Li Yuqing would fit right in on Seventh Avenue, smack in the middle of New York's garment district. Li is not hunched over a sewing machine. A soft-spoken 27-year-old college graduate trained as a clothing designer, she sits instead in a roomful of computers at a factory here and studies sketches of windbreakers, ski jackets and coats sent from design studios in New York, Paris, London, Milan and Hamburg.
Then she strokes the keys of her computer and figures out exactly how that sketch can become reality: how wide, how long and what texture every scrap of fabric must be, even what kind of stitches will be needed.
Even as the Bush administration moves to impose new limits on Chinese garment exports to the US, textile industry executives here in Xiamen, a coastal city an hour's flight northeast of Hong Kong, say they are already looking a step ahead.
They are trying to figure out how more of their workers can move beyond the simple cutting and sewing of garments into what is known as engineering and, someday, the initial sketching of new clothing.
US and Chinese government negotiators hope to conclude a deal in Beijing limiting China's soaring clothing exports to the US before a Wednesday night deadline next week. If they fail, the US could still impose further limits on Chinese exports. But a textile agreement would clear away one possible disagreement before US President George W. Bush and Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) are scheduled to meet at the White House on Sept. 7.
In the push-and-pull of Beijing's relations with the rest of the world, such negotiations are not likely to put more than a modest dent in China's industrial expansion.
So for garment makers in the US and Europe, the next shake-up is likely to come not from millions of semiskilled seamstresses earning less than US$1 an hour, but from thousands of ambitious would-be designers like Li.
And even as they focus mostly on basic tasks, China's designers are starting to show an interest in innovation that may someday supplant the Chinese reputation for counterfeits and illegal copies.
Li's work is painstaking. It is not as creative as sketching a new jacket, something she has dreamed of doing since she was a little girl. But her task, variously known as the construction or engineering of a garment, is an important and potentially costly stage in the production of any item of clothing.
Producing as much as possible of each garment here helps Chinese companies move up the skills ladder. It also helps Western garment managers control costs.
"They realize that the more work they do, the less work the designers will have to do," said Bob Zane, a senior vice president at Liz Claiborne, "and work done at the factory is cheaper than work done at the design studio."
Young US graduates from design or fashion technology programs used to be able to find entry-level jobs in so-called sample rooms. Workers in such rooms assemble garments from sketches and send them to the designer to be checked and fitted on models before mass production begins.
But many Chinese companies now function as the sample rooms for US and European businesses. Smartex Far East Ltd, the company in Xiamern where Li works, receives sketches and technical specifications by e-mail and every day sends dozens of FedEx packages with completed samples to fashion houses in New York, Paris, Milan, and elsewhere.