The coronavirus pandemic exposed deficiencies in the U.S. supply chain, including the ability of textile mills to produce the raw materials to make the masks and hospital gowns needed on the front lines and in the public.
But these survivors of a once-thriving industry pivoted quickly and showed they had the flexibility and wherewithal to be a vital source, not just for personal protective equipment (PPE), but for the core fabric and apparel market they served.
Small and nimble
“The theme for us is that if you’re going to be small, be versatile, fast and have good quality,” said David Sasso, vice president of sales at Buhler Quality Yarns, in Jefferson, Ga., speaking on a Lenzing-sponsored webinar dubbed “Rethinking Sourcing From North America.” “So hopefully that is what will carry us on into the future.”
Sasso noted that in 2017, Buhler was purchased by Samil Spinning from South Korea and began diversifying its mix.
“We added synthetic fibers and technical fibers to our to our product line,” he said. “And we’re doing everything from technical fabrics to FR fabrics, apparel and home furnishing. So, we’re pretty diverse.”
Divia Loomba, vice president of Eagle Fabrics, said as the second-generation leader of the company, she strives to put sustainability at the forefront of the business, and is passionate in informing designers and founders on how it’s possible to build their brand with USA manufacturing.
Loomba noted that the company stocks more than 2 million pounds of yarn, which offers flexibility and helps it respond to fast turnaround times.
“So that way, designers and brands have access to materials at a faster rate, and we don’t necessarily have to be sourcing overseas and waiting for long lead times to get yarns,” Loomba said. “And that way we can pretty much turn things around in about four weeks. We do single knits, double knits, novelties, yarn-dyed stripes, the whole gamut, and we specialize primarily in customization so a lot of brands come to us when they want to make a signature products that can help make their brand unique.”
Cassia Lewis, director of business development for Swisstex Direct, a circular knit manufacturer with locations in Los Angeles and El Salvador, said sustainability is key for her company.
“We see that it is so important to our brands and to the consumer,” Lewis said. “We were the first Bluesign certified manufacturer in the United States and Bluesign has called us out as one of the most sustainable dye houses on the planet so we’re really proud of that. We have a very broad fabric library, with pretty much anything underneath the circular manufacturing umbrella.”
All the executives discussed how their firms switched production to make masks when the pandemic hit and that it showed the need to have and keep a textile supply chain in the U.S., with available materials and capabilities.
“I think the collaboration was the real takeaway,” Lewis said. “Because to be sustainable, we need to be collaborative, and this moment, though it’s been very painful, has really shown me that we can totally disrupt our supply chain. And I think on a bigger challenge, how do we all help each other become more sustainable, how do we all come together to say how do we become circular, how do we collect all those masks that have been used and make something new. I truly believe that we can even push it to a higher level.”
Sasso said in order to boost U.S. textile manufacturing, the most important thing to do is “re-educate” the industry that price isn’t the only factor in choosing a yarn or a factory. Instead, buyers should figure in aspects such as delivery, quality and customization, he said.
Aylin Beyce, design director at Amour Vert, a sustainable women’s wear brand based in San Francisco, agreed that with tariffs on large swathes of imported apparel, “saying that the yarns here are more expensive here just often isn’t true,” adding that areas like shipping and importing costs have to be taken into account.
“I think everyone just needs to shift their thinking into wanting to buy something that is a better quality and buying less of it,” she said. “When you buy U.S. yarns, you can see where it’s from and you’re not depending on some certification that may or may not be true from somewhere you can really make sure and trace, and see for yourself where things are made.”
Lewis said one of the biggest obstacles for Swisstex is price.
“But for us, it’s the comparison of FOB pricing versus the pricing that we carry that is with NAFTA and CAFTA trade agreements,” she said. Lewis emphasized the importance of “educating and working with a supply chain to help them with those government calculations to share the FOB difference and making sure that we can align a little bit more on an even playing field, taking into account the duties that wouldn’t be included.”
Loomba said one area in which U.S. manufacturers can focus is accommodating lower minimum orders and consequently having lower fabric inventories.
“So, the brand can actually grow faster without having to it with so much liability,” she said. “Then you’re also supporting slow fashion. It becomes a domino effect.”
Lewis felt that creativity in design is important in material souring, as well.
“Maybe we need to think more about season, especially in a place like California, you don’t need to have, all of the clothes for all these different seasons,” moderator Sharon Perez, business development manager for activewear at Lenzing, said. “Maybe it’s about how do you take one product and are able to wear it for different seasons.”
Beyce said it “would be great” if the U.S. had greater machinery capacity, which she thought was a “totally solvable obstacle.”
“I think we try to source things here that do not need to be sourced here,” Sasso said. “It’s important to have an understanding of what can be sourced effectively. Simple things like as soon as you put a color on a garment, that has a time value. We need to understand how to play a role in that speed because it’s not all about price.”
He noted that the decision to invest in machinery is dependent on the commitment of the customer to source with Buhler.
“It’s a Catch-22,” Sasso said. “It will shorten the cost differential between us and them. But I think, speed, price and cost, understanding that formula, makes a huge difference.”
Beyce suggested that more “cost sharing” between mills and brands can limit the risk and costs of machinery. It can allow for greater planning, as well, but requires a new way of thinking and a long-term commitment.
“I think cost sharing is a really cool idea,” Lewis said. “That makes so much sense and even I believe it could be between brands. I think with this whole being sustainable we need to take away competition as a fear. If we do that, the benefit of not having a ton of machinery here and a huge infrastructure, is we could rebuild it sustainably.”
Lewis said the typical’s mill low-cost model is not going to survive much longer, but instead is going to have to be a demand-based production model for garments and fabrics.
“For us that means a loss of efficiency,” she said. “We can’t do big runs, it means more frequent stop of the equipment, it means even smaller runs in a lot of ways and creates color consistency problems. We’ve been actually digging and diving into this because we’re seeing this as a demand across all the brands that we service. We’re working on developing a model to offer lower stock programs or lower stock increments that are available, but with that shorter cycle or shorter development and production in that leaner inventory strategy, but it’s…without visibility. So we’re working with the brands to get insight into forecast. And that collaboration is how we’re going to make it through this.”
Beyce said Amour Vert started seeing this shift about five years ago, when its e-commerce business showed strong growth, so the company repositioned where it created collections on its most popular fabrics and took the risk on fine yarn minimums.
“So we take the risk in investing in the yarn, we restock the yarn locally and then we also will take the risk in producing extra yardage in stock and let’s say are our top 10 styles that we have,” she said. “So, we not only are able to service small businesses who are trying to build a brand from the ground up, as well as even big brands who are wanting to do capsule collections.”