Fabric Inspection -at the contractor’s factory

Farm_Cat_headshotNote: My web designer says my posts should include pictures of people’s faces (presumably smiling ones) because visitors are attracted to them. I am certain he is right but I didn’t have any people pictures handy so I took one of Farm Cat and posted that instead. I hope you like it. He is (mostly) a nice cat who wanders in and out of the shop all day long.

Alternative title: 25+25+25+25  100

Fabric inspection is another not-exciting, but critical detail a designer has to worry about so it is good to know what it is and isn’t, particularly as it relates to your partners -specifically fabric suppliers and sewing contractors. One could rightfully presume that fabric inspection would amount to checking the yardage for flaws -right? To that I’d say yes and no but more importantly, you need context. I suppose it is analogous to fast food restaurants that say their burgers are made of 100% beef, so how do they get away with saying that when you know there has to be some cereal in there to keep the patties together? It’s legal to say 100% beef because the meat that is in there is cow as opposed to pig or chicken. But I digress.

I mention this because fabric inspection as you would think it means, is not likely to happen at the factory unless you’re paying extra or you have large orders. For most small orders, fabric inspection amounts to comparing the itemized details of each fabric roll listed on the packing slip against the goods that are received. The actual looking at the fabric for flaws part and verifying yardage count, won’t happen until the fabric is spread. Sad but true.

Without further ado, these are the details you need to have for each fabric or input item you’re using in order to comply with labeling laws (among others). Ideally these details will be listed on the packing slip you get from your fabric supplier, which you would then turn around and supply to your contractor:

  • Manufacturer/Mill
  • Lot number
  • Color number
  • Style number
  • Yardage count
  • Width
  • Fiber content
  • Nation of origin

I should mention that this is per roll. Knowing me, I probably won’t fail to mention this at least three more times.

Here are some caveats -aren’t those fun? Caveats make life exciting.

Manufacturer/Mill: If you’re buying fabric from a jobber, you probably won’t know the name of the mill that manufactured the goods. Depending on the jobber (or rather, most of them), there is little to gain in beating them about the head and shoulders to get that information because many don’t track it or have an organized process to deliver that information to you (but better jobbers will do their best). If you don’t have a mill name, substitute the name of the jobber. I realize this can seem a little threatening in that you fret your contractor will then use your source to buy fabric for themselves, so I have two responses to that. First is that if not knowing your fabric source is the only thing keeping your contractor from pirating your goods, you have bigger problems that need to be addressed.

The second reason you need to provide jobber name is because a pattern emerges; some jobbers are better than others. If your vendor is known to sell seconds but label them as first quality, more oversight will be taken when spreading your fabrics. It is also possible that your contractor may suggest a better supplier for you.

Lot number: Moving on, this must be documented per roll even if the fabric is “all the same color”. You don’t want to find out through experience (a crueler teacher was never known) that I am right. It is entirely possible and even likely, that your rolls are comprised of different lot numbers which means pieces cut from one lot cannot be mistakenly sewn to pieces of another lot. The latter scenario represents a justifiable chargeback to the contractor -but only if your goods were identified by lot.

Color number is somewhat self explanatory. Keep in mind that some color changes are not as obvious as you’d think. Consider that some shops aren’t as well lit as one would like, that you are an artist so you notice color nuances more than the average person, and lastly, that men do most of the spreading and a degree of color blindness is so common among men as to be normal.

Style number: Again, usually not applicable to jobber sales but is for mill goods. Don’t assume that a sublime basket-weave is readily distinguishable from a twill so do something to make this obvious. Etc.

Yardage count: At worst (low cost jobber), total yardage listed on the roll is better considered as an estimate.  At best (good supplier), it may be off by a small percentage. I’m going to say this again, detail the number of yards contained on each roll. I’ll nag you about this at close ’cause it is super super important (as opposed to being merely super important).

Width: The contractor will verify that the marker will fit the goods.  I can’t think of a contractor on the planet who will take your word for it; they will all measure width to make sure that whatever is listed on the roll tag, matches up to whatever you’ve said they’re getting. The contractor will also note the selvedge width as this affects marker width (see pages 114-120 of my book). Some fabrics have inordinately wide selvedges (of an inch or more) and since we usually make markers that are 1″ narrower than the goods, unusually wide selvedges can mean having to make another marker ($).  This is why the best contractors would prefer that a marker isn’t made until they’ve had time to inspect the shipment. Be extremely careful when using figures supplied from a pattern maker; their notation of yardage needed and the width is more than a charming detail, it’s money.

