What Future for the American Textile Industry?

I suspect the answer of most people to the above question would be “what American textile industry?” And quite a few would probably be reminded of Bruce Springsteen’s lines:

They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks
Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they aint coming back

This well-written Textile World article suggests that things are actually looking quite a lot more positive for the industry.

via Bill Waddell, who is now blogging at The Manufacturing Leadership Center.  Bill’s former blog home, Evolving Excellence, continues–see Kevin Meyer’s recent post on using your brains to become more competitive.


22 thoughts on “What Future for the American Textile Industry?”

  1. Of course you can do textiles in the US. The process is completely automated. There is almost no labor involved anymore. Garments, on the other hand are still labor intensive. Cut and sew is moving from China where labor is getting expensive to Vietnam. Next stop Burma.

  2. Yes, the article puts labor costs for textile mills at only about 16% of sales versus 40% for apparel manufacturers.

    Don’t know enough about the industry to have a feel for the prospect of major automation and process-improvement based productivity enhancements on the garment side. I do think manufacturers in general are getting their consciousness raised regarding the true costs of long supply lines with consequently long reorder times and large batch sizes.

  3. Honestly, I would prefer buying American-manufactured fabric, and since I can sew and have a huge collection of patterns, I wouldn’t need to deal with retail ready-made garments. Which, inter alia, even the expensive ones are often pretty badly made.

  4. Sgt Mom…the question of how valuable a “Made in America” label (with appropriate promotion) is in the marketplace, is an interesting and important question. I feel pretty confident that the answer is dependent on the demographics of the target market as well as on the type of product.

  5. “Don’t know enough about the industry to have a feel for the prospect of major automation and process-improvement based productivity enhancements on the garment side.”

    American sail makers are now completely automated with computer controlled cutting of sail fabric. The fabric, which is often a part carbon fiber or Kevlar, is very expensive and control of waste is a major consideration. I would think that cutting fabric would be very amenable to computer control. Sails are three dimensional structures. I think the sewing may also be automated by now. I don’t know why the process couldn’t be computer controlled.

  6. David, as much as is possible to do, I do not want to purchase stuff manufactured in China. Mexico – OK, India – OK, even French or Italian is OK. I would almost rather buy used and vintage American consumer goods such as glass or porcelain. I don’t know how many other Americans are looking at the ‘made in China’ items and moving on, but I do know that I am.

  7. I could care less where things are made. I grasp the notion of Comparative Advantage.

    All future additional Real Wealth in America lies in the IP & Services industry, not manufacturing.

  8. IGB…the knowledge of *how* to make something is intellectual property, just as much the design of that something…and the knowledge of making is closely tied to the making itself. See my post myths of the knowledge society.

  9. Here’s a company focused on sewing automation. More at this Wired article. (It seems impossible for old-media types to talk about garment manufacturing without using the word “sweatshop”…see Kathleen’s response in the comments.)

    The SoftWear technology apparently measures with precision to the individual-thread level…I wonder, do people actually do this in production-quantity human sewing, or is the thread-level technology an automated replacement for a more holistic human positioning approach?

    Note the $1.25 million in DARPA funding. Does the government really need to be paying for this, even in part?

  10. Sweatshops? Those are the best jobs available for women in those areas. Indoors, no heavy lifting. Their alternatives include rice paddies and garbage picking.

  11. IGP —
    Are you sure you grasp David Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage?

    I suspect you, like most, know an academic interpretation of it, but never actually read his “On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation” where he explained it, and therefore don’t really understand comparative advantage. If you read the book you would see where he wrote:

    “The first man who knew how to soften metals by fire, is not the creator of the value which that process adds to molten metal. That value is the result of the physical action of the fire added to the industry and capital of those who availed themselves of this knowledge.”

    How can you possibly reconcile that statement with your assertions that you (1) “grasp the notion of Comparative Advantage”, and (2) “Real Wealth in America lies in IP”?

  12. Robert,

    I find it hard to classify the work those 127 women were doing in Bangladesh before they died in a factory fire that had remarkable similarities to the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in the USA as anything other than a sweatshop, ratioanalizations about how poor their alternatives might be notwithstanding.

  13. Note the $1.25 million in DARPA funding. Does the government really need to be paying for this, even in part?

    Uniforms will be made where?

  14. SoftWear is focused on “profitable cutting and sewing in the DEVELOPED world”…I’m sure they wouldn’t refuse to sell their equipment to companies in the less-developed world, but the economics would probably not make sense.

    Anyone know what the domestic content policies are for uniform procurement?

  15. Bill Wadell: You have articulated an emotional and unilluminating reaction to a sad circumstance. Fire safety is a good thing, but it does not define whether employment is desirable or not.

    The workers on the Deepwater Horizon were skilled workmen who were very highly compensated, not working in a sweatshop (whatever that term means), although I am sure that performing heavy work on the Gulf of Mexico will work up a good sweat. However, the Deepwater Horizon exploded and killed 11 of them. (Of course all our media could worry about were the birds).

    Similarly, the young women who worked in the garment factory in Karachi were skilled workers making good money, in a Muslim Hellhole, where most adults are unemployed, and where most of the population gets by on nothing.

    Your labeling their employer a “sweatshop”, tells us nothing. Here are a couple of definitions of “sweatshop” from dictionary.com:

    a shop employing workers at low wages, for long hours, and under poor conditions.

    a workshop where employees work long hours under bad conditions for low wages.

    All of the characteristics that make an employer a sweat shop are comparative. Low wages. How do we know whether wages are low or high except by context. Pakistan is a very poor country (and will stay that way). What is low pay there. A Pakistani in that country who made the US minimum wage of $7.25/hr. would be doing very well — in comparison with his neighbors.

