The True Cost of Fabric and Fashion

The True Cost of Fabric and Fashion - Marcy Tilton Fabrics

Where Does Fabric Come From?

Katherine and I are just back from a buying trip, and I've got fabric and textiles on my mind. First, thanks to those of you who responded to my shout out on Facebook asking for requests for colors and types of fabric that you are looking for. Over a 5 day period, we looked at thousands of fabrics and after reading one post from a woman who requested more warm toned colors, we went back and found some. We walked a show aimed at manufacturers/designers and plowed through warehouses, digging through piles and stacks. While we reject most of what we find, we always find lots of beautiful things. Some have arrived already, others coming soon. I've already started a gathering for Fall, and this month am working on 3 Vogue patterns for Spring 2018.

In the photos below, samplings of fabrics arranged by color in a display assembled by a trend forecasting company. Each fabric is tagged with the vendor and booth. While it was fun to peruse the samples, we did not see a lot to tempt. I did find a fabulous linen print, but from a big mill in China, and the minimum order is 500 yards.

How The Fabric Gets To You

Lets chat a bit about the fabrics that find the way into your stash. Back in the day when I studied textiles in college, every fabric came labeled with the fiber content, (it was the law), but things are different now. Very few fabrics are produced in the US anymore. True, there are small artisan mills cropping up, and there ARE cotton fabrics produced especially for the US quilting market, but virtually no fabrics at all are produced specifically for people like you and me who make our own clothes.

Many of the fabrics I find are leftovers from manufacturers and designers sold by middlemen called 'jobbers'. Most of these fabrics come without any labels or indication of fiber content. (If I find a label I take a photo for future reference). The jobbers and their assistants know their goods and are skilled at guessing the fiber content, whipping a lighter out of their pocket, clipping a scrap of the fabric and setting it on fire. Sniff, feel the burned edge, then make an educated guess. You can learn to do the same thing, simply Google: how to determine fiber content of fabric and you'll find a wealth of information, articles on the topic from Vogue Patterns Magazine, Threads Magazine, You Tube videos. blogs and much more. It serves you well to become educated about fabrics and how to pre-treat and care for them, and it is part of my personal mission to educate my staff and my customers.

There ARE a few suppliers who manufacture fabrics specifically for clothing, and these all have the fiber content labeled. Most of these fabrics are produced offshore in China and Asia (Korea, Taiwan etc.). Some of these suppliers are designing the fabrics themselves. Others work directly with the mills, using designs created by the mills, and may work with several different mills to create the line of fabrics they offer. For these companies, their primary customers are designer/manufacturers producing lines of clothing. People like me who provide fabric for the home sewing market are the tip of the iceberg.

A few jobbers specialize in European fabrics. These guys have connections with mills in Italy and France. They travel to Europe and buy designer leftovers from different mills, which are then put in containers and shipped to the US or Canada. These are upper-end fabrics, produced in old mills on old machinery combining new technology with old quality.

Fortunately, I love the hunter/gatherer part of the process, and never tire of searching out the best in what is offered, then editing it down to what you find at I love every step of the way; finding the fabric, assembling it into a collection, doing the photography, editing the photos and finally, writing the descriptions and posting the fabrics for our customers online.

Meet Harvey

Harvey is a jobber with an interesting story. He is a Brit, a Cockney with a charming accent. Born in London. Been in the fabric business since he was 15, when he started as a 'fabric monkey', the nimble boy who scrambles up and down the ladders schlepping the bolts of fabric. Today he owns his own wholesale fabric business. Harvey knows a lot about fabric, and he has learned about me as his customer too, so I can rely on Harvey to point out a fabric I might not notice. Recently he pointed out some beautiful white and black cotton batistes, which I bought - sold out of both, and more white will be coming soon.

Here in photos taken in NYC, Harvey is wearing a vest and hat made from his own fabric by Al's Attire, a very interesting retail store/bespoke clothing business on Grant Avenue in San Francisco. Take a look at the website, and if you are in SF, stop by the store.

The Cost of Fabric vs the Price of Fabric

  • As a general rule, fabric that originates in Europe and Japan is superior in quality and higher in price.
  • Japan is producing beautiful fabrics in silk, cotton and synthetics, probably because of their kimono heritage and the tradition of artisan fabrics
  • India continues to produce beautiful fabrics using traditional techniques. These are no longer the cheap Indian bedspread types of fabric, but modern interpretations of classic techniques, and the price of cotton impacts this industry too.
  • If a fabric is labeled viscose/elastine it is probably from Europe, France or Italy
  • Ponder this for a moment. Natural fibers usually cost more. For cotton or linen this means someone had to prepare the field, plant it, water, cultivate, harvest, transport, prepare, warehouse, spin into thread, weave into cloth, finish, print, finish again, fold, transport. Prices of both linen and cotton keep escalating as the people who produce it are demanding a living wage as is only right.
  • Just like food, organic costs more.
If a jobber buys out a designer or manufacturer, they pay bottom dollar. BUT, as these sources go overseas, the jobbers engage in bidding wars, so the big guys can scoop up the whole lot and smaller supplier who have gone in and taken the upper end goods are cut out of the loop. One supplier, a long time family business just closed last year for this reason. Don't be prejudiced by ignoring synthetics. The new textile technology is producing some wonderful fabrics. Fabrics that are digitally printed cost more because they can be produced in smaller lots on different materials - sometimes the same print on different base fabrics, and the inks used in this process are more brilliant and cost more. The presence of nylon combined with other fibers is an indication of quality. Nylon is used to produce smoothness, as when it is combined with rayon and lycra in a ponte knit. Nylon can also be used to create texture, Italian mills combine nylon with wool to make beautiful coatings.

As sewists, in the past we grew accustomed to getting leftover fabric at almost give-a-way prices. This is no longer the case. Not as much fabric is available in the U.S., and there are more small designers competing for the same goods. In order to keep the costs level some fabric manufacturers are economizing on the quality and size of the thread so I see knits in particular getting very thin. While I love a good deal, as a maker I want to work with high quality materials, so as a fabric buyer I am gravitating toward the better stuff.

Love to hear your thoughts on this!

The Cost of Fabric and Fashion Please do take the time to watch this very interesting video lecture given by one of the world's top trend forcasters.

Li Edelkoort, one of the world’s most respected trend forecasters, gave a provocative talk on stage at VOICES, Here, she shares her thoughts on why the fashion system is broken, and how the industry can catch up with today’s reality and regain its cultural value as a change agent that pushes society forward. VOICES is BoF's new annual gathering for big thinkers in partnership with QIC Global Real Estate.

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