At a New Bedford factory, 800 union workers, assisted by technology unheard of two decades ago, produce 1,300 designer suits a day. In Shirley, a 100-year-old company is pioneering bonding techniques to make clothing without needle and thread.
In a Jamaica Plain kitchen, a former nonprofit administrator dyes yarns in colors that would stop traffic — and are catching the attention of knitters across the country.
These businesses represent the new textile industry in Massachusetts, a tiny remnant from the days of giant wool and cotton mills but one that is regaining vitality. Young entrepreneurs, agile veterans, and transformative technologies are invigorating an industry that still employs thousands, many in old manufacturing centers where jobs are in short supply.
Today’s textile and apparel firms have adapted to lower-cost, overseas competition by catering to niche and luxury markets, and automating processes to lower labor costs. They have found ways to customize products to the quirkiest details — say, purple sneakers with green laces and an image of your dog on the tongue — and turn around orders in a matter of weeks, if not days, compared with months in Asian factories.
“The people who are left are emblematic of the new type of manufacturing . . . super flexible, high-value, customer-centric type of companies,” said George Matouk, chief executive of John Matouk & Co. in Fall River, which manufactures high-end linens for bed, bath, and dining rooms. Its jacquard sateen sheet sets sell for $380 and up at Neiman Marcus and other luxury stores.
The Matouk company, founded in 1929, blends tradition and technology at a factory where workers stitching seams on vintage sewing machines share space with automated quilting equipment. The company, which employs 115, has survived and succeeded because of its flexibility and speed, said Matouk, 46, the third generation of his family to lead the firm.
A recent order from Bloomingdale’s for an exclusive line of bed linens provides an example. After quickly designing a unique quilt and embroidered sheet, Matouk received the go-ahead last week. It will have the linens in stores across the country in February.
“What’s exciting about our manufacturers is that many of them are on the cutting edge of the latest technologies,” Northeastern University economics professor Barry Bluestone said. “The firms that can survive in Massachusetts are ones that produce a new product, or products that are continually changing.”
Certainly, the industry in Massachusetts faces an uphill climb. Textile manufacturing here was hard hit in the last recession, shedding 40 percent of its jobs before employment stabilized at about 8,000. Competition from lower-cost countries and states remains fierce; Polartec LLC said this month it would shutter its longtime mill in Lawrence and move production to Tennessee and New Hampshire.
But better technology and greater efficiency have boosted production significantly. The value of goods produced by Massachusetts textile and apparel makers climbed 23 percent to $680 million in 2013, the most recent data available, from $554 million in 2009, according to the US Commerce Department.
The Joseph Abboud Manufacturing Corp. in New Bedford attributes much of its success to its quick response to changing fashions, whether altering lapels or softening shoulders on men’s suits that sell for $695 and up.
In just four weeks, the factory can make a design change and have it in production, company president Anthony Sapienza said. “If we were manufacturing in China, pattern changes would take weeks and the ensuing production would take three months,” he said.
Instead of using pencils and graph paper, designers create patterns with a keyboard and a mouse, employing software that will send precise cutting instructions to machines. Many steps that used to require hand tailoring, such as making pockets, have been automated, too.
Sapienza estimates that automation has tripled the productivity of workers — and allowed the company to grow. Since Abboud was acquired two years ago by California-based Men’s Wearhouse, the factory has increased production by 35 percent and employment to 790 from 490, Sapienza said.
In Haverhill, the luxury brand Southwick, a unit of Brooks Brothers of New York, has also combined technology and craftsmanship. Among other garments, the factory produces more than 100,000 suits a year with prices starting at $900. Employment has grown to 530 from 300 five years ago.
Cutting fabric is automated; stitching is still done by people at machines. “Ours is more of a tailored product,” said John Martynec, senior vice president of manufacturing for Brooks Brothers, “constructed in the way a tailor shop would do it.”
Except faster. Southwick can turn around orders in 10 days, meaning the factory can keep store shelves stocked without wasting money on excess inventory. To get even more efficient, Southwick in August moved into a new plant, a former Lowe’s store, where it redesigned its production line. The result, Martynec said: a 10 percent rise in productivity.
Hipster label: ‘Made in America’
Changing consumer tastes also have improved the fortunes of the state’s textile industry. As younger buyers put greater emphasis on conditions in fabric and apparel factories, “Made in America” is getting a boost.
Bob Kidder, who has spent 45 years in textiles, bet on American-made when he took out a $250,000 Small Business Administration loan six years ago to relaunch New England Shirt Co. in a 19th-century Fall River mill. “A well-made American product is not necessarily a dinosaur,” said Kidder, 69.
Starting with just one employee — himself — Kidder now employs 70 people using computer-guided lasers to cut fabric and 1950s-era machines to sew garments.
Production has jumped four-fold since 2010, and Kidder expects to turn out 60,000 men’s shirts selling for $155 and up at small men’s shops and large retailers, including Bloomingdale’s.
Kidder said the company became profitable this year but declined to provide figures.
The next wave
Brenna Nan Schneider, who earned an MBA in social impact management from the Heller School at Brandeis University, launched 99degrees Custom in 2012 with two machine operators in a 1,000-square-foot space in Lawrence’s Everett Mill. Three years later, the company has 22 employees working in an 8,000-square-foot space making activewear that ranges from sports bras to outerwear for mountain climbing.
Next month, Schneider, 32, will launch a textile innovation center in her factory, partnering with Shirley-based Bemis Associates Inc., which has developed technology, called Sewfree, that uses adhesives and ultrasonic equipment to bond seams and eliminate stitches. Sportswear manufacturers have been early adopters, as bonded seams are lighter and less likely to chafe.
The idea is to find new applications and products for Sewfree, which allows greater flexibility in design and materials, permits more of the sewing process to be automated, and further speeds production, Bemis chief executive Steve Howard said. Bemis, founded in 1910, employs about 240 in Massachusetts.
By partnering with Bemis, Schneider said, her company will be positioned to put Sewfree prototypes into production. She added that her employees could adapt to bonding, which involves similar skills as stitching.
“Their expertise is put to use,” she said, “but with more advanced machinery.”
Dyed in the wool
When it comes to yarns for knitting, most companies produce subdued natural colors. But Diane Ivey and her Lady Dye Yarns went another way, creating bold color blends, such as super pink with bright yellow and orange and vibrant blue mixed together.
After working as an administrative coordinator at the Boston Foundation, Ivey decided creative arts was her true passion. She left in 2011 to devote more time to her business, which she operates from the kitchen and dining room of her first-floor unit in a Jamaica Plain duplex.
Ivey sells her yarns at trade shows, on the Web, and at some 30 specialty shops nationwide. She estimates she’ll have dyed more than 242 miles of yarn this year, with revenues of about $30,000. She supplements her income by teaching knitting classes.
Ivey, 36, estimates she could at least triple sales with more space and capital. She hopes to enlist other textile entrepreneurs into a cooperative in Boston, where they can share space, equipment, and ideas.
“Textiles are not something just of the past,” Ivey said. “It’s the past, present, and future.”Steve Maas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.