Challenges and Opportunities in the Sewn Products Industry

By Cary Sherburne


This article was published in WhatTheyThink September 27, 2021. The pandemic placed stress on most industries, but arguably one of the most affected was the sewn products industry, which was already facing challenges pre-pandemic. In a recent interview, Senior Editor Cary Sherburne discussed the state of the sewn products industry with SPESA President Michael McDonald and steps that could be taken to ameliorate those challenges. Watch Cary Sherburne’s full video interview with Michael McDonald here.


Sewn Products Equipment and Suppliers of the Americas (SPESA) is the trade association representing the sewn products industry—everything from companies that make sewing and cutting machines, to product lifecycle management (PLM) solutions, and costing software. In other words, anything that takes a piece of fabric and turns it into a finished product like a T-shirt, a piece of furniture, or an automobile. While the association is focused on the Americas, it is a global association since many of these suppliers come from other parts of the world.


The textiles and apparel industry as a whole is undergoing an analog-to-digital transformation, which puts stress on participants in any industry. As part of that, even pre-pandemic, the industry was beginning to recognize that it had serious problems with the way the global supply chain was structured. And the pandemic clearly exacerbated that. While many participants may have thought they had a few years to get things sorted out, the abrupt lockdowns associated with the pandemic put paid to that idea. It left brands and retailers scrambling as ports closed, containers became harder and more expensive to acquire, and the stream of products and materials headed to market literally dried up.


Michael McDonald, President of SPESA, points out, “It has gotten to the point that it is very difficult to figure out what is actually causing the problem. Some factors include microchip shortages for chips needed in some of our equipment, lumber shortages for furniture, and the cost of shipping containers has doubled, tripled, or even increased by a factor of 10 in some cases. And then people are paying to ship from China, but they have to send the containers back empty because there is nothing to ship back. There are a ton of supply chain issues that are baffling me.”


While the industry is facing challenges, McDonald also sees three areas of opportunity, all of which are intertwined:

  • Reshoring manufacturing;

  • Beefing up the industry talent pool; and

  • Increasing the impact of automation and digital technologies within the industry.

Reshoring Manufacturing: How Viable Is it?

One key to the success of reshoring in textiles and apparel is fixing the weak points in the supply chain. It is highly unlikely that, in the Americas, everything needed to manufacture products can be produced here. As far as sewn products go, sewing and cutting equipment can be acquired, but often many of the raw materials still come from Asia—fabric and other items. So it is important to take a holistic look at the supply chain to figure out how it can be streamlined, what can be brought home, and what still needs to be sourced globally. McDonald points out, “There will always be another supply chain disruption. About a decade ago, when the price of cotton escalated, that completely disrupted the supply chain. Companies need to look inward to identify and address the weak points in their supply chain. I hope we are learning from the past and don’t set ourselves up to repeat the same mistakes.”


One product line that has been fairly successful with reshoring is non-wovens. When the pandemic struck, the reduced ability to import non-woven materials created huge problems, especially with PPE. Almost all the PPE was coming from Asia. But several companies were able to gear up fairly quickly and establish onshore manufacturing of non-woven materials, converting them to masks, gowns, and other desperately needed medical grade PPE. Today, even consumers can go online and find high quality medical grade PPE such as N95 masks, and not worry about shortchanging front-line workers. McDonald states, “For the first time ever in the industry, since the 1980s, we had the sewing capacity to create PPE but we didn’t have the fabric. These shortages shined a light on the fact that there are things that have to exist in the United States for health and human safety as well as from a defense perspective. The pandemic definitely raised awareness that this infrastructure needed to exist moving forward.”


The non-wovens experience highlights the opportunity that exists to bring certain aspects of manufacturing for sewn products back home as well.


Workforce Development

McDonald is doing his post-grad work in workforce development and had a lot to say on that topic. He says, “A significant problem for the industry is that there are no significant training programs anymore for operators or technicians. That means a labor shortage for sewists, as well as for technicians to repair sewing machines and other equipment. Another issue is corporate culture—how do you build community within your factory?” McDonald notes that factories used to be the center of the towns they were in. While that had some downsides, he says, “You still want a community feel within your factory. So how do you change the corporate culture to facilitate that?”


Finally, McDonald admits that the industry has rightfully earned its bad reputation as a career choice, adding, “When I was growing up, my dad worked in the industry. He didn’t try to discourage me from joining, but it was understood that either you go to college or you go to the factory mill down the street. It was perceived as a threat, and that’s not the way the industry is anymore.”


The industry is, in fact, quite high-tech and getting more so all the time. Factories are clean, and most offer good career paths. So there is opportunity, but there is also a need to educate parents and kids about the opportunities, even starting in middle or high school. And perhaps at some point, some of the required training could be once again incorporated into their curricula.


McDonald adds, “It’s not the industry it was 40 years ago. It’s an entirely new industry that has exciting careers and potential and new dynamics. We first have to help people understand that, and then we need to have training programs that go along with the increase in technology. You still need to know the basics of a stitch, but you also need to understand software development, mechanical engineering, and more. We, as an industry, really need to address this now, because we are reaching the horizon point where we are going to lose that institutional knowledge as industry veterans age out. It is a dire need.”


Increasing Automation

Across the entire supply chain, the automation component is increasing. Companies such as Lectra are acquiring other companies to broaden the base of their solutions, from concept through manufacturing and distribution. In other cases, companies are partnering with each other to achieve the same end. And producers are starting to adopt innovative technologies to streamline the work process and make it easier to acquire needed talent. One great example is SAI-TEX USA, a new factory established in Los Angeles. They are producing denim products, and while they still need to import the fabric, this brand-new factory has some unique technologies, including laser cutting technology that can simultaneously cut and distress the denim in one pass, saving time and resulting in significant reduction of labor.


There is also lots of discussion in the industry about co-bots—robotic equipment that complements human labor, taking on much of the repetitive work that people used to have to do. That is one area that will continue to grow. Sewing machines will get more automated, as well. Today, you still need sewing talent and that human interface between the machine and the fabric. But one could envision a time when all but the most complex sewing tasks are completed by robots, co-bots, or other automated machinery.


Getting Ahead of the Curve

SPESA is planning its Executive Conference for Boston at the end of October. McDonald says, “We are excited to finally be able to get back to seeing each other in person. One thing we have learned is there is nothing, especially in this industry, better than in-person interaction. While we had some success doing things virtually, there is no replacing an in-person conference.”


Key topics at the conference will be reshoring, workforce development and automation, of course. “I’ve been talking to members over the past several months,” McDonald says. “I’m sick of talking about the problem. We all know there is a problem. I’ve asked our members to be ready to propose some solutions at the Executive Conference! And I think we’ll have some great announcements about, for example, programs for factory upskilling and reskilling, partnerships with universities on training in the sewn products sector, and more.”


We’ll be watching for news out of the SPESA Executive Conference. For more information or to register for the event, visit www.SPESA.org.