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Purpose ‐ This paper seeks to present a preliminary investigation into long-term patterns of trade specialization among leading textile- and apparel-exporting nations, assessing patterns of comparative advantage across the textile machinery, man-made fiber, textile and
apparel sectors of the textile complex to determine whether these conform with both trade specialization and industry evolution theories. A model of evolutionary change in intra-complex specialization is defined and evaluated. Design/methodology/approach ‐ A revealed comparative
advantage index is employed to evaluate international competitiveness for 30 nations over a 42-year period. With repeated measures, ANOVA is used, to determine the significance of the observed patterns across five income-defined groups of nations. Findings ‐ Long-term patterns
of specialization broadly reflect expectations of factor proportions theory and industry evolution models. Product and income group characteristics combine to influence comparative advantage. Higher income nations generally remain stronger in more capital-intensive sectors, while lower income
countries have emerged to dominate labor-intensive sectors. However, inclusion of a more complex array of variables is necessary to obtain a fuller understanding of international competitiveness. Practical implications ‐ Established theory remains a useful but limited guide to
understanding the dynamics of international competitiveness in the context of the changing business environment. Improved understanding of patterns of change can assist strategic planning. Originality/value ‐ By embracing a long-term time frame, a broad array of nations, and
a vertical textile complex perspective to identify shifting patterns of competitiveness, this paper highlights key dynamics in the global textile complex over the last four decades.