The number of jobs at general merchandise stores rose by 6,800 to 2.9 million. Department stores cut 5,100 jobs to employ 1.6 million workers.

Steidtmann attributed the decline in department store employment to consolidation and fewer new stores. He also noted that apparel and accessories stores had a “disappointing holiday.”

“Certainly there were stand-out performers in that group, but as a whole, they didn’t do well,” he added.