Sourcing fabric for new collections is one of the most exciting aspects of running a fashion label. But if you are new to the experience, knowing where to go and what to ask for will make a difference to your product.
When I started my business, I was lucky, because I bought my cloth from a great retailer in London who also sold minimum quantities (25 metres across 3 colours) at wholesale prices. This was rather unusual in the 1990s and I was upset when they switched to retail sales only. But as they say, all good things come to an end and indeed they did.
However, when I subsequently found out about Premiere Vision, a fabric and trimmings trade fair in Paris, I needed no excuses to visit one of my favourite cities. Some of the fabric suppliers held stock at their warehouses so it was relatively easy to visit the fair, order sampling and then order larger quantities when your production order book closed.
Fast forward to the 21st century, and so many things have changed.
It’s almost impossible to find stock houses that sell anything other than base fabrics in low to medium quantities. All the fancy fabrics that you will probably love and want to use, are available to order in minimums usually starting from 100 metres per colour!
I think it’s key to keep an open mind when it comes to sourcing fabric. First, I suggest you work backwards. Try not to become too fixated on a specific fabric until you have found a supplier who is prepared to sell small quantities at wholesale prices.
Why not design your collection based on the fabrics and trims that are available to you?
10 Tips for sourcing fabric
1) Finding suppliers
Find a wholesale supplier who will be able to reliably provide you with the quantity of fabric you need. Talk to your sample maker and visit fabric trade fairs where dealers are ready and willing to give you plenty of swatches to build up your materials library.
Smaller materials quantities are typically expensive. Find out whether the supplier has wholesale or tiered pricing, as this can affect your overall profit margin.
3) Minimum and maximum quantities
Some suppliers demand a minimum order of a few hundred metres of fabric. As a start-up, this may be too much to order. As an alternative, look for suppliers with lower minimums, or negotiate terms and settle on a compromise that suits both of you.
4) Repeat orders
Will your supplier be able to repeat your order of a particular fabric? This is an important consideration for many who are forward-thinking and plan for some styles to perhaps remain as core products in the collections and be repeated season after season.
5) Estimation of fabric usage
Figuring out how much fabric you will need is very difficult to do in the first stages of a new business, as it’s impossible to determine how well your collection will sell. Therefore, source suppliers with fabrics that are available in bulk for production, when required, but can also be sourced in smaller quantities for your sampling needs.
6) Fabric width
Fabric prices are always based on the length of the fabric, not the width. Widths also vary between types of fabrics. By enquiring with the supplier you may find that you can order less fabric than you originally thought because it is wider than anticipated. You can reduce your costs through overestimation by doing a lay plan of all of your pattern pieces before you order fabric.
7) Printed fabrics
Specialist coated materials for digital print requirements do not have minimum quantities. Some of these companies also don’t impose a minimum sampling amount. However, the larger the order the smaller the charge.
8) Lead times
Enquire about the time requirements for the production of bulk orders. Factor in the lead time so your manufacturing is made and delivered when you need it.
Contact fabric agents, as they may be able to give you advice on finding suppliers for your particular requirements. Or they also can offer better trading terms, due to the leverage they have with mills.
10) Make use of your factory
Ask the factory to help with your fabric sourcing requirements. Some know of suppliers that don’t exhibit but can help you. Again, they may be able to get the mill to offer you better terms, based on the relationship they have.
There are different types of suppliers
It’s important to understand that there is diversity in suppliers. Some will hold stock and be ready to post it to you as soon as you need it. Some will make it order just for you.
Other suppliers, traditionally called Jobbers, will only be able to provide you with what they have on hand. They buy large – usually discontinued – fabric lots directly from manufacturers, so, once the supply is gone you won’t be able to get it again.
Go directly to the supplier
If possible, go directly to the fabric manufacturer, as it will save you money by cutting out the middleman: the agent.
Also – by getting to know them and developing a personal relationship, you may in time have them offer you more favourable terms. Also – if your brand depends on the quality of the fabrics, then getting to know your mill and working with them to develop particular fabrics in the future can be a great differentiation point for your brand.
Sourcing fabric suppliers types
If your desire is to go into full production for your own shop, for example, you will need to source a reliable wholesaler who can guarantee the stock you need. Fabric suppliers can be divided into different types, based on how they operate and what they stock.
- CONVERTERS buy grey goods and sell them as finished fabrics. A Converter organizes and manages the process of finishing the fabric to a buyer’s specifications, particularly the bleaching, dyeing, printing, and any fancy finishes.
- MILLS provide fabrics with high minimums.
