Tuesday, October 1, 2013

More good news on the textile front

I wrote last week about some U.S. textile factories that are thriving, as apparel manufacturers decide they can get better quality and faster turnaround from making the fabric here instead of importing it.
Yesterday the New York Times had another article on a similar theme: the apparel and furnishings manufacturers who want to sew their goods in the U.S.

Demand for American-made goods has been rising, and the same textile industry that has been slashing jobs right and left for the last two decades has suddenly realized that it needs people.  The Times article focuses on companies in Minneapolis that are trying desperately to train and hire enough people to produce goods they already have orders for.

New York Times photo
at a job training program in Minneapolis

Although the U.S. lost 77 percent of its textile workforce since 1990, there are still 142,000 people working as sewing machine operators.  But suddenly that's too few.  Wages for "cut-and-sew jobs" have risen 13.3 percent annually from 2007 to 2012, compared to 1.4 percent for all private sector jobs, as manufacturers try to find qualified workers.

If you're a glass-half-empty kind of person you might find fault with the American companies who were so quick to move their production overseas in the last 25 years, giving us ever-cheaper clothes (in many senses of the word) but losing the skills once abundant in the U.S.

The sewing workforce "withered away and nobody noticed," said a manufacturing executive in the Times article,  "Businesses stopped investing in training; they stopped investing in equipment."

Now the chickens are coming home to roost.  Overseas production is still cheaper, but the gap is closing fast; one manufacturer quoted in the article said that its Chinese labor costs have almost quadrupled since 2000.  Quality control is more difficult half a world away; shipping and import duties eat into the profit margin.  Concerns over worker safety in many countries have also made U.S. producers more wary.  But having stabbed the U.S. workforce in the heart and left it to die, now the industry wonders how to build it back up.

But if you're a glass-half-full kind of person you will find this story to be heartening.  How nice to learn that one can earn a modest income (starting wages for the Minneapolis trainees: $12-16 an hour plus benefits) in a relatively clean factory doing the kinds of things we know are skilled and productive.  How nice to hear a 22-year-old former college student say, "I like getting back to making things, to touching and manipulating materials rather than just pushing buttons or tweeting all day."

Amen to that.


  1. This really is good news! Thanks for sharing it.

  2. Maybe the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union will stage a comeback, too? Remeber that singing commercial from the 1980s "Looke for the Union Label"?

    1. Yes, and I also remember the great song from Fiorello, "Unfair!" sung by the striking members of the (fictional) Ladies' Waistmakers Union, Local 25.

    2. And I thought I knew obscure musicals! You've got me beat--do you have a copy of the album?