8 reasons you can’t use retail fabric for production

Please note that this applies to fabric for production. I realize that not everyone has the option to buy full bolts wholesale when they’re first starting out or even know how to buy wholesale fabric . This post is intended to help you understand that the fabric store is not a long term strategy. For many, it’s not even a short term option. Read on to see where you fit in.

1. Continuity
You have no guarantee that fabric you buy at the store (or from a jobber) will be available if you need to reorder.  If you want to guarantee supply, you’ll be forced to tie up money to buy fabric for a product that may not sell through. Experienced practitioners design based on sample fabrics and then order for production if sales interest is sufficient (the process is explained in my book). It’s hard enough to make a go of this without tying up your capital in aging fabric inventory. Seen eBay lately? That’s where everyone who went broke are offloading their inventory.

2. Off trend
Fabric at retail is usually on the downward slope of trends. If you’re making fashion items, it may not look dated to you but it will to anybody else you’d hope would buy from you. Fabric store fabric has a very short shelf life; it’s designed for immediate consumption because it will expire soon if it hasn’t already. Shopping at DIY outlets (farmer’s markets, Etsy etc) is a bit of an inside joke. To the experienced eye (wholesale buyers see a lot of product) it is very easy to pick out items made from retail fabric. It is close to impossible to generate wholesale orders with a retail based supply chain.  If a buyer knows you can’t or don’t know how to buy wholesale, how can they commit a portion of their budget to buy your stuff? Even if they love your concept, they won’t be confident enough to invest in your line because they think you won’t make delivery.

3. Out of sync with the fashion calendar
There is a good 9 month lag between ordering fabric samples for your designs and six months in ordering fabric for production (if sales justify it). To sell at wholesale, you need to be in sync with upcoming trends but designing for future delivery with fabric you buy today, guarantees your stuff will look dated as compared to your competitors, six to nine months from now. Large brands subscribe to trend bureau services but that is pricey for those starting out. Happily, most wholesale garment fabric suppliers subscribe so you can ride on their coat tails and save yourself some money on fashion forecasting.

4. Licensing
Some fabric at retail is licensed for consumer use, only because given fabric brands sell wholesale licenses to manufacturers of finished products intended for retail consumption. A good example is Disney. Disney licenses their property to a textile manufacturer who licenses the fabric to (for example) Diaper Bags R Us. Say you come along and make diaper bags of the store bought Disney fabric to sell to other people, Diaper Bags R Us is going to be unhappy and Disney will come after you because you’re infringing on the rights they sold to Diaper Bags R Us. If they don’t go after you, Diaper Bags R Us aren’t going to buy a license anymore and believe me, Disney makes more on manufacturers than they make on a retail bolt here and there. Sure you can litigate your rights to use the fabric as you see fit but good luck. If you had the money to win that battle, you would have had the money to license from Disney in the first place. Pick your poison.

5. So you thought it was wholesale
Many start ups are savvy enough to figure out that they need wholesale so they go to certain wholesale fabric shows that are easy to find (read: designed to be found easily) but not all wholesale is created equal. Specifically, you don’t want to attend wholesale shows that are intended for fabric store owners! You’re better off going to a wholesale show intended for the garment industry. Not only does it cost less but all of the colors, prints and textures are fresher. These aren’t hard to find. People from Fashion-Incubator arrange to meet up at every show so you wouldn’t have to go alone.

6. Folded fabric CANNOT be spread on industrial equipment
The put up of your fabric is the biggest reason of all; fabric that is folded in half and wound on pieces of flat cardboard cannot be spread in a production environment. The only fabric that sewing factories can work with is fabric that is rolled on tubes (ROT). All of our equipment, machines, markers etc, are designed for flat lays of fabric, not folds. The only businesses that will work with flat folded fabric are corner sewing shops; businesses that sew prom gowns and hem pants for the public. These may be a great way to start because they’re accessible and easy to find but their services are very, very expensive by comparison. If not in fees, then in fabric waste. Few of these businesses can afford long tables that use fabric efficiently.

7. Crease fades
Fabric folds fade because the folded edge takes more wear and exposure while stored and displayed. The folded edge ages much more quickly than goods to the inside. Again, this may not be obvious at the outset, especially to a neophyte but it is usually apparent after a consumer has washed the item a time or two. Again, fabric stores sell aging inventory in more than one respect.

8. Cost.
Last but not least, the most obvious reason to avoid buying fabric at retail is cost. How can you meet pricing targets of wholesale buyers if your input costs are two or three times higher than your competitors? I don’t think anything more need be said.

In conclusion:

The first rule of manufacturing is to find your fabric before you design anything and fabric store fabric isn’t going to cut it.

