State of U.S. Textile and Apparel Manufacturing: Output, Employment, and Trade (Updated January 2022)

Textile and apparel manufacturing in the U.S. has significantly shrunk in size over the past decades due to multiple factors ranging from automation, import competition to the shifting U.S. comparative advantages for related products. However, U.S. textile manufacturing is gradually coming back. The output of U.S. textile manufacturing (measured by value added) totaled $18.79 billion in 2019, up 23.8% from 2009. In comparison, U.S. apparel manufacturing dropped to $9.5 billion in 2019, 4.4% lower than ten years ago (Bureau of Economic Analysis, 2021).

Meanwhile, like many other sectors, U.S. textile and apparel production was hit hard by COVID-19 in the first half of 2020 but started to recover since the 3rd quarter. Notably, as of September 2021, U.S. textile production had resumed about 98.5% of its production capacity at the pre-COVID level.

On the other hand, as the U.S. economy is turning more mature and sophisticated, the share of U.S. textile and apparel manufacturing in the U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) dropped to only 0.12% in 2020 from 0.57% in 1998 (Bureau of Economic Analysis, 2021).

The U.S. textile and apparel manufacturing is changing in nature. For example, textile products had accounted for over 66% of the total output of the U.S. textile and apparel industry as of 2019, up from only 58% in 1998 (Bureau of Economic Analysis, 2020). Textiles and apparel “Made in the USA” are growing particularly fast in some product categories that are high-tech driven, such as medical textiles, protective clothing, specialty and industrial fabrics, and non-woven. These products are also becoming the new growth engine of U.S. textile exports. Notably, “special fabrics and yarns” had accounted for more than 34% of U.S. textile exports in 2019, up from only 20% in 2010 (Data source: UNComtrade, 2021).

Compatible with the production patterns, employment in the U.S. textile industry (NAICS 313 and 314) and apparel industry (NAICS 315) fell to the bottom in April-May 2020 due to COVID-19 but started to recover steadily since June 2020. From January 2021 to December 2021, the total employment in the two sectors increased by 4.5% and 4.2%, respectively (Seasonally adjusted). However, the employment level remains much lower than the pre-COVID level (benchmark: December 2019).

To be noted, as production turns more automated and thanks to improved productivity (i.e., the value of output per worker), U.S. textile and apparel factories have been hiring fewer workers even before the pandemic. The downward trend in employment is not changing for the U.S. textile and apparel manufacturing sector.  Related, how to attract the new generation of workforce to the factory floor remains a crucial challenge facing the future of textile and apparel “Made in the USA.”

International trade supports textiles and apparel “Made in the USA.” Notably, nearly 42% of textiles “Made in the USA” (NAICS 313 and 314) were sold overseas in 2019, up from only 15% in 2000. A recent study further shows that product category and the size of the firm were both statistically significant factors that affected the U.S. textile and apparel manufacturer’s likelihood of engaged in exports.

from Nordstrom Rack

It is not rare to find clothing labeled “made in the USA with imported fabric” or “made in the USA with imported material” in the stores. Statistical analysis shows a strong correlation between the value of U.S. apparel output and U.S. yarn and fabric imports from 1998 to 2019.

Like many other developed economies whose textile and apparel industries had reached the stage of post-maturity, the United States today is a net textile exporter and net apparel importer. COVID-19 has affected U.S. textile and apparel trade in several important ways:

  • Trade volume cut: Both affected by the shrinkage of import demand and supply chain disruptions, the value of U.S. textile and apparel imports dropped by as much as 19.3% in 2020 from a year ago, particularly apparel items (down 23.5%). Likewise, the value of U.S. textile and apparel exports in 2020 decreased by 15.6%, including an unprecedented 26% decrease in yarn exports.
  • Trade balance shifted: Before the pandemic, U.S. was a net exporter of fabrics. However, as the import demand for non-woven fabrics (for making PPE purposes) surged during the pandemic, U.S. ran a trade deficit of $502 million for fabrics in 2020. Meanwhile, as retail sales slowed and imports dropped during the pandemic, the U.S. trade deficit in apparel shrank by 19% in 2020 compared with 2019.However, the shrinkage of the trade deficit did not boost clothing “Made in the USA” in 2020, reminding us that the trade balance often is not an adequate indicator to measure the economic impact of trade.
  • No change in export market: Close to 70% of U.S. textile and apparel export went to the Western Hemisphere in 2020, a pattern that has stayed stable over the past decades (OTEXA, 2021). More can be done to strengthen the Western Hemisphere supply chain and textile and apparel production in the region by leveraging regional trade agreements like CAFTA-DR and USMCA.

