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New England mill tells of its need for quotas

Like a faulty sweater, the knitwear business at Pandora Industries has been unraveling. Six years ago, this milltown manufacturer employed 1,350 people. That number has now slipped to 850. Back then, the company also produced children's clothing , much of it sweaters. That division is gone.

''Our business had to shrink,'' largely because of competition from imports, says Albert Alter, Pandora's amiable president. ''In certain categories (such as children's wear), we don't even attempt to compete.''

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More than half of Pandora's volume is in sweaters. But over the last 10 to 12 years, Mr. Alter notes, imports have been slowly taking over the market here. According to the National Knitwear and Sportswear Association, sweater imports now account for about 60 percent of the market, and in certain categories they amount to 80 and 90 percent.

Pandora is looking to new import regulations for relief. The regulations, scheduled to take effect Sept. 7, more clearly define a garment's country of origin - an important point, since import quotas are established on a country-by-country basis. The result is that the number of sweaters coming into the US would be reduced.

Right now, Alter refers to his company as ''a survivor.'' It has managed to stay profitable by marketing sweaters as part of outfits, with matching skirts and blouses, for instance. Side by side on a shelf, though, the sweaters could never compete with imports because of price, he said.

Pandora has tried to narrow the cost gap by investing in electronic knitting machines. With the help of its new parent company, Kayser Roth, Pandora has invested about $1 million in the new machines in the last five months. While these don't reduce the labor force (Floors 1, 3, 4, and 5 of the factory are still full of winders, inspectors, sewers, and cutters), they drastically reduce the time it takes to change knitting patterns. Instead of taking as long as a week to change over, the new machines can do it in hours.

If Pandora is now profitable, why complain? Mr. Alter leans back in his modest office with a slight look of exasperation. ''The market is shrinking. If you charted (the pace of import growth), you would see (we) have another year or two to live. ... Just because I'm breathing today doesn't mean I don't need to protect myself.''

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