If someone is trying to explain the above to you and how material requirements of the commercial environment are critical, do not interrupt or contradict the other party or they may get the idea that you think you’re the smartest person in the room. If in doubt, do a reality check. Ask yourself, does this person stand to lose or make money depending on when and where you buy fabric? Do they stand to lose or gain depending on whether you buy flat rolled or folded fabric? Chances are excellent that the person has nothing to lose or gain. If so, listen up. I really do not know why I get so much grief from start ups about sourcing. Most people want wholesale because of cost but really, cost is the least of it.

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  1. Barbara says:

    Thank you for this and many other posts. I’m thinking of starting a little business and this post was very pertinent. Who wants to look old hat? How do I get it on purchasing wholesale fabric? Timeless fabrics like linen, cotton, silk and wool. Plain, no patterns.
    Thanks always.

  2. Kathleen says:

    Jason, I don’t know of any wholesalers here who will give samples, one must purchase at least 5 yards, some require 10. I’m not understanding why you must place production at the point of fabric purchase; is importing fabric not possible?

    Barbara: start by following the link I left on how to buy wholesale fabric. Read the comments too.

    Deborah: That’s also an option.

  3. Natasha E says:

    You forgot to mention those who swan around Mood or Michael Levines talking about their lines and demanding special attention. I dislike those people so much.

  4. cdthomas says:

    Do these considerations also work for crochet designers? It seems that the use of balls/skeins presents the same issues as using flat-folded fabric for production.

  5. Judy G says:

    I have frequently gotten fabric samples – 10 yards or more. Never had to pay for these samples, I just call, let them know what I’m looking for, what I’m making (tents) and explain that I need a 10 yard sample so I can make a sample and test it. – this is usually directly from the mills. ( I do then follow through with an order for 3000 yards or so)

  6. Gisela says:


    Great article as always! I had purchased your book years back and became a member with the intention of one day starting my own small line. I haven’t been up to speed on all your latest blog post and was wondering if you have touched on the subject of not going whole sale but designing and producing a few pieces and selling it yourself?

    I’m really weighing this option and I am trying to determine if this would be a good start for myself. I have worked both as a designer and production manager so I have the knowledge of whole sale fabrics etc. I really want to start small and grow from there. What is your opinion on “small run, home base designing” for a lack of better words.

    Community, I would love to hear from you as well if you have had experience in this area!

  7. Jason says:

    Hi Kathleen,

    The Fabric wholesalers I have spoken to have 50 metre minimum purchase. I think purchasing fabric from overseas is a good suggestion. In addition production costs are too high in Australia and the quality is poor. This is just from my experience though.

  8. Monica says:

    Thanks Kathleen for your timely blog post. I just talked to my first wholesale supplier a few days ago and ordered some samples. I reviewed your advice from the book and the call went better than I could ever imagined.

  9. Jay Arbetman says:

    That call went well because you were listening and you were open to do something different from what you are doing currently. And, I sense that you have ambition. You get all the credit for the call being informative and productive for both of us.

    Just bear in mind that every company that you buy from has different procedures and requirements. Some are generous with swatches and color cards. Some are not. Some will sell you 3 yds. Some have a 50 yd minimum. Some are lovely to work with. Some are difficult. A couple only have a fleeting regard for the truth.

    That said, there are wholesalers that are very interested in your business and will be fair and reasonable to work with.

  10. victoria kathrein says:

    My fabric search has actually taken my business aspirations to a dead end. Funny how that works. For anyone who tried to do this by the book, here is how it works: you are trying to buy fabrics from Korea, let’s say, at $8.00 per yard. Great stuff. Oops. You need to order 1500 yards minimum. Same for Taiwan of course. And China? well do I need to say more.

    Ok, you say, let’s try Europe. Yes you can buy 50 yards, but that will bring the price up 50% from its original price of $25 per yard. (The dollar is in the tank by the way) So now we are looking at $37.50 per yard. But WAIT! YOU STILL HAVE TO BRING IT HERE AND PAY FOR TARIFFS AND TAXES AND SHIPPING. Another 20%? Yep. So now all you can afford to make is a tube with holes for arms and head, because who can really afford a pattern maker and a factory at this point. And, all you can afford to make is 1 item.

    Sorry to be such a downer kids. Reality bites.

  11. Jay Arbetman says:

    I came across Victoria and her futile search. Well Victoria, since the time you were making your search, things have changed at least a little bit. In the area of knits, an incredible amount of customization can be expertly performed at 300 yds (and sometimes 300 meters). Custom printing is now somewhat doable though most minimums here

  12. Jay Arbetman says:

    sorry, sent by mistake

    printing is more like a 500 yd minimum. I just got hooked into some interesting custom dye services. If I look at what I can do now and what I could do say 4 years ago, the difference is enormous.

    I just did a 330 yd customer striped French Terry in 100% cotton. I’ve done all kinds of custom colors in rayon/spandex jersey and in other rayon derivatives.

    This is not to say that this stuff will fall into your lap. I’ve been trying to rep a good silk line for 10 years and have not found anything that was worth repping.

