Ruminating

UNDERSTANDING THE FABRIC INDUSTRY

Thank you everyone for being such good sports with yesterday’s April Fools prank. I hope no one got busted looking at pictures of thonged men at work. I actually had the idea for that post months and months ago and every time I thought about it I started giggling so hard I realized that The Peter deserved to be exposed to the world, pun intended.

In other news, the new issue of Seamwork was released yesterday with my first contributed piece. I love Seamwork; it’s so exciting to see a fresh take on our craft in such a beautiful, polished format and I was really happy to have the opportunity to investigate a subject I may not have explored as deeply here on the blog. I put on my reporter’s trench coat (all reporters wear trenches, right?) and did a little bit of investigative reporting into where the fabric we buy at fabric stores comes from. I’ve been fascinated by this subject for a long time, especially since I’ve started buying fabric wholesale. I’m sure all of you have struggled trying to find the right material for  a project; it can be really frustrating to have something particular in mind and then search high and low for something you begin to suspect doesn’t exist. I interviewed a few people who may be familiar to you (Sunni at A Fashionable Stitch, Caroline at Blackbird Fabrics, Heather at Girl Charlee), along with my favourite Montreal wholesaler, Christopher Higgins from Globetex. Collectively they helped me to understand where our fabric is coming from (spoiler alert: it’s rarely North America), and why it can be hard to find “the good stuff”. You can read the entire article here. Hopefully it makes this supply chain a little more transparent.

Have a great week everyone!

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  • Caitlyn Myers

    Heather, thank you so much for the detective work. I actually have a question that I’m hoping you might be able to answer, since you’ve obviously done your research. Although I’m sure it will raise some people’s hackles to say it, I like the quality of many of the fabrics used by the retailer Express. Their heavier knits (not the tissue-thin ones) in particular are smooth and soft and have decent recovery. Express produces a staggering volume of clothing, so somewhere someone is making a huge quantity of this knit fabric for them. I’d love to use that same fabric for home sewing. Is there no way for any wholesaler/retailer to get their hands on this source? Does Express use factories that only produce this fabric for Express? Is the “recipe” proprietary? I understand that good wools and silks are hard to come by because their price per yard/meter is higher than most people are willing to pay, but why is it impossible to find something more basic like cotton knits this nice when they’re being used to make clothing that’s probably considered fast fashion? Basically, why are some of the cheapest clothes at the mall still made out of better material than I can buy from most fabric stores?

    (I’m sorry that this sounds really rant-y. None of my frustration is directed at your lovely self. I’m just hoping that someone can help me understand this particular strain of irony/insanity.)

    • I TOTALLY understand! I always get so pissed when I’m at RTW store and see some great fabric and realize I’ll never get my hands on it. So, a big chain like Express has fabric made to their exact specifications by different factories, even down to prints that they might use. Some of their clothing may be made from “regular” lines, but most of it is custom. So, the only way you would ever be able to get your hands on what they use is at the end of the season when they’re trying to sell off whatever they didn’t use to jobbers. Hence my advice to buy the good stuff when you see it…. hence why my fabric stash is COMPLETELY out of control. My hope is that as sewing takes off, the factories that are making this fabric for RTW will see the wisdom in also making that fabric more available to people like you and me, but we’re not a big enough chunk of the market share yet to be worthy of more than mostly leftovers.

      • Angela

        I hear you about the fabric stash – I’m trying to declutter the house and I keep walking past that particular closet of fabric. Part of the frustration of buying ahead is not knowing how much I’ll need – and at $15-20 a yard for the nicer fabric, buying extra yardage can become very expensive! Not griping, just saying…. OTOH, I’ve had the experience of making things with cheap stuff, and one or two wearings later it looks trashed. Not fun! I hope with more experience I’ll get more comfortable purchasing ahead of time – also not fun to go back for some great looking fabric only to find out that it is already sold out.

      • Caitlyn Myers

        Thanks so much for explaining this. In every job I’ve worked, I’m reminded that if you’ve never worked in a particular industry, it’s really hard to get a grip on the whole supply chain/production process, and really easy to assume from the outside that the solution is simple. Since I’ve never worked in textiles, it’s been hard for me to grasp the root of the problem. In this case, it’s becoming more clear to me that making a shift is going to be a challenge, since it’s hard for home sewists to buy more of something that’s hard for us to buy in the first place! It’s a lot like women in video games: women (and men) would use their dollars to vote for games that have strong female leads, but few of those games get made, so we can’t show our support, so producers take that as tacit consent to keep making the games they always have. Lather, rinse, repeat. Oy.

