Ironies of fabric sourcing

I often talk to Kathleen about my woes of being a DE and starting off small. One of the biggest problems I have is sourcing fabric at small minimums, meaning 100 yards or less per fabric. Many of you know the drill; most of the companies that sell in small quantities are so popular that their fabric is everywhere. It becomes nearly impossible to design a unique collection based on these fabrics because you see them everywhere you turn– including fabric stores. If you want good fabric -not seen everywhere- the minimums seem to be 200-500 yards and up.


I once took an apparel manufacturing class from a consultant and asked her what she thought was the number one problem small designers make. Guess what she said? She said it was getting in over their heads with fabric quantities and sitting on too much fabric. At first I thought that couldn’t be but as I got into manufacturing, I began to see why and how so many companies get caught up with too much fabric. In my case, as a manufacturer who retails my own products, my quantities will always be smaller than DEs who sell to retailers. It seems that anytime I find a company that offers reasonable minimums, the fabric is of a lower quality than would be fitting for what I am manufacturing, or everybody has it. Now that alone isn’t reason enough for a post like this, after all, who wants to hear me whine about my problems with sourcing fabric?

The ironic thing about this is that whenever I can speak to companies about fabric sourcing, they tell me that most American fabric manufacturers or converters are in financial trouble and are losing most of their business to imports from China or other Asian countries and I can see why. For example, once I was looking for hand loomed or machine knit loungewear. As you know, this is a dying industry here in the US. To track down knitters, I had to take a circuitous route; first I tracked down the machinery used to do this type of garment knitting (often called full fashioned knitwear if you want to know). Then I located one sales office for one of the largest machine manufacturers and had an interesting conversation. The salesman proceeded to tell me how they have lost so much business to China that they are re-marketing their machinery to other industries or they face going out of business here in the US (their other sales offices in other countries are doing fine). Then, he told me that many of the knitters were also going out of business and that very few of those left would take on a small customer.

He was right. One company he referred me to told me flat out, that he would not even consider an order under 2,000 pieces. And I called Kathleen to complain about it because, quite honestly, companies with those kinds of needs don’t exactly fall out of the sky and unless they are forced to a very short time-line, they will source from China or any other country for a fraction of what they would pay here. So why does this company have such high minimums when the very customers who can meet those minimums won’t even source their needs with this supplier? Time and time again -just like all of you- I keep coming up against this problem.

I find the key problem is:
American manufacturers are losing business because companies are sourcing overseas, yet they won’t lower their minimums to service companies that must source and produce domestically.

Kathleen has often said that as much as these companies complain about losing business, she doesn’t feel sorry for them because they won’t deal with small companies. Many will say they can’t, but it seems that if you’re facing going out of business, you don’t have the luxury if sitting around and talking about what you will and won’t do -you just find a way to make it work!

Companies could find a way to service small businesses profitably if they took a look at how they operate. There’s no way you can convince me that it can’t be done, because it can. Other US-based companies are figuring it out. European companies are figuring it out. Asian companies are figuring it out. By the way, I know of one US company that offers sourcing in Asia and I can get hand loomed knitwear with a 72 piece minimum. Sure it’ll cost me more but I can get that to work within my means.

Many other industries have adapted to service smaller clients, whether it means accumulating orders for a “gang run” (where you produce multiple orders at one time), adapting new technology, finding leaner ways to operate, or combining forces with other companies which allows you to produce smaller orders. Smart DEs know what they are up against and more than anything, they are looking for companies to work with them. And returning to my first point, it seems counterproductive that DEs have to “get in over their heads” with fabric just to produce a product line.

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19 comments

  1. Carol says:

    Miracle, your tone isn’t the least bit whiney.

    Frustrated, yes, but that’s the logical reaction.

    I also cannot understand why, when faced with going out of business, these folks won’t at least consider changing their business parameters. What, the other guys will sneer at them? And the now-successful lean-thinking companies can laugh right back all the way to the bank when the big guys who used to set the rules go under.

  2. Josh says:

    Like I said, our only sollution is for small DEs to unite and form an organization that seeks to educate these companies. Be it writing letters in mass to the companies or advertising in magazines like WWD to reach them. If we aren’t even willing to do that, then we are just as dim-witted as the fabric mills. We have to show them we are here and that we mean business.

    The first thing we should do is get a .org website with the name of our organization. I’m willing to set up the website and and pay for it and design it etc.