I digress a bit to explain. I had a customer to whom I’d supplied preliminary allocation (aka yield) based on 56″ wide fabric (because she’d given me no details as to width; yet another reason you must source before having patterns made). Unfortunately, when that designer ordered the fabric for production, she must have gone down the mill’s line sheet and saw one version was substantively cheaper and since it was the same color, finish and fiber content she wanted, she bought that. Problem is, she bought 45″ wide fabric but used the purchasing figure based on the 56″ wide fabric. It cost a fortune to repair this mess because her marker efficiency ranged from 50% to 60%.  A lot of fabric went into the trash and she had to buy more. If I’d know the fabric would only be 45″ wide, I would have strongly discouraged its purchase or would have recommended that the design and its pattern be modified. In any event, if she’d chosen to go with the 45″ wide goods, she would have had a better figure for costing and may have decided against it.

Fiber content: Content is less important to a contractor except as it relates to thread (if the contractor is supplying it) and possible machine changes. Fiber content is more important for the designer as it needs to be documented for the label. A contractor is not going to verify fiber content with a burn test unless it is an unusual situation. Meaning, they’ve taken a particular interest in you and have reason to believe that the jobber is doing a number on you. In the end, verifying fiber content is out of the scope of the project so they’re not liable if your goods don’t match up to what you have (or your vendor has) said the content is.

Nation of origin: This is another thing that mostly won’t impact a contractor but you need it for labels.

Putting it all together (where I scare the beejeebees out of you):

The above comprises the extent of fabric inspection with most sewing contractors. If your lots are larger, your contractor will also be larger so they’ll have the means to inspect the fabric on a machine for flaws and yardage count. That a contractor fails to inspect it in accordance to what you’d presumed they would is less a matter of negligence than it is miscommunication. If you want the goods inspected for flaws before spreading (rather than in the process of spreading) you should ask about that before you finalize the purchase order.  It is possible that the contractor will recommend that a dedicated cutter do that part of the job or you may be better suited for another contractor. Hopefully they will provide a referral. A dedicated cutting facility will offer flaw inspection as an add on or maybe they include it on all orders over a certain amount. I don’t know. Ask.

Why per roll is important: I’m going to take a wild guess and suggest that all this time you thought that 25+25+25+25=100. Correct? It isn’t. Not by a long shot. Or, it may be for payables but not for production yield. In other words, if you’ve told your contractor to expect 100 yards of pinky-pink ™ voile, he or she is going to expect 1 roll of 100 yards. Four rolls consisting of 25 yards, even if of identical color and even, lot number, is not the same thing as 1 roll of 100 yards. The waste for 4-25 yard rolls is higher (again, see pages 114-120 of The Entrepreneur’s Guide). Meaning, if you know your blouse takes 1.9 yards of fabric and you plan on getting 50 blouses out of the 25+25+25+25 rolls of fabric, well, I’d suggest aiming a little lower so you won’t be disappointed later on.

The above will also explain (in part) why a contractor cannot commit to giving you an exact count of output for production until after the yardage is cut. One will certainly aim to produce the 50 blouses or whatever but flaws or having to cut from a selection of smaller rolls, will impact yield.

The lesson to take from this is to try to get all the yardage you need on one roll. But not always; if you’re cutting a larger lot and the goods are heavy, you need to check that your contractor has the means to handle heavy rolls. Rolls can weigh in the hundreds of pounds; it can cost a fortune (considering shipping and all) if you have to have a 600 yard roll of bottom weight denim re-rolled because it’ll have to go to another provider who can do it. I’ve seen it happen.


Did you have a nice weekend? This was the first weekend I’d had off in months. We lazed around, petted cats, went to see Star Trek (boy, those costumes needed some work!) and to a local wine festival.

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  1. Theresa in Tucson says:

    Great point about the difference in color lots. I’ve got a khaki skirt in my closet that was made from JoAnn’s fabric. The skirt was made up and I was putting on the waistband hook while doing my watering. In full sun the front was ever so slightly browner than the back which was a creamy khaki. It had been purchased at the store’s “Moving” sale and was the tag end of two bolts. Being my natural cheap self, I wear the skirt, but if it had been “for pay” it most certainly would not have gone out the door. Painters will “box” paint (mix all the same color paint buckets for a room/job in a big barrel and then pour it back into the individual containers before beginning to paint.

