Stories

Sewing robots seem likely to disrupt the U.S. apparel industry

U.S. apparel-making jobs have plummeted by 65% over the last 15 years as the work has moved to lower-wage countries. And now greater automation — while promising to reshape the manufacture of some clothing-makers to the U.S. — seem likely to be another hit to industry employment.

Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics; Chart: Lazaro Gamio / Axios

There is no telling how many more jobs will be lost: Automation that has shaken up other industries has been slow getting to apparel, because of how fabrics move and stretch while being sewn. Instead, companies have largely economized by shifting to countries including China, Mexico and Vietnam.

But, in a sign that the jobs trend down will continue, Softwear Automation, an Atlanta startup, says sales of its automated sewing technology grew by 10 times in 2016, and are likely to do so again this year. The company's technology can "see" the fabric, and sew with reliable accuracy, it said in a statement.

The automation of sewing is not new _ it goes back to 1830, and the invention of the sewing machine in France. That resulted in numerous uprisings by Parisian tailors who felt a threat to their work.

Rick Helfenbein, head of the American Apparel and Footwear Association, told Axios that it's still not clear how the newest bout of automation will change industry employment. "Factory cut-and-sew jobs are unlikely to increase," he said, "but other well-paying jobs in design, logistics, and data science would increase."