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One of the biggest fabric sourcing mistakes startup fashion designers make is to look for the "Holy Grail" of fabrics, rather than sourcing what is actually available for you to buy and get creative with that.

Tips for Buying Wholesale Fabrics for Your Clothing or Accessories Line

finding wolesale fabrics for your clothing line

This post has been updated for 2021 from the original version. 🙂

For over 14 years I had my own womenswear wholesale business as well as a retail store in Chicago. I designed most of the clothing in my boutique and the BEST part of my job was sourcing fabrics for my line.

There’s something awesome about seeing the delivery truck pull up with fresh rolls of sample fabric. It’s better than Christmas & my birthday and a spa day wrapped together.

I made a lot of mistakes with my fabric sourcing and I see even more made by the new designers I work with at Fashion Brain. The “fabric sourcing problem” is one of the main reasons I created the fashion startup online course.

Let me ask you something…

Does buying fabrics for your startup fashion company at wholesale prices feels like an “insider business”? Ummm hmmmm.

That’s because it is. You can’t just Google up everything you need (but this free fabric reportwill get you started) and most designers don’t share the info with you.

I put together a list of the top 5 mistakes startup fashion designers make with fabric sourcing.

1) Not Understanding the Need for Continuity

This depends on how you sell your collection. If you plan to sell wholesale (to retailers and to other online boutiques), you need to source sample yardage first and then go back to the vendor to buy production yardage. A big mistake is to use a certain material for your sample collection, show your line to retailers, take orders, and then NOT be able to order more fabric for production. Trust me, it’s a tricky little game when you have a small business and you’re ordering small yardage.

I can’t tell you how many times I meet new designers who are shocked that a specific print they sourced 4 months ago is not available for re-order at the exact moment it’s needed for their production run.

2) Buying Fabric Without a Plan to Use it

Ordering fabric you love because you know you’ll use it someday even if you don’t need it for anything now is a bad idea. It ties up your cash, takes up space in your studio or spare bedroom, and adds the mental stress of “oh crap I need to use that fabric because I already paid for it.”

3) Assuming Sample Yardage Will Be the Same Dye Lot as Production Yardage

I’ve made this mistake more times than I care to remember. It took me about 9 years of running my apparel business to truly understand that coordinating fabrics was much better idea than trying to match them perfectly.

For instance, I remember a beautiful velvet burgundy I was using for the bodice of a dress. I wanted the skirt to be the same shade – but in chiffon. I found a great chiffon, the fiber contents matched, and I ordered it up. Boom – the sample was perfect.

I sold a truckload of them wholesale (I used to sell to all over the country, including to Bloomingdale’s and Saks )and happily ordered production yardage. You know how this ends, right?

The production yardage of the velvet looked exactly the same as the sample (thanks, Wimpfheimer). The chiffon? A nightmare shade that clashed completely. Luckily, it was chiffon – an easy fabric to source wholesale. So I chose another color that coordinated – more like a dusty rose – and improvised. The dress was still cute and I shipped it a little late. I lost business for being late plus I lost money on the original shade of chiffon I ordered, but it wasn’t a total disaster – the dress was still cute. Lesson learned.

4) Not Checking Fabric Rolls for Quality

This one is very easy to fix. Most of us do it like this…

  • We receive fabric for production
  • We cut a little swatch from one of the rolls, but don’t open all of them and check them thoroughly (who’s got time????)
  • Then by the time we cut into the rolls for production and find issues or flaws, it’s been 45 days and the vendor won’t do anything for us.
  • Chaos ensues

To avoid this issue, I paid extra to my cutting house for them to unroll and re-roll my yardage when it was received. They checked for damages and inconsistencies in the fabric. Some cutters and sewing contractors have machines that do this. My cutter would occasionally do it by hand if the quantities were small.

Tip #4: Check the rolls for quality when you receive them
Tip #4: Check the rolls for quality when you receive them

The Single Biggest Wholesale Fabric Sourcing Mistake

And the worst possible see-it-every-day-pain-in-the-arse #1 most common fabric sourcing mistake…

5) Looking for the Holy Grail of Fabric

This one’s a doozy. I have personally wasted more time on this one than I care to remember. And I sure as heck spend a lot of time in my Launch a Line online course trying to explain it to new fashion entrepreneurs. 

Here’s how it usually goes…

Having the idea of the perfect fabric in your mind and going out to source that exact thing. Then after 5 months of searching you start to wonder what kind of a messed up business is this that your perfect fabric cannot be found.

Anywhere.

At least not in quantities you can handle and a price you can afford.

Maybe it can be custom ordered in China for a minimum of 3000 yards, but that’s not helping you very much.

And here’s what I hear all the time.

  • “But I bought this piece at JoAnn Fabrics. Are you telling me that NO ONE can get this for me for less than 3000 yards?”
  • “But I see this fabric all the time at places like H & M/Bloomingdale’s/Target. It’s nothing really that special so I’ll keep looking – I’m sure it’s out there.”

What You Can Do Differently

First, I suggest you work things backwards. Rather than have the perfect fabric in mind and go searching for it, go to fabric vendors and see what’s available. This means finding fabric vendors that offer minimums that work for your brand. Once you see what’s available in your price range at quantities you can handle, you can begin.