    • Angela

      I completely understand what you are saying! Going to my local Hancocks/JoAnns looking for knits is generally depressing.

  • Really great article! I find the whole fabric part of sewing to be frustrating. I have certain types and designs in my mind but can never find anything close to it. I worry about buying online because I like to feel the fabric first – but I think that’s more because I don’t know my fabrics as well as I could yet. Thanks for the great read and I really hope that fabrics can be manufactured here in the North American again.

    • Try swatching! I just ordered a bunch from fabric.com. It also helps to find a few retailers you can really trust when it comes to quality and supporting them whenever you can.

      • That’s what I’m going to start doing. That way I can test the fabric and also feel what different types are. Thanks 😀

  • Congrats on the article, Heather! (Editor’s hat: maybe add a link to Cotton+Steel?) It’s especially good to see the tips at the end. Maybe the chains would up their game if they couldn’t sell the low quality stuff..

    • It drives me crazy! The chains have buying power but they want to make as much profit as possible so they buy the cheap stuff and sell it at crazy markups (last time I was in fabricville they were selling polys for over $20/meter). I think it’s up to us as consumers to shake tehm out of that complacency. And I’ll mention the link thing to Sarai.

  • Angela

    The Peter joke was hilarious! I was reading through the article, mouth falling open, thinking I will have to pass on this newest pattern – completely forgetting the date! I must say, I love your taste in male models…. Ahem… LOL!

    I also enjoyed the article about where our fabric comes from, and what all goes into the choices that we find. I realized that I am exactly like Sunni described, waiting for sales, etc. and expecting those discount store prices on everything. So, while I am still one to look for a good deal (aren’t we all) I am now going to be more willing to purchase from those online stores, and use my money to support getting more quality fabrics available.

    As a side note, I read the book “Overdressed” – very interesting and depressing. One of the many things that really stuck with me was the discussion about how much money an average family spent on clothes years ago, and how much a dress from Sears, etc. cost. in today’s dollars. Wow… I had really no idea…. they spent more on their clothing than i do, but I’ll be the first to say looked better also. I need to be willing to spend more on fabric/clothes than I have been, and I am renewed in my determination to improve my sewing skills – and not feel guilty splurging on the good fabric.

    • I think that’s a GREAT attitude! I think our obsession with “cheap” is just hurting us overall, and sometimes a little shift in thinking lets us feel the value of the good stuff more. My thrifty Scottish grandfather used to tell me “Buy the best you can afford once rather than the cheap thing 20 times” and as I’m getting older I’m really taking that advice to heart. I don’t buy cheap shoes or clothing anymore; If I buy rainboots, I’ll get the $150 Hunters becuase I know they’ll last for 10 years rather than the $10 Target boots I know will have holes in them by the end of summer. If I buy a speaker for my house, I’m getting the Boise because I know it will last longer and give me more pleasure than something from Costco. It’s a good approach to food as well; I don’t mind paying more for organic eggs and milk because those prices seem more in line with what they should actually cost rather than the crazy industrialized hormone water they try to sell for $1 a liter. Not to poop on deals; I love them too. I just think if we want better quality stuff we have to be willing to pay for it!

      I have to add that book to my reading list, and thank you for appreciating my thong models 😉

      • Caitlyn Myers

        This is an argument I often hear, and I don’t disagree, but I think we also need a cultural shift in how we wear clothes. In some offices, for instance, you’d get the side-eye for wearing the same outfit two days in a row, or even twice in a week. That puts pressure on people to have more clothing to wear. And for someone who maybe doesn’t come from the most well-off background, who perhaps worked very hard to land a well-paying job in a well-dressed environment, there’s going to be a gap between what you’re expected to wear and what you can afford to buy, at least starting out. While I certainly applaud those who make a stand and scrimp and save to afford a few well-made, more costly pieces, I can’t fault someone who goes to F21 or H&M and buys a week’s worth of cheap blouses to get by. Heck, even without the nice office job, I can’t fault those in low-income situations who buy cheap clothes because the only alternative is to go naked. But now we’re verging on discussions of living wages and broader economic issues, which I think goes to show that the problems are systemic and will need to be tackled from several angles at once. Every little bit definitely helps, though.

