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Imports broach 17 billion yards

WASHINGTON -As U.S. producers, marketers and retailers step up their global sourcing of home textiles products, imports of textile products into the United States, excluding apparel, jumped up by 16 percent last year to 16.8 billion square yards, the Commerce Department reported.

At this point, textile imports are actually growing faster than imports of apparel, which rose at a slightly slower pace of 13.7 percent, to 16 billion yards, according to the Commerce Department.

If there's any silver lining to be found in this clouded outlook, it's that American exports of textiles were climbing at a double-digit pace themselves, rising by 14 percent last year, to $10.5 billion. Apparel exports-mostly cut fabric pieces sent abroad for assembly and return to the United States-inched up by 2.7 percent, to $8.2 billion.

In a further glimmer of good news for U.S. manufacturers trying to keep their plants running and workers on the job, for the first time in four-and-a-half years textile and apparel imports registered a monthly decline, slipping by 0.2 percent in December, the American Textile Manufacturers Institute (ATMI) noted.

But even in a silver lining there is sometimes another cloud to be found-the slowdown in imports was likely triggered by the widespread slowdown in retail sales that's been backing up on American producers.

"This is a good news/bad news situation for our industry," said Roger Chastain of Mount Vernon Mills, president of the ATMI. "Of course, we're grateful that December's imports did not increase at the double-digit rates they did throughout the year, but this negligible decrease clearly points to a very sluggish retail environment for textile and apparel products, and that is not good news for anybody, least of all for domestic manufacturers."

Looking back on all of last year, said Chastain, "We are also faced with a good news/bad news situation. Although textile and apparel imports continued their double-digit growth to record levels, textile and apparel exports have also growth to record levels. Also, keep in mind that apparel imports from Mexico, the United States' leading foreign supplier, and now from the Caribbean region contain mostly U.S. fabric and yarn."

Total textile and apparel exports last year totaled about $18.7 billion, up 8.8 percent from year-ago levels, setting a new record. But it wasn't enough, Chastain noted, to prevent another record textile and apparel trade deficit, this time $60.8 billion, up by 15 percent from the previous record set in 1999.

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