- JOBBERS carry limited stock and sell it at reduced prices. They are great for sourcing material for small runs.
Here is a list of trade shows:
These are great for emerging designers as you’re able to see a vast amount of fabric companies under one roof. Once you have selected the fabrics that you like you can order samples and build up your materials directory. With a plethora of fabric fairs to choose from, I would start locally, and if you’re not successful then try the big Fabric Fairs.
I’ve always found that the UK mills provide a great selection of base fabrics. Cotton, shirting, woollens, and knits are always in plentiful supply.
Textile Forum London is a bi-annual fabric trade fair that was founded in 2002. It now attracts designers and fabric buyers from major retail groups and brands, established fashion businesses and start-ups, as well as the next generation designers from the top fashion and textile colleges. Exhibitors supply fabrics with a small quantity option, to provide inspiration for menswear, womenswear and childrenswear collections, including daywear, eveningwear, bridal, lingerie and accessories.
The London Textile Fair was established in 2007 by John Kelley, at a small club in Marylebone. At this first fair, there were 25 exhibitors set out in two rooms with just tables, chairs, signs and rails. The style and concept have been so successful that this show has grown annually, with over 400 exhibitors at the January 2017 exhibition. This event is held twice-yearly in Islington, London. Agents represent the mills you may want to buy fabric from. If that isn’t possible you will find lists of the agents on the trade fair websites.
One of the largest fairs in Europe that represents mills selling materials for clothing is Premiere Vision. It’s set in a huge hall in Parc des Expositions, full of companies selling all you could possibly need. Within the halls are forums that display the Best in Class fabrics from the mills that are showing at the fair. You can write down the reference numbers of the fabrics and visit the suppliers. Pay particular attention to halls 5 and 6, as they showcase fabrics, which offer up the season’s fashion directions 18 months in advance.
Texworld Paris showcases 950 fabric manufacturers from 27 countries, including over 100 eco-friendly-certified exhibitors. Trims and accessories are also available.
Techtextil in Frankfurt is the leading international trade fair for technical textiles and nonwovens. It shows the full range of potential uses of textile technologies.
Canton Fair in China is one of the biggest trade fairs in the world. It is held every spring and autumn in Guangzhou, China. Fabrics are showcased in the 3rd Phase (which is the 2nd phase) of the fair. Right from different types of fabrics to fibre and yarn, over 600 exhibitors participate overall.
India International Garment Fair or IIGF is the biggest garment fair in India that is held twice a year in New Delhi. Organic to synthetic, garments to accessories, over 300 exhibitors participate in this apparel trade fair.
Here’s how you can find trade shows online
The online portals are a fantastic resource. With many manufacturers to choose from and various fabric categories, the below are great places to start looking. Remember, wholesalers have different fabric minimums across the board, so always check beforehand.
Here are some Jobbers resources
Woodcrest: London based Woolcrest Textiles (6 Well St, London E9 7PX) is a wholesale fabric warehouse that sells to the public. They supply good quality wools, silks, linens and fashion at low prices. Go with an open mind as while you may not find what you’re specifically looking for, you will find something. Prices range from £2.00 to £2.50 per metre for linens, £3.00 per metre for silks, and £5.00 to £7.00 per metre for wool for coats, trousers, and jackets. There are some real treasures here but be prepared to spend a little time looking.
Cloth House: London based Warehouse Shop, 130 Royal College Street, Camden, London NW1 0TA. Cloth House has recently opened a warehouse shop which sells a large selection of discontinued fabrics from previous collections. This would be a perfect place to source small runs of cloth for production for a pop-up shop.
Your strategy for sourcing should be evolving constantly, just like the rest of your business. Keep looking for new suppliers and continue to understand how much your current ones can provide. Think of sourcing as a way to discover new materials and to manage your costs, and what can be an overwhelming process will instead become a key differentiator for your brand.
SOURCING FABRIC TOP TIPS [sum up]
- Find the fabric suppliers prior to designing the collection.
- Talk to your sample maker and the fabric agents for contacts.
- Know the differences between suppliers.
- Visit local trade fairs first before venturing further afield.
- Take pictures at the fairs.
- Compile a swatch library from the fabric hangers you receive from the fairs.
- Supply business cards to potential suppliers at the fairs.
- Cut out the middleman (agent) if at all possible and deal with the fabric manufacturer directly.
As a start-up, you can’t afford to make mistakes as you may not get a second chance. Providing you have all of the items mentioned in our article about Fashion Wholesale, there’s no reason for you not to walk away with an encouraging first order from your dream shop. There’s also a free Sales Pack checklist in the end if you want to download it.