    Similarly long hours is a comparative. My nephew works 72 hours a week. Isn’t that terrible? Does your answer change if you know that he is a resident physician? Would working 30 hours a week be better, or would it leave you as a part-timer with no health insurance?

    Poor conditions is another comparative term. Sure, a cushy office in the executive suite is pretty nice, but very few have that job. And, concededly, any place that burns down has poor conditions, even if no one would have noticed before the fire, because the place was comparatively clean, well ventilated, and well lit. Of course what were the conditions on Deepwater Horizon before it turned into the inferno?

    Of course speaking of fire safety, workplace accidents don’t hold a candle (bad phrase, I am sorry) to nightclub fires. A few weeks ago there was a terrible fire in a nightclub in Brazil where ~240 people died. But, the phenomenon is not limited to the less developed countries. 2 weeks short of ten years ago the Station Club fire in Rhode Island killed ~100. In my lifetime the Beverly Nightclub fire in Kentucky killed ~170 (1977), some of them my neighbors. In 1942 almost 500 people died in the Cocoanut Grove Nightclub fire in Boston.

    My bottom line is that tragedies are just that. They do not result in good public policy. Newtown Connecticut does not make an argument for a gun control, Deepwater Horizon does not make an argument for banning offshore drilling, the Brazilian nightclub fire does not make an argument against entertainment, and Karachi does not make an argument that garments should not be manufactured in low wage countries. All of the make an argument for fire safety, but that is never a hobbyhorse that the left wants to ride.

  16. Ahh Robert.

    You say a sweatshop is defined as “a shop employing workers at low wages, for long hours, and under poor conditions”

    OK. The factory that burned in Bangladesh paid workers, on average, 25 cents an hour, and the work week was 60 hours +. By all accounts the factory failed numerous audits for safety, cleanliness, clutter, had exits locked (if they weren’t completely blocked to begin with) … sounds like it fits your definition to a T.

    But no – you go on to argue that it’s all relative. As sweatshoppy as the place was, since virtually every factory in Bangladesh is a sweatshop (low wages, long hours,crappy conditons), by comparison this one wasn’t so bad, so despite meeting your initial criteria, you assert that it is not, in fact, a sweatshop.

    I would suggest, Robert, that classifying Bangladesh as a ‘low wage country’ as accurate as it may be is rather misleading in economic discussions. It is a low overhead cost country as a result of its near total lack of manufacturing regulation. The savings to Walmart, et al, from getting shirts from Bangladesh is more from avoiding the cost of workplace safety, environmental controls, overtime limitations, protection from age and gender discromination, and an endless list of costs American manufaturers bear that those in third world countries ignore. The lower labor costs are merely an added bonus.

    Finally, I would guess you have never actually visited a third world, “low labor cost’ factory. I have visited dozens of them – maybe hundreds. You could not possibly stand in the middle of one of them – with most of the light bulbs burned out, with a nearly intollerable stench, with no safety guards on any of the machines, no regard for order, cleanliness or basic building codes, and watch grown men and women literally run to and from the bathrooms in fear that they will be fired on the spot if they exceed the two to four minute allowance for bathroom time – and argue that this is not a sweatshop by any definition.

    What any o this has to do with the school shootings, night club fires or left wing views is a mystery to me.

  17. Wadell: what you have propounded is standard left wing labor union propaganda. Go back and read what I wrote. I quoted dictionary definitions. I pointed out that the definitions were all comparatives.

    Your position seems to be that Americans can not morally buy products from the third world. That proposition is not only vile protectionism, it is directly opposed the interests of the people you are claiming to protect.

    If you cannot follow my argument of safety versus policy. It speaks to the limitations of your intelligence.

  18. OK Robert

    Your position is that expecting a level playing field for US manufactuing is “standard left wing labor propoganda” – someting that would come as a surprise to thousands of American manufacturng managers, executives and owners, and the sort of bombastic attack one would expect from someone devoid of logical argument.

    And that my unwillingness to allow you to divert the issue of manufacturing economics to some off topic, absurd comparison with the school shootings is an indication of ignorance on my part.

    Seems to me that the limited intelligence is on your part – not a single interesting, worthwhile thought on the manufacturiing topic – just a lot of neocon cut and paste on low labor cost manufacturing.

  19. I agree that some “sweatshop” conditions violate the owner or buyer’s sense of equity but one must know a good deal about the local situation. From what I have read, it seems that China tolerates equally objectionable conditions but what would the local workers do as an alternative ? We could refuse to buy iPhones but would that be a reasonable action ?

    We may find out what a civilized population is willing to do when there is no “safety net” earlier than we expect.

  20. Mike,

    The problem I have with that arguement is that the root cause of poverty in third world countries is government corruption, socialist economic policies, communist econmic policies, abusive dictatorships, etc …, etc…, etc… The people in those countries cannot and will not be lifted from poverty until those factors change.

    Western ompanies have a history of going into those ountries to take advantage of the dismal condition – not to resolve it (they counldn’t if they wanted to). As soon as wages start to rise, the western multi-nationals head for the exits and move to the next low wage country. As we speak they are leaving China in hordes, heading for Vietnam and the like.

    Case in point: Mexico. Western manufacturers (primarily US manufacturers) created 1 million jobs in Mexicco at the height of the maquiladora trend. They left when Mexican wages started to rise and headed for Korea (briefly) then China. You cannot point to a single lasting benefit for Mexico and Mexican workers as a result of having been the low cost country of choice for a decade or so.

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