For more than a century, Lion Brothers Company, based in Owings Mills, Md., has sewn its fortunes with embroidery. The 112-year old textile manufacturer is the company that stitches every Nike Swoosh, every Girl Scout patch, every Harley Davidson emblem and every National Park Service arrowhead, to name a few.

Yet Lion CEO Susan J. Ganz says the company “is just beginning to learn” about the possibilities of textiles. The future of the industry will be found not just in thread, fabric or needles, Ganz said in a recent speech at the Wharton Women in Business Alumnae Conference 2011: It will also be woven in identity, personalization and advanced technology — trends that eventually could bring some textile manufacturing back to the United States.

Since it stitched its first embroidered emblem in 1899, Lion has built its reputation on helping brands identify themselves. For example, the company worked with Champion Athletic apparel to design the Champion “C” which has emblazoned more than 120 million garments since it came out in 1987. It makes emblems for sports teams, from Little Leagues to Major Leagues.

But today, a well-stitched logo isn’t enough. Customers now demand unique, personal products — and new technology enables Lion to meet that demand.  The result:  sites such as NikeID, which allow customers to personalize and design their own made-to-order merchandise.

The trend towards personalization and mass customization has flipped manufacturing on its head, Ganz noted. The focus is no longer on what the company can supply, but what the customer might demand. “You can have what you want, how you want it, one piece at a time,” Ganz explained. “We began to say, ‘Wow, we can make one piece of anything.’ And that led us to say, ‘I wonder what people would like if they could have one piece of anything?’ Because we’re so used to working in a supply environment, we had never actually thought about what one person would like…. We had been stuck in supply for 100 years.”

Lion now hopes to help customers reframe their view of textiles in the same way that Apple has changed the way people think about music. Apple could have simply built another MP3 player, Ganz pointed out. Instead, Apple has asked: how would customers want to listen to music? One song at a time, Apple realized — then designed a completely new music experience around that.

When exploring new products, Lion now asks questions such as: What does the customer want to do? How does the customer want to engage with the product? What does the product mean to the customer? “It’s not the technology; it’s what the technology delivers, and the meaning and purpose behind it,” Ganz said. “It really isn’t about what we invent; it’s about the meaning and purpose of what we invent.”

The new technology and demand for more personal products may drive some manufacturing back to the United States, Ganz predicted. About 80% of Lion’s manufacturing is currently in Asia, located to support the global supply chain. But with the increased demand for unique items, and with the tools and technology to make them affordably, it is beginning to make sense to manufacture products closer to home.

A recent example: When an eighth-seeded Butler, a long-shot team from Indianapolis, made it to Final Four in the NCAA Tournament this year, college bookstores frantically phoned Lion for commemorative game memorabilia. It would have been impossible to ship merchandise from China in time. Luckily, Lion retains some manufacturing in the United States. “They were asking, ‘Can you create a product that is highly engineered within 24 hours?’ and the answer is yes. We can print, stitch, cut and create beautiful designs and we can do this domestically now.”

Not only does technology promise to change the way textiles are manufactured, it will change the textiles themselves, Ganz said.

“Everything we wear over the next 10 to 20 years is about to go from being a dumb terminal to being a smart terminal,” she says. “I find that personally terrifying,” she acknowledges. “I’m not ready to be augmented by what I wear.” Tomorrow’s clothes will interact with the wearer, using sensors, radio-frequency identification, and other forms of data collection and data movement. The military is already experimenting with this, putting monitors in clothing to collect information on blood pressure and heart rate, for example. “This is going to be a very interesting time, and it’s very difficult to envision,” she said. “It’s almost mind-boggling. But this is how rapidly our industry is changing, and it’s very, very rapid.”

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