I suggest you design your collection around what fabrics and trims you know you can actually get.

In your first few seasons, you could consider keeping your fabric choices fairly simple – and easy to source – and get really creative with trims, topstitching, design. Trust me, your life will be so much easier and your production so much smoother.

Now it’s Your Turn

I have a question for you – pick one and answer it in the comments below, will you please?

  1. Tell me your worst nightmare fabric story and what you did about it 😱😱😱
  2. Give me your #1 best tip about fabric sourcing – the thing you wish you knew when you started but didn’t.

As always, thanks for reading!

Jane

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35 Responses

  1. Nightmare- you just mentioned it above – matching fabrics / different dye lot . I was dumb to produce as it is and then restock , sell @ 50% off
    Something what you also had mentioned : try to use quite basic fabrics that easy to source / substitute , get at lover price from fabric jobbers .I love to do complex designs , so the fabrics should look quite plain in order to read lines and details . When buyer complain about w/s price I offer them same style in whatever good looking fabric I can find from jobber. Still a game: time / quantity / quality , but it works since they have to oder more at lover price . I can offer this only for certain styles , that were in production at least 3-4 times and mostly not lined , woven stuff .

    1. Thanks for your input, Katya. I appreciate your hustle – and trying to please the buyer to get the order.

  2. Jane:

    How strange, that is exactly what I’m trying to do this week; finding out about fabrics, what I need, how much, cost, and availability. Thank you so much for your emails, great insight, and encouragement.

  3. I’ve dealt with LOTS of prints and fabrics no longer being available when production comes around, which either has caused me to miss a sale, be late on orders or an order being returned because the fabric might be different. So whenever dealing with a new fabric vendor I always ask “what it takes” to get more of a print/fabric. Most vendors have the capabilities of reprinting as long as you can buy enough. Some are as low as 150-300yds others it’s 1200-3000+. Either way I go in knowing if I should buy more sample yardage (to accommodate a larger chunk of production) or not. I also check their stock levels before we finalize a fabric, doesn’t mean that even something with 1000+ yds can’t get bought up but we will avoid those with low yardage. I think continuity is THE MOST important thing in a wholesale business.

  4. The worst fabric sourcing situation was at london textile fair. I went up to one of the stands and started picking up hangers. As a new designer at my first trade show I felt out of my depth, but was enjoying the new experience. My feet quickly hit the ground again when the agent on the stand who was previously to busy to talk questioned me on who I was and what I thought I was doing looking at his 500metres minimum fabric! I had never been made to feel so stupid, but I guess it was lesson learned about MOQS very quickly. It was a shame though as he did not give me a chance to find out myself that I would not be a suitable client. Oh well, onwards and upwards!!!

    1. Oh I hear you, Hannah! I have been shamed by a rep too many times to count. It’s stings a little but it won;t keep us down forever. And the more you’re in the business, the more “friends” you have. Thanks for sharing!
      Jane

  5. I’ve learned that fabrics I love are usually one that will be gone tomorrow!

    I source a lot of domestic vendors who have stock available in the fabrics I want to use in my collections.

    I remember one season I was in LOVE with a Navy Dotted jersey knit fabric but thought fabric vendor would still have it available for my small production runs.

    Two-Weeks Later, the whole lot was SOLD OUT.

    Though the fabric is manufactured within the US and the vendor usually carries inventory, this particular fabric was HOT (and I knew it too!).

    So to battle this issue, when I love a fabric and I order immediately enough to do a run of a style from the sample yardage (usually 20-50 yards if possible). If it’s not available I hound the vendor on how many yards can I order a sample roll in (usually about 150yards or less – not too terrible) and if I can choose my own colors and etc.

    Usually I find that my whole production line on one or more styles can be completed with just a Sample Roll Order – Which is great! So if I can’t afford to order a bulk production of a fabric of 500 yards or more, I opt for investigating if I can get what I need through a sample roll or sample yardage.

  6. I live in a rural area in Australia and don’t have access to beautiful fabric that I’d like to. For this reason I often use furnishing fabric including curtain lace which I have successfully dyed. I live the texture it offers. I would love some websites that would ship to Australia if you are able to suggest some. Thanks, Angela

  7. I have bought yardage dozens of time and then it loiters around the studio for up to 5 years!!! Oh the pain. Well I used to do that. No longer!
    Now I produce styles in fabrics that can easily sourced. Sometimes i have rolls dyed at a dye house. Sometimes I garment dye – but watch out for threads – some don’t dye.

    I have bought fabric that changed alot after a wash and highly recommend doing some tests on swatches before purchasing. The worse case was one fabric I bought – a woven of cotton and elastane, a stretch sateen. I made 90 pairs of long, wide pants. When they got to the pressing stage, they shrunk in length 12 CM!!! I mean, WHAT THE ACTUAL!
    Fortunately, I could cut them into long shorts, re hem them and flog em off at market above cost – cos my customers love a bargain. But how boring.

    I think it’s a great idea to be using these new technologies for printing – gives you more control.

