Fabric is everything in this game. If you don’t have it, you can’t do anything. Fabric is the engine in the car; without it, you’re not going anywhere. Fabric selection needs to happen before you start sampling a piece. Your pattern maker will take the fabric into account when they draw the pattern. Fabrics stretch, drape and shrink differently, and this all needs to be accounted for. If you took the same pattern and made the garment out of two different fabrics, they would come out differently. Sometimes, even using the same fabric but switching colors can produce minor differences. Fabric is a living organism. It always changes when you apply different process to it.
Early on, buying the right fabric at the right price will be hard. Most mills (fabric suppliers) have minimums, and you won’t be able to meet them. But there are always ways to make due. Some people buy fabric retail (i.e. full price), but I advise against this. First, you’re going to be paying an exorbitant amount for fabric that you might be able to find with a lot of research for 1/3 of the price. Second, even if you did buy retail for sampling, it will kill you when you go into production because it’s so expensive and you won't get a price break if you buy a lot. So I generally stay away from retail fabric, even in the ideation phase, so you plan everything without retail fabric in your head.
Next comes a fabric distributor, who prices fabric somewhere in between retail and wholesale (from a mill). Distributors work with many different mills and will accordingly mark the fabric up to cover their costs, but it’s usually not as egregious as a retail fabric store. Distributors are fine to work with, especially since they often have access to additional fabric, as opposed to fabric that’s a mill end (when there’s no more left), which can be dangerous if you’re going into production in the future. Don’t start sampling with a fabric unless you’re sure you can buy it for production. Again, swapping fabrics before production can wreak havoc on the results.
Buying directly from a fabric mill is ideal. But when you’re small this can be hard. Mills have minimums for production, sporadic sampling allotments, and it’s hard to get them to care about you when you’re little. But they are possible to work with. The best way to do so is work with mills on your core fabrics. If you’re using a lot of cotton jersey for t-shirts, find a good place for this jersey. If you’re going to use a lot of it, they might work with you to alleviate minimums if you show them the demand. Mills get frustrated when you ask them for 10 yards when they’re used to selling 1000 yards at a time. The more you can understand where they are coming from the easier they will be to work with. If they shut you out, there’s usually a reason. We thought we found a great mill but since they only took orders for 10,000 yards and up, they just said no, which we understood.
A few other notes about mills
- Mills often have sampling allotments and then production allotments. Don't say you’re buying fabric for sampling and then use it for production. They will get annoyed (and might not work with you again) if they find out, since they take a loss on the sampling prices knowing you will come back and buy a lot more for production.
- Most mills have showrooms, which is how you start working with them. You can see all of their collections in these showrooms, along with those from other mills. Visit these showrooms as frequently as you can, since there's always new fabric coming in and you want to build relationships with the people who work there.
- Showrooms will send you sample swatches for days and days. Take them up on this and start building a fabric library. You might not see a need for some fabrics now, but if you have them set aside and know how much they cost and where they are from, it's a lot easier to move fast when you decide to use the fabric.
How much fabric do I buy?
Even if you found the perfect fabric, you’re in trouble if you don’t buy enough of it. Finding out how much fabric to order happens by taking the usable width of the fabric and seeing how much a single garment takes up when laid flat on the fabric. This is how you calculate your fabric yield. The usable width is the width of the fabric that you can cut from. All fabric has a bit of selvedge (waste) on the edges, which isn't usable. You can see this, as it often has dots or marks on it. So if the full width of the fabric is 60”, the usable width might be 58.”
You should get rough yields as early as possible. Once the first or second sample is complete, ask your pattern maker to calculate a yield with the intended fabric. Later on, once you have a final pattern and make a marker, you will have more exact yields, but a rough yield works for now. If you have to order fabric before you make your marker and get your final yields, I would order 20-30% more fabric than you need to. (We’ll have a post dedicated to marking and grading soon.) If you get your yields after marking and grading, order 10-20% more fabric than you think you need. It disappears fast, there’s always waste and mistakes, and having more is much better than having too little.
And remember, fabric is everything.