  3. Josh says:

    Jess has made a good point to me. Something we may not have thought of when it comes to high yardage mins. If you think of it in terms of fonts. When a font is cheaply priced it sells to a lot of people and you start to see it everywhere. Same thing for fabric right? Maybe that’s why they sell such high mins. Because they know their clients don’t want to see their fabric everywhere. Could this be the real problem?

    What shall we name our organization?

  4. Josh,

    I don’t think that’s it. I’m educated guessing here, based on the info given to me by Terrence Chermak of Britannia Mills (WONDERFUL sales rep. informative. not condescending. prompt. etc.)–
    High minimums exist because for the mills have to buy yarn, program their weaving/knitting machines, and whatever special for each fabric. THEY have to but yarn in certain quantities & weave/knit a certain amount at a time, so it’s hard for them to make money unless they sell it all.
    So, unless they ARE organized enough to do gang-runs, their stuck with fabric thay don’t know how to sell. What we’re saying is goddamnit, get organized. Maybe I could invite Terrence to comment here, he might have more useful information to give us….

  5. MW says:

    I don’t think that’s it. I’m educated guessing here, based on the info given to me by Terrence Chermak of Britannia Mills (WONDERFUL sales rep. informative. not condescending. prompt. etc.)–
    High minimums exist because for the mills have to buy yarn, program their weaving/knitting machines, and whatever special for each fabric. THEY have to but yarn in certain quantities & weave/knit a certain amount at a time, so it’s hard for them to make money unless they sell it all.
    So, unless they ARE organized enough to do gang-runs, their stuck with fabric thay don’t know how to sell. What we’re saying is goddamnit, get organized. Maybe I could invite Terrence to comment here, he might have more useful information to give us….

    This is exactly true, when you are speaking of knitting and weaving mills, etc. They basically “make to order” and most don’t run stock programs on all their fabric offerings because it would be unprofitable to hold on to so much inventory.

    Typically DEs are left to buy from converters (those who buy greige goods and dye and/or print it) but still, they often have very high minimums and DEs like us are left with those who stock fabric or are jobbers.

    However, I do believe there are ways for mills to offer their more popular fabrics on a gang run basis to service the needs of DEs. For example, when you look at custom made/colored boxes, companies often have a schedule of when they will produce a certain style. Enough intervals to provide a run at least twice a year, but enough lead time to order.

    Mills could very well offer a scheduled manufacturing service whereby if you wanted to order X fabric, that would be produced X times a year and you would need to order in by X date. I mean, the way DEs source overseas for fabric and deal with long transit times by ocean, you can make that work.

    It would be more efficient for the mill to work in conjunction with the DE organization becuase the mill would know of more leads who wanted their fabric but could not meet the minimum than a DE organization would have a number of members wanting the same fabric.

    And if a mill can’t actually organize gang runs, you could ALSO have several mills team up to offer a small minimum fabric service to DEs. Basically they could co-op their own sales agent/middleman that could work in conjunction with smaller companies. I’m sure many would balk at the idea of working with competitors, but if you’re facing extinction, what are you gonna do?

  6. kathleen says:

    About the proposed organization of designer-entrepreneurs. I used to run one called NADEIM (nat’l assoc of d-e’s and independent manufacturers) but I never formally incorporated it but it has some name recognition. I’d like to be involved with this one in a pivotal way but I can’t handle the admin part of it. I’ve created a topic area in the bulletin board. You can find it at: http://fashion-incubator.com/phpbb/viewforum.php?f=45

    Please carry the discussion over there so that the topic can be discussed readily. Let’s reserve the rest of the comments in this area to deal with the topic of sourcing ironies. Thanks.

  7. Joy Jones says:

    Regarding sourcing, I’m in the process of getting information from one US and several India-based converters (fabric printers) regarding custom prints – it’s a big step for a newbie DE, but there it is. However, several of the firms are taking days to get back to me with info, and seem curiously shy to give yardage prices. What gives? I know my turnaround and sample requirements, my expected production needs, now I need yardage prices.

  8. Vinu says:

    You mentioned
    “I know of one US company that offers sourcing in Asia and I can get hand loomed knitwear with a 72 piece minimum”

    Please could you let me know which US company this is. I would love to know more about getting short runs created.

    Thanks

  9. BUD says:

    Hi All

    This topic really got me interested, coz we have been saying this all along to our buyers and potential buyers–that you have the right to good fabrics at good prices, without buying BIG.