    Thanks Jane,
    🙂
    Bel

  8. I am loving your help. Every time I see an email from you I get excited. I can’t yet afford your online training. But! I am collecting everything I can as I go along. Currently I am trying to figure out my licensing. I know that I need a business License. But what is the license that I will need to buy and sell wholesale? I use to have a boutique. Both online and a brick and mortar. This was a short and brief experience. Between 2006-2009. The recession killed my retail business. Still trying to recover. Always planned on designing. I’ve had a use tax Id. number. I was the boutique. Now switching positions. I’m trying to switch to my original dream. HELP.

  9. I’m a little confused. Do you mean that sometimes even if you order fabric that is supposed to have continuity, it doesn’t always mean that’s the case? Or are you talking about fabric from jobbers not having continuity?

  10. Hi Jane,

    Always a pleasure reading your posts.
    One “easy” question: is there something similar to DG Expo in Europe? Or any kind of central register for fabric and trim vendors in Europe with low minimums?

    Many thanks

    Aurélie

    1. Hi Aurelie,
      Can’t help you with that. Not up to speed on the European fabric scene. Is there the equivalent of FBA in your area? Or an industry group for designers? Start building up your network and keep asking questions.
      Jane

  11. You called me out, I’m totally a lurker. I’m just getting started so I don’t really have a story about sourcing, other than from where I sit (in a rural location) it’s a really hard thing to get started with. I’m never sure where to turn or what steps to take. That is the reason I have kept my business VERY small and do custom orders only, which I’d loove to change.

  12. Hi Denise! Good for you – no more lurking – you”re part of the conversation now! One place you could start to source fabrics online is Source4Style. Find it here: https://www.source4style.com/

    Wishing you the best with your business,
    Jane

  13. I’m a lurker too!!! I have been reading your blogs and really loving your information. I don’t know where to start when it comes to sourcing for fabric or where to look because I googled certain things and these wholesale fabric places don’t show up…

  14. Hi Jane!

    I’m taking your online course and this step is exciting and scary all at the same time. I definitely would’ve been one of those looking for the perfect fabric so thank you for this.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Sarafina. Searching for the Holy Grail of fabric is something I’ve done more times than I care to remember! I’m so glad I can save you save you from this time and soul-sacking experience!

  15. Sadly, Columbus Ohio pretty much only has JoAnn Fabrics to offer designers, so I’m have having the same challenge of sourcing re-orderable fabrics that remain in stock from creating a sample garment to past the production time frame. I think attending the DG Expo is a good idea since I need to build relationships with fabric vendors offering low minimums on luxury fabrics (silk, lace and rayon mostly) that are more in line with my budget.

    Do you think it’s necessary to attend both days of the DG Expo? I am considering going to the Dallas one in April so I was curious because flight and hotel costs increase quite a bit if I stay the second day. At the Expo, is the fabric immediately available for sale to take home that day or would it need to be ordered in advance …or does that depend on the vendor? For fabric that is ordered at the Expo, what is the typical turnaround time before we’d receive it? It’s hard to plan my production calendar with all of these unknown variables so any guidance you can offer would be greatly appreciated! Thanks!

    1. Hi!

      1) The DG Expo in Dallas is a small show and one day will suffice. I would say that for all the DG Expo shows actually. If you wanted to spend a lot of time in the seminars, I’m off in a speaker in the New York and San Francisco show, then you may want two days.

      2) The show is open to the trade only. It’s not direct-to-consumer so it’s just for businesses. There are no rolls of fabric at the show, just headers and swatches so you can choose and order for later delivery.

      3) Turnaround time depends on the vendor and each specific fabric. Sometimes it’s even in stock, sometimes one week, sometimes 6 weeks or more.

      4) If you’re just getting started and have lots of questions like this (like we all do!) you might want to invest in educating yourself more and get an understanding of how the entire industry works. There are lots of great books out there and I have a srartup course that’s been a lifesaver for many entrepreneurs. You can find it here:

      https://fashionbrainacademy.com/training-courses/new-designer-program/

      Have a great day! -Jane

  16. Hi Jane. I’m enjoying your articles. Could you please explain what a “sample roll” is? What are they for and where do you get them, etc. This is the first time I’ve come across the term and I tried googling it but only came up with references to it, not explanations.

    Thanks!

  17. My wife has been looking for a fabric company to be able to get some furniture reupholstered, and I think that being able to avoid buying stuff without a plan would be good for us. I’m glad that you pointed out that buying fabric just because you like it being a bad idea, but that you should have a plan to use it. I’m going to have to share that tip with my wife and make sure that when we order stuff from the fabric company, that we have plans to put it to use! Thank you!

  18. I like that you said that ordering fabric before you need it is a no-no. I have been thinking about starting my own boutique and so I am in need of wholesale women’s clothing. I will make sure to keep your tip in mind as I search for the right products for my store.

  19. I like your advice about checking the fabric roll to see if it’s made of good quality fabric. My mom plans on buying wholesale knitwear fabric to start her own knitwear clothing line that she plans to sell online. I’ll share this article of yours with her tonight when she gets home from her grocery run downtown. Thank you for this!

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