WASHINGTON — Apparel imports to the U.S. fell in March, continuing a long downward import trend, while textile imports increased for the first time in several months, a report from the Commerce Department’s Office for Textiles and Apparel showed Thursday.

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Apparel imports overall fell 4.8 percent in March to 1.6 billion square meter equivalents from a year earlier, signaling that retailers and brands are still maintaining lean inventories heading into late spring and summer.

“The fact that apparel imports were down overall is still reflective of the caution among buyers to not overcommit and have too much production on hand where there is still uncertainty about consumer confidence,” said Julia Hughes, president of the U.S. Association of Imports of Textiles and Apparel.

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U.S. textile imports from the world rose 7 percent to 2.3 billion SME in March compared with March 2011, boosting the combined total of apparel and textile shipments by 1.7 percent to 4 billion SME.

The overall trade deficit widened in March to $51.8 billion from $45.4 billion in February.

Apparel and textile shipments from China, the top supplier to the U.S. that has seen shipments decline for several months, rebounded in March, increasing 18.5 percent to 1.5 billion SME compared with a year earlier. Combined industry shipments from Vietnam, which has been taking some share away from China, rose 8 percent to 245 million SME in March. Apparel and textile imports from South Korea rose 7 percent to 120 SME. With its bilateral trade agreement with the U.S. in effect since February, it was the only other top 10 country to post a combined increase.

Combined apparel and textile shipments from China have fallen every month in 2012.

Vietnam posted the largest apparel import increase, growing 17.4 percent to 166 million SME, but was followed closely by China, which still controls the lion’s share of apparel imports. Apparel imports from China rose 14 percent to 467 million SME.

“What is really interesting is that within that [overall apparel import number], after months of being down, China rebounded in the month of March,” Hughes said. “Vietnam has remained pretty consistent on a growth pattern and it has been a mixed bag among Western Hemisphere countries, with Honduras down [in apparel imports] but El Salvador up.”

China said Thursday that its overall imports in April were up just 0.3 percent.

Hughes said that Central America, a big producer of cotton products, might have seen a drop-off in orders because many companies have shifted into synthetic fibers and blended products because of volatile raw cotton prices. The region posted a decline of 10.2 percent to 264 million SME in March compared with March 2011.

She said the category of imported man-made fiber products was up 6 percent for the year ended March 31, and 8 percent for the first quarter of the calendar year, while cotton apparel products were down 14 percent for the 12-month period and off 11 percent for the first quarter.

Pakistan had the largest year-over-year apparel import decline in March, down 25.6 percent to 47 million SME, while India had an apparel import decline of 24.5 percent to 82 million SME.

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