The 4th of July is an American holiday unlike any other, complete with backyard BBQs, parades, national concerts, and, of course, fireworks. At the height of summer, Americans across the country gather to celebrate our unique history and the values that define the American spirit of independence.
In that same spirit, the National Council of Textile Organizations celebrates Independence Day this year with a look at the history of the U.S. textile industry, which has played a remarkable role in America’s industrial and economic independence through a history of significant investment, employment, and technological development and innovation.
The birth of the textile industry in the U.S. coincides with our independence from England. Despite England’s best attempts to monopolize textile production by forbidding the exportation of textile technology and intellectual property, creative minds found their path to the States not long after the U.S. gained its independence in 1776 (2020, Frederic Magazine, Innovation or Bust! The Surprising Story of New England’s Textile Heyday).
In 1789, Samuel Slater, who would come to be known as the father of American Manufacturing, immigrated to the U.S. with the goal of establishing the country’s first textile mill. He did just that in 1791 by establishing the first yarn mill through his partnership with American entrepreneur and abolitionist Moses Brown. Shortly after, in 1793, American inventor Eli Whitney developed the cotton gin, rapidly increasing the efficiency of sorting cotton seed from cotton fiber. These two critical innovations paved the way for Francis Cabot Lowell, an American merchant, to build the first integrated textile factory in the United States, capable of converting raw cotton into finished cloth in one mill. The ingenuity and efforts of these pioneers in the textile sector marked the start of the Industrial Revolution in America, which allowed the U.S. to establish the economic freedom and security it needed to grow as a young nation. (ibid.)
Now, more than 200 years later, America still boasts a vibrant, multifaceted textile industry that employs 538,067 workers nationwide. From textile fibers to apparel and other sewn products, the industry excels at producing high-tech, innovative solutions for both the American and global market alike. In fact, the United States is the world leader in textile research and development, with the U.S. textile complex developing next generation textile materials such as conductive fabric with anti-static properties, electronic textiles that can monitor heart rate and other vital signs, antimicrobial fibers, and new fabrics capable of adapting to the climate to make the wearer warmer or cooler. These developments make the U.S. textile industry, along with its suppliers and customers, an important component of the U.S. economy. The industry also provides much needed jobs in rural areas and has functioned as a springboard for workers out of poverty into good paying jobs for generations.
Despite these successes, the industry has faced extreme competition from overseas producers for more than 40 years. While such competition helps to foster incredible innovation amongst American textile companies to remain viable, the U.S. textile industry has consistently dealt with an uneven global playing field due to rampant foreign subsidies, closed offshore markets, and substandard environmental and human labor conditions. These varying standards result in a global sourcing entities seeking lowest-cost products often of poor quality and built on massive carbon emissions from distant supply chains and even forced labor (2023 Sourcing Journal, Forced Labor and the De Minimis Loophole: Two Sides of the Same Coin)
Further, the offshoring of such a critical industry, responsible for manufacturing products of key importance to our national health and defense, poses national security risks. This risk was made fully apparent at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, when American citizens, hospitals and frontline workers found themselves unable to access critical personal protective equipment (PPE) due to the complete offshoring of supply chains to low-cost overseas’ competitors. In response, the American textile industry made heroic efforts to retool production and operations virtually overnight, producing millions of face masks, isolation gowns, testing swabs and other critical medical textiles when our country needed it most.
Despite these heroic actions and the coinciding investments that were made by American business owners, these critical supply chains are already at risk of being offshored again. To ensure that they do not, it is critical that the federal government expeditiously implement recently adopted legislation governing domestic procurement, such as the Make PPE in America Act. This legislation, which resulted from the harsh lessons learned during the supply chain crises of COVID-19, is designed to reshore and maintain a strategic PPE production chain in the United States by requiring that the Departments of Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs procure only PPE that is wholly made (i.e., 100 percent made in the USA, from the production of the fiber to the yarn, fabric, and finished product) and assembled in the U.S. This important legislation also requires a contract duration for federally procured PPE of no less than two years. Such long-term commitments provide domestic manufacturers with a consistent demand signal that allows them to invest, plan, develop and deliver the medical protective goods our government and nation depend on for safety and security.
At the same time, the research and development needed to produce such innovations requires significant financial commitments. From 2012 to 2021, the U.S. textile industry invested $20.9 billion in new plants and equipment. During this time, U.S. manufacturers opened new facilities throughout the textile production chain, including recycling facilities to convert textile and other waste to new textile uses and resins. These advancements reveal the direct relationship between investment, innovation, and long-term competitiveness. To survive in the constantly evolving and increasingly competitive landscape that dictates textile and apparel production, companies must constantly develop new ways to manufacture inputs and goods more efficiently.
It does not take much to see why U.S. textiles are a quintessential story of American spirit and industry. So, as we take this holiday to pause and celebrate the individual and economic freedoms we enjoy daily, let us also celebrate the rich history of American textiles as a critical part of industrial importance. Thanks to manufacturing efforts such as theirs, American citizens can access everything from high-quality everyday textile items to sophisticated textile technologies. By keeping critical supply chains and their research close to home, Americans are guaranteed more sustainable and reliable access to essential products when we need them most.
As we celebrate the 4th of July and American independence, we recognize that many of our forefathers took sizable business and investment risks that has helped foster our modern economy from which we all benefit today. And a strong economy allows us to safeguard our independence.
American manufacturing needs Congress and the Administration’s continued support to help shape trade and economic policies that provide a level-playing field for the U.S. industry. Please contact the National Council of Textile Organizations to discuss how you can support the domestic textile and apparel industries in their efforts to reshore and regionalize supply chains and strengthen U.S. manufacturing.