A question about fabric libraries

Sarah from Design Tech Apparel writes:

Thanks again as always for offering such a great blog. My business is going strong thanks to your advice and great book. I have a question I was hoping you or one of your writers could help answer.

What is the best way to set up a fabric library, and is there any software or established systems out there to help do it? The problem is a racks and racks of headers, and the solution would offer the best way to organize them, and look them up easily. Possibly a relational database that could be accessed by designers searching for the right fabric for their design, and also by production to check that the fabric is approved etc. might be a starting point. How do the big guys solve this problem…

Personally, I have no idea. Do you know or have any ideas?

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  1. J C Sprowls says:

    I don’t know how manufacturers are doing it; but, I can speak to how tailoring houses do it.

    They keep detailed swatch books. These are typically backed up with a log sheet that details the manufacturing history of the fabric sample (e.g. weave, content, blend, maker, date put into production, date discontinued, etc). Most of the old world tailoring houses have swatches dating back to the inception of their house. And, they typically don’t throw anything away. Even the ends of the bolts are stored ‘just in case’.

    If one were to develop a system to chronical the historic provenance of fabric styles, patterns, and weaves, it would behoove them to contact the Savile Row houses, then branch out from there. I think there are several CAD programs on the market which will take a scan of a swatch and render it into a garment. Check out the Tuka website to see if these are the solutions you’re looking for.

    Myself, I do none of this. I get the current year’s book and purge them after 3 seasons. I typically order cut lengths from other tailors or jobbers when I need to fill orders. For example, if a customer picks a particular fabric from the Holland & Sherry book, I call 3 or 4 tailors to see if they have enough length in stock for my specific project. Now that I have added The Wool House to my source directory, I can call them, too.

    Being that my background is in custom-make, I know how to cut in such a way that I can preserve sample material. I suppose that when I venture into manufacturing that I might be able to get away with ordering one shirt, suit, or trouser length at a time for style review. If I approve the style, then I can order enough yardage to make up sales samples to complete pre-production activities.

    I suspect larger mfg might find the CAD rendering programs useful because it enables them to get an idea of how the sample might present before they incur the expense. It’s especially helpful where R&D departments review 30 designs before selecting 5. It’s important to evaluate process as well as need when deciding to invest in this type of solution. Sometimes there’s a low-tech alternative to keep your business on track.

  2. Sarah in Oregon says:

    Thanks for your response, JC Sprowls! Looks like you are the only person brave enough to take a go at this one so far….

    I would appreciate reading anyone’s ideas. Don’t be shy, readers! Please post your thoughts on this one.

  3. Big Irv says:

    I’ll give it go.
    Sourcing in this industry is perhaps one the most ,if not the most important aspect of manufacturing in my opinion.

    Cataloguing your fabrics, fabric suppliers is challenging, changing almost constantly. And it extends to all the inputs required for product. Buttons, zippers, trims, you name it.

    A system that most manufacturers use is the high tech 3 ring binder system. Swatch cards are stamped when received and archived for reference.

    I mention the date stamping as it is important to know when the sample was received as prices are often written down on the swatch card too. Here in our factory we have approximately 40 fat bulging 3″ binders that we often refer to. Prices tend to change every few years. Some mills/suppliers raise prices yearly.

    We tend to separate knit from woven. That narrows the search when you need something. We hope most suppliers have a website or an efficient email system if looking for something specific as well.
    If a mill or fabric supplier sends out new cards every year and if they are just updates, we toss out the old, replace with the newest version of the fabric as often phone numbers or email addresses change.

    I don’t think there is any shortcut to fabric cataloguing. You need a good large swatch along with the colors available (if a stock program) as you find yourself cutting little bits from the swatch. You could probably find a way to store in a database, but you are just going to head for the actual swatches anyway. I know several fabric reps who maintain swatches for several years. Some fabrics, especially knits, go in and out of style and mills will stop running it isn’t frequently requested.
    Often fabric reps have several suitcases of swatch headers, and refuse to toss them for fear that someone will request it after a mill makes it dormant. I think the attitude here is if it can be made, then we won’t throw it out.

    The recent downsizing of apparel manufacturing in this hemisphere has also added to the challenge of keeping updated records. Many including myself keep binders of suppliers in Asia, as you just cannot locate certain things here anymore. Wovens at competitive prices are very hard to come by.

    Sorry to report that no real sophisticated method of fabric/trim tracking exists, but it all boils down to securing the swatches and organizing them from there.

  4. J C Sprowls says:

    Supply chain is everything in any production industry. Sometimes, it’s the cornerstone of your business.

    I’m going to toot my own horn, here. But, I’ll make it simple. In the way back… I operated a catering facility. The reason my business was successful is because people would ask for some very distintive and unique items (e.g. alligator tail).

    At the time (early 90s) these food trends were just emerging. But, it so happened I believed in the 6-degrees of separtion rule. And, over time, I filled many binders of contacts to source the most obscure foodstuffs and recipes. As a result, that business dominated its market. When it was sold, guess what raised the bid price? The “bible” and the 3-year waiting list.

  5. Kathleen says:

    There are computer programs that will help you do all of this but I find the very idea of that distasteful so as labor intensive and archaic as the hand cataloging methods are above, I (personally) don’t see any other options. Sure, yeah, you can scan in a swatch but it’s never the same. You can’t get the hand, feel, weight or drape of goods from a jpeg. Yet, a lot of companies do this. Well not a lot. The same 50-60 cad company customers.

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