The finest Italian linen. Intricate embroideries from Madeira. Warm, cozy flannel sheets from Austria.
If those are your notions about home textiles products from Europe, you’re living in an ancient fairy tale. With the emergence of Asia–particularly China, India and Pakistan–as the mainstay resources for sourcing soft home products like sheets and towels, Europe has retreated as an exporter of these products to the American market.
But now, thanks to a variety of circumstances, two European countries are expanding their efforts in the U.S. market and picking up small, but meaningful, market share for their products.
Together Turkey and Portugal still represent just a tiny fraction of the American market, less than 5 percent overall, which is nominal compared to the 90 percent plus share held together by the three Asian powerhouses. But this represents an increase over just a few short years ago, and each country is poised to continue to pick up business as the marketplace evolves.
This is happening as a result of several factors. Increased prices from Asia (due primarily to currency rate shifts and higher manufacturing costs driven by rising labor costs) are making the European exporters more competitive in the U.S. Shifting priorities, especially in China, are redirecting resources to other, more value-added industries like technology and automotive and away from textiles production. Global politics and threatening tariff increases by the Trump administration are causing U.S. importers to look to other sources for product outside of Asia.
European politics are playing their part, too. Turkey’s prime export markets have always been Russia and Iraq, two countries going through, respectively, economic and political crisis, causing suppliers there to look elsewhere for business. For Portugal, its main trading partner, Spain, is also experiencing widespread economic hardship including massive unemployment. The answer for both Turkey and Portugal has been America.
And speed to market has also been a factor. Goods from Asia can take four weeks on the water to reach American warehouses and stores, while European exports arrive in two weeks, even faster when air freighted, a less costly alternative than similar transportation across the Pacific. American retailers continue to hone their supply chains to take out as much time lag as possible and that plays into the European suppliers.
All of these factors have made Portugal and Turkey more attractive resources for American importers. Likewise, factories in those two countries have made substantial investments over the past decade to become more efficient, cost-effective manufacturers.
Each country has also learned to specialize in products that may be harder to source elsewhere in the world.
For Turkey, that usually means premium towels, though the country also does business in lower price points. Turkish terry still has a cache that goes back thousands of years, and towels using Turkish cotton are usually slotted at the upper ends of the market.
RH, the retailer previously known as Restoration Hardware, features Turkish towels across its assortment, ranging up to as high as $85 for a bath sheet, and calls attention to the country-of-origin as a strong selling point.
But Turkey is not just at the high-end for American retailers. A mainstream retailer like Bed Bath & Beyond now carries a number of core, solid-color towel programs at a variety of price points sourced from Turkey. Just a few years ago, most of its towels were from Asia.
Today Turkey is the second largest supplier of textiles and garments to the European Union, and and exports to more than 160 countries around the world.
For Portugal, the emphasis is also on premium products, though it also supplies bed and bath items at a variety of price points. Portuguese towels are often found in better direct-seller product line-ups from retailers like Pottery Barn, West Elm and Crate & Barrel. Bedding products include both sheeting and top-of-the-bed accessories like duvet covers, throws, matelasse covers and blankets.
Two Portuguese associations represent most of the exporting vendors in the country: ATP, the Portuguese Textile and Apparel Association; and Home from Portugal, which primarily represents companies in one specific textiles-producing region of the country.
Last year ATP said Portuguese textile industry sales were close to $7.3 billion, with 70 percent of that going to export. In the past, representatives of Portuguese textiles suppliers have said the American market is their second largest export market after Spain.
Home from Portugal organizes an annual trade fair in Guimares, the heart of the textiles producing region in the northern portion of the country, about an hour east of Porto. This year the fair is scheduled for the last week of June.
Small amounts of soft home products still come from other European countries like Germany, Italy, France and the U.K. but together Turkey and Portugal dominate the market today for European goods in America.