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Looking Back on a Year Like No Other

Updated: Jan 6, 2021


It’s been a year. We’ve heard that a lot over the last 10 months (and not just because each month felt like it lasted a year). Covid-19 created a devastating ripple effect that impacted us as individuals and an industry. It has upended manufacturing processes, tested supply chains, and presented unparalleled challenges for both suppliers and customers. No nation, no business, no person has escaped disruption from this pandemic.

While we emerge from the rubble of 2020 and look towards a future of new norms, we find that it’s imperative to reflect back on a year that taught us a great deal about flexibility, patience, and recovery. Despite the challenges Covid-19 presented to the sewn products industry, it also revealed how quickly we can adapt amid turbulent weather, and unveiled opportunities for a new future. Here, we look back at some of the trends we’ve covered in Behind the Seams over the past six months on how the industry has changed in 2020 and where it’s headed next.

Pivots in Production

We saw it happen almost instantaneously. Industry leaders, including many SPESA members, quickly pivoted to the production of personal protective equipment (PPE) in the fight against Covid-19. The commitment to manufacturing PPE hasn’t seemed to slow down in the past couple months, with many companies looking at how sewn products can be used in new and innovative ways. Take for instance Hanesbrands Inc. Last month, we included a story from the Winston-Salem Journal about North Carolina-based Hanesbrands working with the Nonwovens Institute at N.C. State University and University of North Carolina Health infection prevention experts to create a more breathable, single-use surgical mask. In the same month, we also featured a story about how Joel Furey, co-founder and chief commercial officer of Scranton-based Noble Biomaterials, is using silver yarn — which is often touted as a bacteria killer — to make and market antimicrobial face masks, gloves, scarves, hospital scrubs, and hospital linens.

More on how the sewn products industry has responded to Covid-19 with the pivot to PPE production:

Domestic Resurgence

The quick pivot to PPE production came with a revived focus on U.S. reshoring. Like with many things, Covid-19 exposed weaknesses across systems, including the U.S.’s overreliance on low-cost offshore manufacturing. This prompted responses from industry leaders and government officials who sought to bring production back stateside. As an example, we posted a press release in July from U.S. Senators Rob Portman (R-OH) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) that urged the COVID-19 Joint Acquisition Task Force (JATF) to prioritize the procurement of American-made PPE. A few weeks later, NCTO released a statement on behalf of a coalition of 21 industry organizations outlining policy principles and objectives needed for reshoring and safeguarding domestic PPE manufacturing. Though ongoing challenges with reshoring existed, stories emerged about companies like Buckeye MaskCompany and Stitches USA that established roadmaps to produce high-quality products at low prices that proved the U.S. was capable of competing with overseas manufacturing giants.

More on how Covid-19 prompted a revived focus on domestic manufacturing, urged the U.S. to reassess its workforce needs, and disrupted supply chains around the world.

A Future Focused on Technology

As we’ve spoken with companies that have quickly pivoted production lines to either focus on the manufacturing of PPE or adjust to changing consumer needs during the pandemic, we’ve learned that the most successful ones were those that embraced technology — namely automation and the support of digital supply chain tools. In August, we shared a story from Sourcing Journal about the increasing reliance on digitization within footwear design and production that helps alleviate some of the inefficiencies within the product development process. In September, we featured an article from Advanced Textile Source on how researchers are turning to 3D printing to develop textile structures for PPE. We also explored a few examples of product innovation and wearable tech such as YKK’s new smart zipper.

Beyond innovations in product development, many businesses are also turning to technology to engage audiences in new ways. Back in July, we posted a story by FashionUnited that covered how the fashion industry was turning to digital platforms as a means to showcase new lines and meet with potential customers. Even SPESA, an organization that thrives on networking and in-person gatherings, has turned to virtual education has a means of engagement. And Messe Frankfurt has moved its symposiums for Texprocess Americas and Techtextil North America to an online platform, which will continue through 2021.

More on technology in the industry.

What did we miss?

Even with all of the articles listed here there are a few topics that we felt deserved more attention this year. A key example is the topic of sustainability. We discussed it a few times here and there as it related to the achievements and innovations of SPESA members, like Amann and American & Efird. We also touched briefly on diversity and inclusion in the sewn products industry. But we know there is so much more to explore when it comes to conscious companies and customers. We plan to cover that more in 2021.

As mentioned above, we have spent a lot of time this year discussing domestic production and the prospect of reshoring. This will likely continue for as long as Covid-19 exists, but we will also be sure to include relevant news on trade and regional supply chains, and devote attention to opposing arguments.

And finally, while we dedicated an entire month to workforce development and the sewn products industry, we know there is more to learn. We will continue to explore this topic in 2021.

Where do we go from here?

Many unknowns still exist. But there appears to be a light at the end of the tunnel. Recent news of high-efficacy vaccine options has caught the attention of a world ready to get back on its feet. Industries and businesses — many of which have spent the last several months identifying internal and external vulnerabilities and modifying strategies — are looking ahead to 2021 and beyond. And that’s exactly what we’re doing, too. While the outlook isn’t totally clear, we know there are good things to come.

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