WHAT FABRIC SUPPLIERS WANT YOU TO KNOW
If you have been searching for fabric agents or manufacturers for your clothing brand - this is for you. It's my 13+ years of textile sourcing experience in one easy-to-read guide.
BUT, BEFORE WE GET STARTED...
Have you heard about the super secret document that everyone in the fashion industry uses, but no one is talking about? Probably not. That is because you can't find it on Google or Instagram (believe me, I've tried).
It's a form I have used for over 13 years at every job I have ever had. Literally everyone from brands to fabric suppliers use it, but you can't find it anywhere publicly.
The best part? It can cut your sourcing time in half, and save you tons of money in product development! This is the kind of info consultants charge the big bucks for. And, I'm giving it away for free until the end of the month.
So, get ready to make fashion startup life a whole lot easier, and GRAB YOUR FREE DOWNLOAD OF THE NOT-SO-SECRET SOURCING DOC HERE
WHAT YOU WILL LEARN
- What are fabric suppliers?
- 4 things you need to know before finding a fabric manufacturer
- How to find the right fabric partner for your brand
- How to reach out to a fabric agent and get what you need
- Alternatives to working directly with a fabric supplier
- Glossary of manufacturer terms
WHAT IS A FABRIC SUPPLIER?
To understand how to work with a fabric supplier, first you need to understand what they can, and can’t help you with. And, what a lot of people don’t realize is that to make a garment, brands need to coordinate with no less than 5 different businesses in a fashion supply chain.
- First, fibers like cotton, linen, and wool are harvested or, in the example of synthetic fibers like rayon and polyester manufactured.
- Those fibers are then sent to spinners who create yarns.
- The yarns are then sent to a mill (aka fabric suppliers) that either weaves or knits them into fabrics.
- The fabrics are then sent to another location to be printed or dyed.
- And, once the fabrics are done, they ship them to the 4th step in the supply chain - a cut + sew factory to be made into garments.
There are also vertical supply chains. And, they work a little differently. These types of suppliers control more than just one part of the supply chain. Meaning they might spin yarns and then weave fabric. Or they might weave fabric and then print or dye it in-house.
While vertical partners do make life easier, because of constant price pressure and better margins from separation and specialization, these types of diversified supply chain partners are becoming harder and harder to find.
FINDING NICHE SUPPLIERS
Now, that you know the basics, let’s dive a little deeper into fabric supply chains.
There are all different types of fabric suppliers. And that is important to understand because, generally, a supplier will specialize in just one type of fabric.
Three are 3 main groups of fabric suppliers.
- And, nonwovens
Knit fabrics make products like t-shirts, hoodies, leggings, and swimsuits. Wovens are in jeans, performance jackets, and button-down shirts. And you can find textiles like non-wovens in masks, insulation, and other types of industrial textiles.
Now, within each of these three categories, there is even more niche specialization.
For example, some knit suppliers only work with cotton, while others only create fabrics with recycled polyester. And, because fabric suppliers tend to focus on one specialty, you need to know exactly what you want so you can figure out if they are going to be a good fit.
Quick Note – if you are speaking with someone who offers all different types of fabrics, they are more likely a fabric agent or another type of middleman (you can skip to section 5 to learn more about the pros and cons of these options).
4 THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW BEFORE YOU FIND A FABRIC SUPPLIER
Legally brands must list 4 things are their labels. They are…
- The brand
- Country of origin, also known as COO (or, where the product was sewn)
- Wash care instructions
- And, fiber content
Because the only fabric details the consumer sees are what percent of each fiber is in them, brands assume that fiber content is the most important part of fabric sourcing.
It isn’t. But, I will start with it.
1 - WHAT FIBERS ARE BEST FOR YOUR PRODUCT? NATURAL OR SYNTHETIC?
