The European Union closed its borders Thursday to Chinese pullovers and cardigans, sending shock waves through European fashion stores and mail-order businesses, officials and retailers said.
Orders to refuse imports of the Chinese knitwear came because documents showed European importers were about to reach their allotted limit.
Europe and China agreed on a limit of 69 million pieces of such clothing through the end of the year, as part of a pact to limit certain Chinese textiles exports to Europe.
The deal defused a row that started when European textiles makers in countries such as France, Italy and Spain warned that millions of jobs could be lost because of surging imports from China.
Retailers were caught off guard by Thursday's cutoff because of the speed at which imports reached the ceiling, according the Foreign Trade Association, Europe's retailer lobby group. On July 11, a month after Europe and China agreed on the limit, the E.U. had given permission to retailers to import 27 million cardigans and pullovers. By July 19, import applications had doubled to 55 million cardigans and pullovers, FTA Director Stefan Wengler said.
The E.U. is now turning down import applications because experts believe the 69 million mark will be hit by goods already on their way to Europe.
That is affecting retailers that have placed orders in China for next season's fashion without yet having permission from Brussels to import them.
"Retailers have paid for massive orders in China for the coming season. Now they can't sell their products," Wengler said. "Mail-order businesses can't deliver the goods they've promised in their catalogues. And what about the prices that the catalogues have promised?"
European import permits for other types of Chinese clothing may also run out in the coming weeks, said Francesco Marchi, trade and legal-affairs director at European textiles lobby group Euratex. "Brussels is expecting another two or three categories will reach the quota limit by late August," Marchi said. He didn't specify what types of clothing could be affected.
The E.U. has placed on its watch list 12 categories of Chinese textile products, including T-shirts, pullovers, men's trousers and bed linen.
The global textiles trade is undergoing a shake-up following the abolition this year of a worldwide system of quotas. Chinese exports to the E.U. and United States have multiplied many times since then. The United States has placed emergency caps on some Chinese products to protect the domestic industry. The E.U. so far has tried to resist such measures, partly to placate its retail industry and partly to avoid trade friction with China as it inches toward taking over from the United States as Europe's largest trade partner.
In Brussels, the European Commission now faces being lodged in the middle of renewed tensions between the E.U.'s member states. Countries with a large retail industry -- such as Britain, Sweden and Germany -- want the cardigan and pullover quota relaxed so they can import more inexpensive Chinese wares.
Traditional textile-exporting countries such as France, Italy and Spain will pressure the E.U. to stick to the quota and protect European textiles workers.
"We will examine the issue and discuss it with both the member states and Chinese authorities," said E.U. spokesman Michael Mann.
A Chinese trade official in Brussels declined to comment.
Chinese Commerce Minister Bo Xilai last month vowed China would limit the rise in exports of the 12 products worrying Europe. But China launched a system of export licenses just 24 hours before Europe stopped issuing import permits.
Michael Carolan in London contributed to this report.