        • I hear you 100%. I used to be an H&M and F21 girl myself. I think my own turn towards quality is just something that’s come with age, and being enraged one to many times by the planned obsolescence built into almost everything these days. It’s the fast fashion trap; we’re all expected to have the cool new thing all the time. And while I think it can serve people who are living a more dire economic reality than I am, I just wish there were more local, quality options available to everyone. The middle class is dying out and we’ve outsourced all of our working class jobs to third world countries and decimated our economy in the process. Vicious cycle! It’s why I turned to sewing, afterall.

      • Ciara

        hmmm. interesting outlook. does this mean you will be paying pattern testers going forward? after all, without them, you wouldn’t have a business. if we want better quality, like running our own pattern businesses, we should be willing to pay the people who help us!

        • You’re not wrong Ciara. It’s something I’ve thought a lot about and am hoping to improve in the future. It’s a hard call when you have lots and lots of people volunteering, happily, to do it for free and when you’re a tiny business operating on a shoestring. Food for thought.

      • John Yingling

        “Cheap” is literally the buzzword for today’s clothing. Apparel prices have never been this “cheap” in world history. The USA once had a clothing industry that was maintained by a number of quotas, taxes, import duties, etc. Then came NFTA and Mexican made goods, and finally the Chinese juggernaut and no import restrictions, and with it, cheap, disposable clothing. I think we (that is the American consumer) have become accustomed to those unrealistic prices, and with our hard won incomes, demand those lower costs. As practitioners of the craft of sewing/ design, I feel we are the voice in the wilderness crying out for quality over quantity. We know that any fine garment requires higher costs for better fabric, and every garment is made by hand, not a robot. Will we (sewing craftsmen and women) ever be able to convince the average American consumer what clothing really costs?

        • Thank you for your comment John! Ahhh NAFTA. As a former employee of Daimler-Chrysler, I saw first hand what NAFTA did to the North American auto industry, and my hometown and many working class towns like it. Folks who once made $60G a year and could buy homes and send their kids to university are now working at Tim Horton’s and struggling to pay rent. It’s a real tragedy. I’m not sure if we’ll ever go back to that way of life again; how do you turn the tides on global trade? Globetex is a great company because the owner has started a sewing facility here in Montreal; he’s trying to bring back manufacturing facilities in Montreal. I think just raising the issue and talking about it helps a lot. So does turning as many people as possible on to sewing 😉

  • Jen

    Interesting article on the fabric business. From time to time I buy from fabricdotcom and one thing that has bothered me for awhile is the lack of source information. It only says something like “domestic or imported.” That covers everything but tells me nothing! Frustrating.

    • I think I was looking at denim there and they said “domestic” but it was clear to me for some reason or another that it was from China. I wish they were a little more transparent!

  • I read your article last night and it was awesome!! Such great information. Hopefully with the increasing demand things will turn back around and we will get more North American mills. People need to stop focusing on cheap and focus on quality. I mean sure you can go and buy a $5 t-shirt, but a couple months later it falls apart and you need another one. Wouldn’t it be better to just spend $30-$40 on a nicer t-shirt that fits well and that you could wear for a couple years? Society is growing up again, slowly, and I have faith that we’ll get there.

    • It’s a hard switch to make. I honestly don’t know if it will ever happen en masse – we’re just growing used to crap. Someting breaking or falling apart isn’t really surprising anymore – it’s just the “way it is”. Change starts from within, I suppose.

    • anrev malasada

      What a condescending comment. Oh aren’t you better because you sew your clothes. bet for 99 percent of the people posting here selling is a more wasteful hobby than buying RTW is wasteful. Pick your battles.

  • How did I miss the April Fool’s Joke! That will go down in history!

  • I really loved your article, it was very interesting! Thanks!

  • The journalists are all wearing bifocals!

    I probably buy more fabric out of fear I will never see it again (like just about an hour ago) and I buy in larger quantities than I used to (it was bargain binned to $8, so five yards of screaming red rainwear…..). I am going to San Francisco/Britex next week, and have a laundry list of stuff I’m looking for (and I live in Seattle/District Fabrics and get to Portland/Mill End a few times a year)(It’s not a city, it’s a fabric store). Online shopping is still a mystery pig in a bottomless poke per content and sourcing, so I don’t do that much. Hey, while I’m ranting: I just got burned on Ebay; faux spandex with knockoff flawed ‘smoke’ print! OW!