First, let’s quickly break down what each type of fiber is.
like cotton, hemp, linen, and wool - are found in nature. Like an apple growing from a tree, these fibers exist naturally in our world. You can click here to learn more about all the different natural fiber options, and their pros and cons.
much like Coca-Cola, these fibers do not exist in nature and are a product of human invention. Synthetic fibers include polyester, nylon, and acrylic. You can learn more about synthetic fibers here.
There is one more category - semi-synthetic fibers,
which are man-made fibers that are made out of plants. Synthetic fibers include rayon, modal, lyocell, and Tencel.
In my opinion, even though semi-synthetic fibers are made from natural materials, they should be considered synthetic because they are so chemically processed (often with toxic chemicals), that they are no longer natural at all. You can learn more about man-made cellulose-based fibers here.
Now, as for which type of fiber is going to be most ideal for your product, there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
A lot of brand founders that want to start conscious clothing companies assume that the trick to ticking the sustainability box is to use natural and organic materials.
But this isn’t true.
The most important part of the fabric sourcing process is knowing the end use of your product, and what problem the product is solving.
Here is an example I love using.
If you want to make a sustainable swimsuit, while organic cotton might look more sustainable on paper than polyester, even recycled polyester (hello microfibers), using cotton in a bikini is a terrible idea. That is because cotton loves water and acts like a sponge. Meaning your organic cotton bikini is going to weigh like 50 pounds when you get out of the water. And no one wants that.
So, when you are deciding if you want a natural or synthetic fiber, remember to keep in mind the properties of each fiber and what will create the best type of product for your customer.
2 - KNIT, WOVEN, OR SOMETHING ELSE?
Again, there is more to good fabric development than just knowing the type of fibers. Let’s talk about construction now. I mentioned earlier the 3 types of fabric constructions, knit, woven, and non-woven - but, again, let's dive a little deeper.
The reason this is important is because the kind of fabric construction you choose affects what type of fabric supplier you will reach out to, and it also affects the rest of your supply chain . . . down to the factory you work with.
That is because, just like textiles manufacturers, factories niche down. Generally, a factory will only work with knits or wovens. There are a few that will work with both, but they are rare to find.
And factories can get even more niche. Some woven factories will refuse to work with certain fibers like silk because they require special needles and processing.
So, if you think you are going to be working with woven fabrics and you find a woven cut and sew factory, then you realize that what you really need is knits, you will have to go through the process of finding a whole new factory.
So, save yourself some time and aggravation and figure out what type of fabric you will be working with right from the start before you build the rest of your supply chain.
HOW FABRIC KNOWLEDGE CAN SAVE YOU MONEY
Did you know woven and knit garments require two totally different types of patterns? This is another example of how the fabric you choose affects your entire supply chain. If you have a shirt and you make it in a woven fabric, then you decide that you want to create it in a knit fabric instead; it isn’t as simple as just switching out the fabric. You will need a whole new pattern. And that new pattern will cost you money (anywhere from about $30 producing in developing countries, to $300 or more producing in western areas).
Different fabrics also affect the fit of a garment. Even something as simple as using the same fabric but just a bit heavier can throw things off. Meaning, if you switch fabrics mid-development process, you might need more sets of pattern revisions (which, again can be expensive).
So, to save on startup costs during the development and sampling process, make sure you lock in what type of fabric you will be working with from the start.
Here is some additional reading to learn more about knit, woven, and other fabric types.
3- WHAT MINIMUM ORDER QUANTITY (MOQ) DO YOU REALLY NEED?
This is where a lot of new brands find themselves stuck. They end up in this loop: I need to know how much everything costs so I can figure out how much I can make. But no one will tell me how much things cost unless I tell them how much I want to make.
And, round and round they go.
Here is how you can figure out your MOQ on your own . . .
Most new startup brands want super low MOQs - like 25-30 pieces per style. And if that is the target you’re after, you will probably need about 100 yards of fabrics per style, give or take a bit.
