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Byline: Warren Shoulberg

A stitch in time saves nine is, I think, the way that old sewing adage goes.

It's one that perhaps the American textiles industry should have paid a little more attention to.

As the industry clock continues to count down to Dec. 31, 2004, when all quotas on imported textiles products are scheduled to come off, the dance that's going on out there is getting pretty embarrassing.

By my count, at least, there have been well over nine recent examples of the industry crying wolf to assorted state, federal and international bodies, forecasting their total doom if these quotas are indeed lifted.

But one has to think that a stitch in time -- some time ago -- could have saved all of these last-ditch stitches.

The end of the quota system is something that has been in process for years and years. It did not happen suddenly. When the head of some textiles lobbying group went to Congress last month and said, "We are about to have a very big train wreck," he failed to mention that this has been a wreck anyone could have seen coming 10,000 miles and 10 years away. To carry the analogy further, the engineers driving this drive have been wearing blinders for almost as long.

It's not like you couldn't see the current situation coming. All you had to do was look at the American apparel and shoemaking industries for precedent. Each faced the same situation a decade or more ago and each slammed into a wall of monumental change. They had it tough because nobody knew what was going to happen once the trade barriers were lifted.

But the American textiles industry, including home textiles producers, knew exactly what was going to happen. And it knew exactly when it was going to happen.

So, what did it do? Nothing.

Or worse. It did the wrong thing. While many companies just sat around and didn't really plan on how their business would change once the trade laws did, some others tried to buy their way out of it. Some companies decided that if they built bigger, better, faster manufacturing facilities, they would be able to effectively forestall and ultimately compete with the invading hordes. It turned out to be a poor choice of strategies.

The time to stop this train wreck was with 10 years left to go, even five years left, but not with five months left. The feeble attempts at seeking a legislative solution to the situation -- promoted by both the manufacturers themselves and their labor forces -- are way too late, even if they weren't way too little.

The American home textiles industry finds itself in a curious situation these days. Normally, the way to compete with imports is to focus on value-added, higher-margin products, generally directed at the better side of the business. But if you look at what products are domestically made and which are imported, in fact, you see the exact opposite.

The high thread-count sheets and low-twist towels that represent what passes for the upstairs market in textiles are virtually all coming from overseas. (The fact that low-twist towels were first successfully developed in Asia is even more telling.) In the meantime, the promotional muslin and barely percale sheeting and towel-by-the-ton programs are from American mills.

It's ass-backwards, but that's the American textiles business.

A business that at this point will take a lot more than nine stitches to keep it from totally unraveling.

Letters to the editor can be sent via e-mail to warren.shoulberg@ or via mail to HFN, 7 West 34th Street New York, NY 10001

Caption(s): Warren Shoulberg
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Author:Shoulberg, Warren
Publication:HFN The Weekly Newspaper for the Home Furnishing Network
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 2, 2004

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