    And yes, we had a good weekend. We have yet to break the ice (100F) on the Santa Cruz River so May has been relaticely cool.

  2. Theresa in Tucson says:

    Waht I meant to say was, painters box paint to get uniformity of color, which is not exactly an option when the fabric is already dyed.

  3. Bernadette says:

    Farm Cat actually looks more like City Kitty, all dressed up in black with white paws. A handsome addition to your web page and, I am sure, your shop.

    25+25+25+25 ≠ 100 but Your Post = TRUTH. Thank you for your insight.

  4. Quincunx says:

    The weather has been downright bizarre this weekend. When the people in Sweden and Finland are laughing at the people in California (and I mean central CA, not the coastline or the mountains) because it’s warmer up at 60 degrees north latitude, something has gone very wrong somewhere.

    . . .and so that’s why you’re never, ever supposed to jury-rig your cutting tables when you can buy purpose-built ones. I see now. :/

  5. Adrienne says:

    I knew that this had to be a true concept! I have felt it in motion many times but now seeing it in type I feel relieved to know that it’s a fact. As a seamstress it’s easy to get blamed for loss due to bad cutting layout but when you sew piece work obviously you want to get the max number of pieces so you can make money. There is no reason for me to want to short an order.

    Color is a whole other story for me… I have seen black knit come in the same order but it’s yellow black, green black, blue black…OY. I have to save bits from each lot so as not to make a sleeve and front mismatch.

    p.s. I am certainly attracted to read because of the farm cat! I love shop cats <3

  6. Karen N says:

    This talk about inspecting fabric makes me think about a pair of khaki pants I bought last fall. Well-known brand, I never had this kind of problem with them before. But this time the pocket bags were of such thin and sleazy fabric, I’d only worn the pants three or four times before I noticed holes in both front pockets.
    Wonder if they looked at the pocket fabric to see if it was the quality they usually got?

  7. Sabine says:

    “In any event, if she’d chosen to go with the 45″ wide goods, she would have had a better figure for costing and may have decided against it.” I think in this one you meant to say 56″…

    My weekend was great…cause I had one. I have weekends all the time now, I love it! And i am home every day at a decent time, which means I have time for things like yoga classes-love that too! So I can now sew and watch my sprouts grow and do laundry…if I want to. :D

  8. Louise says:

    I loved the costumes in Into Darkness because of the styles and the fabric textures. What would you have changed about them?

  9. Kathleen says:

    Bernadette: We also call him Mr.Matchy-Matchy. Mr. Fashion-Incubator suggests that only a pattern maker’s shop cat would habitually line up the white bits of his paws to create a match stripe. And Farm Cat does this, 9.5 times out of 10.

    Karen: If those were from a well known company, it is possible that it was a package contract provided for the brand. In those cases, the contractor is responsible for the quality level of the goods going into it rather than the customer. If the customer is dissatisfied, this then becomes a contract dispute between them. Who knows, maybe the customer caught it, charged back the contract provider and sold the goods at a discount.

    Sabine: maybe I didn’t express this as well as I could have (not sure how to improve it tho) but I meant to convey that if she had accurate yield and thus costing figures for the 45″ wide fabric, she may have decided to drop the style.

    Louise: I was speaking more about the fit which wasn’t so great. There was also a huge gaffe with the patterns for the lined jackets, those back vents were atrocious!, pulling like nobody’s business in every single frame and on every single body. I wasn’t overwhelmed with the fabrics either; the suit jacket fabrics looked like they were pulled from the upholstery bins at Goodwill. On the plus side, I was pleased to see a few neckline darts.

  10. Louise says:

    Hm, now you mention it, there was some optimism going on with those jacket vents. Maybe they did it on purpose to draw attention to the wearers’ behinds, thus appealing to the female demographic?

    :: removes tongue from cheek ::

  11. Kathleen, if the yardage is off, does the customer get a refund for the difference? And how do you prove that you’re short? Sounds like a sticky situation. Ug.

    I like the idea of smiling faces, but it’s hard for me to tell if Farm Cat is smiling or not.

  12. Kristen says:

    Great post – thanks! I definitely am considering changing up a style a bit because it’s cut on 45″ wide fabric and it wastes too much IMO. I’ve learned a bit of the above through a bit of trial and error, glad to read and not screw up any more.

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