    We at Atlantis fabrics have been saying this all along that we work to serve small business and new/budding designers.
    We can offer all fabrics right here in the US,through our international warehouse.
    These include patchwork madras fabric,organic cotton,bamboo fabric,silk,linen,batik,cotton prints,and some knits as well.
    For our retail fabrics, log on to our site. And for wholesale fabrics, leave us an enquiry on the contact section.
    We believe that small businesses can have access to the same unique fabrics from India & other destinations as can big businesses.

  10. Terrence Chermak says:

    Maybe I could invite Terrence to comment here, he might have more useful information to give us…

    so here I am! What would you like to know?

  11. Alex says:

    I can see why companies are going to China for their fabrics. I have helped one client of mine to find the fabric she wanted to knock off. She used to buy it from Europe for $$$ and when I found her a manufacture of the fabric in China for her, the cost was bought down to 1/5!

    This might also be the reason that companies are reluctant to do small orders. They spent a lot money in R&D on new fabrics and they get knocked off in 2 weeks.

    Btw, we are a fabric library in New York and we do very small qualities. The smallest quantity we did was only 25 yards with customized print. The price? Even after shipping and everything, just about 4/5 of the America’s retail price.

  12. Nadu says:

    I’m so glad I’ve stumbled onto this blog. I was having a hard time finding a fabric source for my line specifically because I wanted uniqueness and availability. Being able to design my own prints even if they’d be knocked off would be ideal. I’ve found a couple of places that will do this, but the prices are quite steep per yard, which would force the pricing of my final product to go up. The prices aren’t so steep however, that I couldn’t see myself spending the money since it would provide me the control to create exactly what I want, I can buy in small quantities and I can have them re-printed at my discretion. The only downside is the limited amount of fabric choices, but I can always supplement that with basics.

  13. I’ve been working on something problems in the UK so hope nobody minds me reviving and old thread.

    Problem One: Old machines are slow to set-up; they were not built for small batches. One shoe factory has found a way of using layers of carbon paper to record the amount of pull needed to stretch each material, for example, because the standard way is trial and error! I don’t know the equivalent for looms, but it will be something similar.

    Problem Two: The cost of handling an order. There is a myth that it costs $15 to send an invoice. Most of us who run online shops know that there are ways around this: put each easy option on an online form and require payment before delivery for example. But in a shrunken industry a lot of the people working in it are in their 60s and don’t want to learn new tricks.

    Problem Three: I’m going-on longer than expected here! Those people in their 60s were used to good trades directories geared to people who had studied a trade at a college. And the trades directories are no longer published (thinking of UK shoemaking anyway) so designer manufacturers can help by putting something online with every scrap of detail. Google UK shoe manufacturers and you’ll find http://bit.ly/shoefactories – just a google doc but maybe others can do better. Otherwise buyers tend to assume that there are no local factories left, or try one and get fed-up because it doesn’t do what they had in mind. You even find buyers saying that their china-price fabric is ethically better for some environmental reason when it’s been made in a bad country and shipped round the world.

    Problem Four: Clubbing together. This is a problem caused by designer manufacturers more than factories, who would love us to buy together and share-out. In UK footwear, wholesalers used to to this but now there isn’t enough margin for them to handle locally-made goods. If they buy from round the world, retailers can’t tell what they’ll have in stock in future or where to get it when the wholesaler runs-out, so it’s unreliable.

    I want to use http://www.Crowdfunding.co.uk to see if retail T-shirt buyers will club together and commit to paying before a batch is made. In the US there’s http://www.kickstarter.com that could fulfill a similar role. The crowdfunding idea is that if enough backers commit to pay an amount and give card details, the batch of goods is made and buyers get delivery.

    I’d better stop writing before I go-on too long.

  14. hello everyone, I hear you, I have been trying to source terrycloth for 5 years now and all I keep getting from everyone are very high minimums or nobody has it at all. The only places I have found what I need is from China, India or overseas somewhere and you have to buy a container full of each color and I use 9 different colors, what happened to buying in the good old USA I produce a line of pants,shorts,skirts and bags made from towels and for the last 9 years we have been buying towels retail from places like JC Penny Sears and Kmart I cant even find somone to buy towel at wholesale here in the USA. What has happened to good old American business know how

  15. Kathleen Fasanella

    What happened is that the largest purchasers of fabric, moved operations off shore. Compounding matters, they started using package services to include product development, sourcing and production so it only made sense that the contractors there, used local fabric sources.

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