    I guess it’s always true: if it’s cheap, it probably is.

    • I didn’t know you were in Seattle! I may be going on a West Coast trip this year if I can get the air miles together so I’ll have to stop by for a visit 😉

  • Mandy Varelis

    Excellent article! This is something I’ve thought more and more about over the last year as I’ve come back to sewing. I know where I can source some good Canadian wool for knitting, but not for sewing. It’s been a bit frustrating.
    I have a dream of visiting Montreal. My BFF lives there, and I’ve never gone to visit her. But I also want to run amok in the fabric district. 😀

    • Let me know if you do! Lots of fun places to go visit, and there are still a few I haven’t explored.

      • Mandy Varelis

        Deal! I’m living off stashed fabrics this year and doing sewing commission on the side. If I can’t save up enough for a trip to Montreal by next summer then I’ll be shocked. And after a year of fabic-fasting I’ll need to buy some more…

  • Nicely researched and well written! Really enjoyed reading it quite a bit.

  • Blogless Anna

    Great article Heather. Thanks for researching, writing & sharing.

    • You’re welcome Anna! Thanks for reading.

  • Kate Carvalho

    Great article. It will be so interesting to see the evolution of the fabric industry. I consider myself lucky to have The Fabric Store here in Auckland – an amazing range of top quality fabrics for reasonable prices. I spend hours caressing the fabrics there so I would find it hard to buy online! Definitely struggle to find chambray though.

    • And probably lots of access to NZ wool as well, you lucky duck! Merino is almost IMPOSSIBLE to get here.

  • SusanM

    Very interesting article. Now I understand why I couldn’t find any silk during my last visit to FabricLand. Buying fabric from the US isn’t really an option for me, given the postal rates and the exchange rate, so happy to hear that Globetex is open to the public (only 90 mins away). If you ever come to Ottawa, I highly recommend Fabrications – smallish but fabulous selection (great classes and lovely owners).

    • Noted! I highly recommend coming down for a trip. Globetex actually just got a bunch of silk in, though it’s mostly raw and sari prints.

  • I have a couple of random thoughts to add. I actually went shopping today at a local chain store (been a long time since I’ve shopped rtw) and I saw two specific fabrics that I’ve sewn with recently from joanns. Not sure what conclusions to draw from that but thought it was interesting. Also, I live in an area that was big in textile manufacturing before it all went overseas (upstate sc). I would love to see that industry come back to our area. Too many empty mills around. I know I’d be happy to pay more for quality fabrics if I knew they had a connection to my own community. Interesting article! Lots of food for thought.

    • Angela

      I completely agree! I’d absolutely want to support quality fabrics that were made here.

    • Oh if only we had more mills! The sad thing is, the longer they stay closed the harder it is to regain all the knowledge and skills….

  • Eleanor Prout

    I enjoyed your article and it was very illuminating but the suggestion that “I see the younger generation up and coming in the online community and they are much more confident in making purchases online when it comes to fabric, especially when you show them how it looks in a garment.” Is not really the case. Many people who have sewn for a considerable time are eager to get good quality fabric and if that means sourcing it online their age is immaterial.

    • You’re right Eleanor; age doesn’t really matter when it comes to buying fabric online, but I suspect there is a good chunk of folks who’ve been sewing for a longer time who prefer shopping in person just because that is what they’re used to. I don’t think Sunni was judging, just making a general statement about what she’s observed in the business. Regardless, I think that’s where the industry is moving one way or another!

  • great article, i started upcycling thrifted clothes as i was getting a bit disappointed by the quality of fabric for sale locally (i live in a small townand its also worked out v well indeed). However, when I do go ‘away’ it is always great when a fabric store has knowledgeable staff (that care). I read sunni’s blog fashionable stitch and i love the way she will talk about fabrics (I am even considering sewing a lace something………..)

    • You should check out my pal Tasha’s blog. She does some CRAZY stuff with upcycling (she volunteers at woman’s shelter and upycles their donations to be more fashionable). http://tashsewsclothes.com

  • Elizabeth

    What an excellent article! Where I live we have only a couple of stores where good quality fabric can be found, and often you really have to dig around. I don’t mind because I go where the fabric is, and I’d rather spend my time searching through a maze than buying something from a chain store that’s way overpriced and I know will only last me 2 or 3 washes after all of my hard work. I too upcycle vintage linens and clothes simply as a fabric source because the quality is so often better than what I can get my hands on elsewhere. I’ve started calling my local thrift store my weird fabric store.