    Still, at the end of the day, you’ve got to look at what is available and then design into what can work. Reality might still bite, but not as hard as it used to.

  13. victoria kathrein says:

    Jay, I understand that you have to work with what you see. Unfortunately, I would rather just be a dilettante, as Kathleen puts it, then make something I don’t like. And, what I like is inaccessible either because of price point or minimums. I actually think the only way to do it is to buy 50, 30, 20 yards (whatever you can get) from a reputable jobber and just bite the bullet. Create inventory and go forward. Purchase one or two fabrics and limit your first collection to 1 or 2 items. Please refer to Kathleen’s book for that. BELIEVE ME if you are doing more than 3 pieces you will need deep pockets. Maybe there are some other mysterious ways, but I have not figured them out yet. Seriously, when you add the cost of fabric, production, shows, advertising, etc., you are looking at $25,000.

  14. Michelle C says:

    Great advice! I’m aware of a few of these issue, but very surprised to hear about a few others. There are a variety of local “manufactures with “brand-building” capabilities opening up. Of course, samples are about $3000 to start, but these companies are able to take care of many of the issues stated above. I’ll surely be sharing this information with prospective brand owners.

  15. Niina says:

    I have to comment on the section 4…Disney actually went after a small business owner, who made stuff out of store bought Disney-fabric and guess what? They have lost multiple times! Granted, I read about this few years ago so things might have changed, but the reasoning was something like that they didn’t advertise that they made Disney-products, so the items were just like any product, that just happened to made from Disney-material. There also might have been something about that fabric is such a product that whoever makes/sells it, have to expect someone to make something out of it.

    Just my two eurocents…

    • Kathleen says:

      The other part of my point was that you’ll need the money to fight it. If you do, awesome. If not, it may be better to look elsewhere. Tragically, these days the question is not always right vs wrong but who has the money to enforce their rights.

  16. ValeRia says:

    I will be very interested in your info Michelle C. I am starting new. Being new to all this. I have been having a problem myself in finding the right material. Came across this post. Very informative. Bought the book. I thought maybe I will get my design prototypes made. I cant find the fabric I want to use. OF course I am google queen. But no luck on the fabric stores or sites. My product does require leather too. So that is a whole other learning curve. Trying to get wholesale fabric and wholesale leather. Learning a lot along the way.

  17. michelle c says:


    Most companies I am finding are online. Many come from Oregon. They say they will create your “private label”, which I am sure after speaking with Kathleen, they are using the term wrong. Do not get spoiled by their nice photography or professional website. I wonder if the price they charge are reasonable when making a small collection. I can not recall the names of the companies, but if you check instagram and Tumblr you should run into various “made in USA” contractors.

    Finding affordable leather (faux or real) is VERY hard. Good luck in that. I am not finding any luck either. I will consider websites like http://www.spoonflower.com for other things, but they are expensive.

  18. Kathleen says:

    Sign up for the forum if you haven’t already. That is the best way to find sources. The best sources either aren’t online or aren’t seo optimized. They also don’t post much of their inventory online as this changes frequently.

    @michelle c

    I can not recall the names of the companies, but if you check instagram and Tumblr you should run into various “made in USA” contractors.

    Instagram and tumblr are precisely the places where I would not expect to find legitimate “made in USA” contractors. If the best contractors don’t even have websites, I sincerely doubt they even know what tumblr or instagram is, much less know where to find it. The best contractors don’t want to be found easily. This post, 5 reasons you can’t find a sewing contractor, explains.

  19. M. Trapp says:

    Hello all,

    Nice to meet you. I am a fashion designer in Charlotte, NC. I read your comments about sourcing, and was wondering if anyone knew of an overseas manufacturer that can print my own artwork on fabric. I saw a few “customize your own fabric” websites in the USA, however, they only print in repeatable tile patterns. That’s not what I had in mind. I want my artwork printed big on fabric. I guess you can say it can repeat every yard or half a yard, but I don’t want it in small repeats like the layout of tiles (this is what USA websites were offering like spoonflower.com or fabricOnDemand.com). I hope this makes sense. Any suggestions? Tips? Advice? This process is overwhelming but I refuse to give up this goal of mine.

    Thank you in Advance.

  20. Shefali says:

    The post you have written have been a great help in understanding the topic.
    I would be grateful to know if i can sell clothes stitched by me on a small scale by usimg the fabric bought from a local retailer of fabrics


  21. Drina says:

    I want to make skirts, beautiful stylish skirts that hit my tall frame around the knee, and make them available to other women too. I’d love to make swimsuit designs that can be hip and fun and not leave girls feeling exposed, vulnerable, exploited.
    But how do I find fabrics that are hip and cute and stylish like you see in mall stores? I’m not a fabric designer. I just know everything I see that isn’t already in Hollister or Victorias Secret is gross!

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