"We just put out a sign and they lined up at the front gate," Van said. "There must have been 1,000 of them the first day."
Today, Van Group employs 5,000 workers at four factories in China, and its U.S. sales and distribution staff has grown to 300.
The product line has moved far beyond the barnyard to include collectibles from fairies to firefighters, as well as picture frames, wind chimes, birdhouses and cookie jars. Items range in price from $8 to $300. Van credits a combination of American design and low-cost Chinese manufacturing for his success.
"People can make their homes look beautiful for an affordable price," he said. "Without China, I don't know how we could maintain
With the influx of inexpensive, high quality goods from China, U.F.N. Textile's David Glasberg worries about the future of the U.S. garment trade.
After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, textile entrepreneur David Glasberg of Vernon went into the American flag business. Within days, his U.F.N. Textile Group Inc., which specializes in novel styles and speedy production, was cranking out hundreds of thousands of red-white-and-blue banners.
For a couple of months, U.S. retailers snatched them up as fast as Glasberg could make them. Then imported American flags began arriving from China -- more than 100 million of them, according to government trade data.
"They were selling finished products cheaper than I could buy the material," Glasberg said. "That was the end of that."
It's a pattern that has Glasberg worried about the future of the domestic garment trade. U.S. textile and apparel makers have battled imports from around the globe for years. But China has quickly become a source of low-cost, high-quality textile products that are proving irresistible to U.S. buyers -- Glasberg included. He recently began importing Chinese-made sheets and bedspreads.
"Hey, if you can't beat them, join them," he said. "I've got to make a living."
Still, Glasberg is saddened by the decline in the local textile industry. His firm, which once employed 60 people, is down to 15. He said the hidden price for those cheap imported goods is U.S. factory jobs. He fears Americans will wake up one day and realize they didn't get such a bargain after all.
"Even if a shirt only costs $1, how are you going to buy it if you don't have a job?"