Orders to U.S. factories rose in March for the first time since last July, breaking a long stretch of weakness in manufacturing.

The Commerce Department says orders increased 2.1 percent following seven monthly declines. And in further good news, orders in a key category that tracks business investment plans managed to eke out a 0.1 percent rise. It was the first advance in this category after falling for seven straight months.

Economists are hoping that U.S. manufacturing is beginning to emerge from a long soft patch, bolstered by stronger domestic demand that will offset weakness in exports.

Orders for durable goods, which are items expected to last at least three years, rose 4.4 percent in March. Demand for nondurable goods such as chemicals and paper dropped 0.3 percent.