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Tracking the U.S. textile industry

September 18th, 2014 / By: / Feature

Performance and technical textiles are at the forefront of the textile industry’s growth spurt, according to textile industry expert David Hinks, who is currently serving as interim dean of the College of Textiles at North Carolina State University. Hinks takes a look at where the textile industry has been, where it is now and where it’s headed.

The College of Textiles at North Carolina State University (NCSU) has been tracking the rapid changes in the textiles industry, in part through its extensive network of industry partners and advisory boards, which include broad representation from technical textiles to apparel manufacturing and retail, as well as the textile-related industries, such as polymers and colorants.

Many observers note the decades of decline in textile and apparel manufacturing jobs (the peak of the textile manufacturing employment was 1948 with about one million jobs and the peak of apparel manufacturing employment was 1973 with about 1.4 million). But U.S. textile productivity increased dramatically during much of the latter half of the 20th century due to fiber innovation and technology investment. And while free trade agreements accelerated off-shoring in apparel sourcing, there is now a renewed emphasis in sourcing more products in the U.S. and region.

This is due in part to the need for segments of the retail and apparel industry to respond more rapidly to consumer preferences than in the past, hence requiring more production closer to the U.S. market. When combined with substantially lower relative energy costs in the U.S. compared with many parts of the world and major technology advancements leading to less reliance on labor—in part due to research and innovation emerging from research universities—the U.S. is becoming an increasingly exciting and viable option to those retailers who have focused on sourcing off-shore. A further reason for a renewed focus in on-shoring is a rekindled interest in consumers buying American, which is actively encouraged by the retail industry.

A number of industry segments have been experiencing significant growth since 2009 (fibers, yarns, threads, fabrics, apparel and textile products such as carpet) after declines in previous years. The nature of the growth areas appear to be changing quite rapidly. A substantial amount of growth is in performance and technical textiles, such as nonwovens and composites. This is in part driven by rapid innovation by forward-leaning companies that invest in research and development. In fact, some segments such as exports of textile components have experienced year-on-year increases in certain states since the early 2000’s. North Carolina leads the nation in the production of textile components and has seen substantial growth in the nonwovens sector.

This growth is mirrored by the rapid growth in graduates in NCSU’s College of Textiles, especially over the last few years. The college currently has approximately 1,000 bachelors, 100 masters and—for the first time in its history—just surpassed 100 Ph.D. students this fall. Many of the Ph.D. students are funded by NCSU’s Nonwovens Institute through its industry membership dues, which include approximately 70 industry members.

For more than half a century, the Southeastern United States has been the engine for the textile industry, and from a textile components standpoint, this is still very much the case. Perhaps not surprisingly, most of the growth in textile components in recent years has centered in the South. There are still an estimated 158,000 jobs in textiles and apparel in the Southeast U.S. However, the majority of jobs in the apparel sector, while still significant in the southeastern U.S., are found in California.

In North Carolina, the number of textile job losses has slowed to a trickle in recent years. Employment within a short time after graduation in the College of Textiles is back to its historic high levels of  more than 90 percent. In fact, companies attending the NCSU textiles job fair in recent years have struggled to fill their employment requirements as demand for top textiles undergraduate and graduate students is becoming increasingly competitive. This is a very good problem to have. The college is not at capacity in terms of textiles industry employment.

While the employment market in textiles and apparel will not return to pre-1990 levels, there is clearly a substantial need for a highly skilled, innovative and entrepreneurial workforce with a global perspective that is able to serve and lead the textile and apparel industry in the U.S. It is likely that, in addition to growth by the larger textile companies, many startup companies will emerge to take advantage of the need for high performance technical textiles, shorter production lots and rapid response to fashion trends in apparel.