With 22,600 employees, the Swiss textile and clothing industry is very small by international standards, but nonetheless country's fourth largest export industry. Production levels are high and it is very innovative and creative sector, famed for its quality, variety and constant flow of new specialties.
The Swiss textile and clothing industry has a long history spanning many centuries. It started around the 12th century mainly as cottage industry. Before industrialization the textile industry was centered around Zurich (silk from 13th to the 15th century), Fribourg (weaving during the same period) and St. Gall (linen and later cotton). The textile industry was already an important factor at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in Switzerland. The original cottage industry character was carried over into the largely decentralized textile industry in northeastern Switzerland. The clothing industry is centered in Ticino. In the 19th century, cotton and silk together with watches were the main industries in Switzerland.
Today, the Swiss textile and clothing industry has maintained its competitiveness in the face of tremendous challenges, particularly from low-cost Asian countries. The industry grew at the rate of 3 per percent in 2004. This has been achieved through promoting creativity and high quality, finding niches in the market and maintaining efficient organizational structures. The industry has retained the market niches of highly specialized products, such as yarns made of seaweed, non-flammable textiles for airplanes, yarns enriched with silk which reduces perspiration, Nanotechnology, special silk yarns (200 meters of which weigh only 1 gram). The Swiss textile industry's top fashion fabrics and embroidery still enjoy a high reputation among international haute couture designers. Elegant dreams made out of Swiss fabrics are in demand all over the world. Presently, the clothing fabrics represent around 50% of production, furnishing fabrics around 30% and technical materials the remaining 20%.
Approximately 90% of Switzerland's CHF 4.1 billion textile and clothing production is exported. Like the other export industries, the textile and clothing sector depends on open markets. In Europe duty-free access to markets is ensured by a free-trade agreement with the EU and a pan-European agreement with Eastern Europe which came into force in 1997. As far as other countries are concerned, in particular the important emerging states, high custom duties and import barriers are still a problem.