    • Love it! I’ve find some great stuff thrifting. And the digging makes the reward that much more worth it.

      • Elizabeth

        The very best kind of treasure hunting!

  • Jillian Johns

    Just read the article. You literally took my thoughts and put them right on the page!!!! I’m so thrilled that you opened the doors on the plight of finding quality fabrics in the USA and how outsourcing has hurt many aspects of the sewing craft.
    I sew for both fun and necessity. Being highly allergic to different textiles/dyes/sizing on top of being a decadently unique body shape AND living in a state where fashion isn’t high on the importance scale makes my acquisition of quality fabrics increasingly hard. I once fell in love with a abstract floral 100% silk twill for a dress I sketched but the price and fees to get it to me would have blown my budget for months. Back in the day, i could have gone to a local store, have them order some and walk away happy with it in my arms. And the extra they order would have flown off the shelf, helping their profits. But so many independent fabric shops have closed in my state- it’s ridiculous!!! The resurgence of sewing now will hopefully bring them back. I would like very much to not have to wear polyester 24/7.

    • “A decadently unique body shape” is one of the best descriptions I’ve ever heard and I really hope it is the name of your blog if you have one. I think that even though there are many more people than there were, say, 10 years ago, we do not even come close to the sewing levels of 20 or 30 years ago, and we’re much more spread out. It’s tough to run a brick and mortar of any kind, let alone one for a “decadently unique” hobby. Most stores have been in business for a long time, and as the owners retire, no one is stepping up to fill the hole. I have a few beloved places that will close forever once the elderly owners decide its time to retire and I’m in premature mourning already! Online retailers are the way of the future, unless we swell in such numbers that the neighborhood fabric store can return….

      • Jillian Johns

        LOL I do have a blog (that has grown cobwebs on it!)- maybe I should change the name to that 🙂
        I really wish that the brick and mortar fabric stores were as plentiful as they were in my mother’s and grandmother’s times. I’ve been to Mood in NYC among other wonderful stops and G Street in Rockville, MD. But I hope to one day visit various iconic stores around the country and maybe even buy some textiles in London/Paris/Rome/etc. Being able to reach out and touch the fabric is one of the best experiences. *sniffle, sniffle* I just want to sew pretty things! Is that too much to ask of the world?

  • Great article Heather! While I am a total fiber snob I am also very budget conscious. I do shop the chain stores with coupons, but I love to support local stores when I can. I usually do that while traveling and spend my shopping money on fabric. Since I don’t purchase ready made clothing very often I can justify splurging on fabric more often. Keep up the good work!

    • I’ll hit the chains every once and a while, but I’m very lucky to have lots of small local businesses in this city to support as well. It’s just good to keep in mind how much they upcharge everything there; at the Fabricville I’ll frequently see polyester for $22 a yard and I KNOW they paid .25 a yard for it!

  • Ann

    My husband has been sooooo upset that I can’t make him one of those thongs. We did enjoy your April fools post

    • Hahahaha, I’m sure it wouldn’t be hard to figure out 😉

  • Roberta Fahrni

    Really, really good article! Thank you for your hard work.

  • sallieforrer

    Awesome article!! I often think that if I were to go back in time I would try and get into textiles – there is just something about fabric that feels so rich, and its history so fascinating.

    I think what can be really frustrating for me is when I see good fabrics in RTW, but those fabrics just aren’t appearing on the bolt. Like chambray – J crew and Madewell have used beautiful chambrays so I KNOW they exist out there, but it’s just so hard to get my sewing mitts on them! It sounds like this is a frustration for fabric retailers too. I really want to believe that through our sewing community we have the power to change some of this, and if I shift my focus entirely to my online universe it doesn’t seem like a stretch. However, when I look around me in my real life, where I am the only person I know who sews and I have to drive 45 minutes just to find a JoAnn’s, where the closest large city to me (which is a pretty damn big city) only has two fabric stores, the prospect looks much more dismal. If the ‘younger generation’ of sewers seems more comfortable buying online it’s because what other option do we have?