By Sheng Lu

Author: Sheng Lu

Professor @ University of Delaware

10 thoughts on “State of U.S. Textile and Apparel Manufacturing: Output, Employment, and Trade (Updated January 2022)”

  1. This blog shines important light on the growing relevance of the US textile manufacturing sector. I found it interesting and positive that textile production as of June 2021 had reached almost full production capacity levels when compared to pre-COVID levels, as the unanticipated pandemic set back this area tremendously. Along with this, I think it is important to consider that products like medical textiles and PPE are becoming more relevant in our manufacturing as this technology-driven area has seen up to 14% growth in recent years. Something I noticed that is changing our manufacturing employment area is the increase in reliance on automated practices rather than more workers. This is an important point to note as employment levels here are decreasing, and there is question as to how workers of this generation will be attracted to roles that require more technological knowledge and advanced application skills.

  2. Wow, this article was packed with a lot of interesting information, a lot of being very new to me. When I read that the US went into a $502 million trade deficit to import non-woven fabric, I was shocked to see that number, but when you look at the statistics provided, it actually isn’t too far off from the numbers in 2019, though it is a negative number. Something I found really interesting was that the USA was making a greater effort to produce more “made in the USA” garments, something I have really started to notice as a trend with larger companies. Some small businesses that I have shopped at over the years typically boast “made in the USA” t-shirts with original prints or designs arranged on the front. Another idea that I thought about was the difficulty of attracting a new generation of factory workers. After analyzing my own generation, Gen Z, and following generations, I cannot imagine many younger people seeking work in a factory after growing up with a dependency on technology. After thinking about this, I can see why there is a decrease in factory jobs because factory owners would only need people to keep the technology/capital running smoothly because of the lack of interest in working in a factory and to keep up with production demands. Great read!

    1. To clarify, “Textiles and apparel “Made in the USA” are growing particularly fast in some product categories that are high-tech driven, such as medical textiles, protective clothing, specialty and industrial fabrics, and non-woven. These products are also becoming the new growth engine of U.S. textile exports”

      In our lectures, we discussed the restricting strategies adopted by the US textile industry to stay competitive. You may think about what trends in this blog post reflect these strategies.

  3. Even though textile and apparel manufacturing in the US has shrunk in size due to automation, import competition, United State’s comparative advantages, and most recently, COVID-19, it is great to hear it is gradually coming back. As the US economy is turning more mature and sophisticated, their textile production resumed 98.5% of its production capacity at the pre-COVID level, which is very impressive as this pandemic has been wildly unpredictable. As change is not only encouraged, but necessary for businesses and manufacturers, the US is stepping up as they have increased the total output of the US textile and apparel industry while also increasing the textile exports of special fabrics and yarn, as they account for 34% of US textile exports. The one major downside that I believe strongly affected the US was employment when the pandemic hit. However, prior to COVID-19 it was decreasing as automation and improved technology are being created and utilized more than ever. Thinking about new technology and the upcoming year of 2022, it is interesting to think about how many apparel workers will be let go due to automation. I believe the numbers will continue to decrease, which is very unfortunate for these workers who may have devoted their entire lives for this kind of work. I remember seeing a video about apparel workers and how they are scrambling to find new jobs and hobbies due to automation increasing in the factories. One middle-aged garment worker had to go back to school once he was let go to learn to become an electrician. In the future I believe upcoming workers will not even involve themselves in the garment and apparel industry as their jobs can easily be taken by machines.

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