Now, how much fabric you are actually going to need is going to be dependent on the garment’s fabric consumption. Aka, how many yards of fabric that are in 1 garment. But, for the sake of simplicity, 100 yards is a safe bet for most startups to start with.
My number one tip… Just be honest.
As a supplier, I know you are a startup. I know you need low MOQS. There is nothing I hate more than when a brand pretends they are super established. They say they want to order tens of thousands of yards of fabric, and then in the final hour, they’re like, “Hey, actually, I just want to test 100 meters.”
There are a lot of “fashion consulting gurus” out there who advocate for this type of bait and switch. But as someone who partners with a factory and runs a successful fashion sourcing company, this is a great way to ruin a business relationship. The thing is, I would have been happy to help you if you had just been honest. No one likes being lied to. And it’s a terrible way to start a relationship with a fabric supplier. We often hear all the horror stories from brands about how factories took advantage of them. I’m here to tell you it happens the other way too. Remember, you want to build your supply chain relationships with trust and mutual respect.
Also, FYI, it takes us like 30 seconds to google you and figure out you are a startup with only a landing page and no idea what you’re doing. So, again, just be honest with your MOQ.
4 - DO YOU NEED ANY SPECIAL FINISHES?
Finishes are things like waterproofing, fire repellent, anti-wrinkle, and even pleats. Some fabric suppliers will be able to finish fabrics for you, but some will only provide the raw fabric, so you will need to find your own finishing partner.
If your product requires special finishes, make sure to ask if your supplier can help!
HOW TO FIND THE RIGHT FABRIC PARTNER FOR YOUR BRAND
Once you know what you want, you can find suppliers that make exactly what you need. It is such a waste of time reaching out to a mill that makes woven raincoat material when what you need is knit cotton for a t-shirt. Half the time, when you do this, they won’t even bother responding to you – and that’s one of the reasons why new brands complain about being ghosted by suppliers so often. They are asking the wrong people for the wrong things.
HOW DO YOU KNOW WHAT SUPPLIERS MAKE WHAT?
The hack here is to use online databases and trade shows.
I love trade shows. You can check out my list of all of my favorite global trade shows here.
They are a great place to meet professional factories that are actually looking to meet new customers. They are so excited to meet and work with you that they sometimes spend tens of thousands of dollars for booths at these shows.
And, thanks to technology, you don’t even have to physically go to a show to get all the benefits.
HOW TO REACH OUT TO A SUPPLIER AND GET WHAT YOU NEED
OK, now that you now have a short list of suppliers, it’s time to start reaching out.
But, before you even think about reaching out, go over this two-step checklist.
- Do you know what you want? (type of fabric and MOQ)
- Does the factory make what you want?
If you want an email template to use for best practices when reaching out to a supplier for the first time, here’s a free one I made.
But, if you want to craft your own email, here are the basics of what you need to know:
EMAIL 1 –Just the Basics
- Tell the supplier what you want to make (the end product), so they can give you their professional fabric suggestions.
- Send them a photo of fabrics you like and a quick description so they can determine if they have anything similar and can help you. The description should include these 3 things...
- Construction – is it knit, woven, or something else?
- If you can, try to include the weight of the fabric in the description. This is normally given in GSM (grams per square meter) or y/oz2 (ounces per square yard). If you don’t know weights, that’s okay; just use descriptive terms like sheer, opaque, or heavy like a Carhart jacket – describe it however you can.
- And you should include the fibers you want to use – synthetic, natural, staple, filament, etc.
- Let them know your MOQ – remember, be honest with this number unless you want to burn bridges.
If the supplier has what you need and they think they can help you, then you’re on to Email #2.
EMAIL 2 –Ask For More Details
- Get a price list.
- Ask if they keep available fabric on hand so you can sample it immediately.
- Ask about bulk lead times.
- See if they can send you swatches of the collection or a few meters of fabric so you can see all the fabrics in person.
AFTER REACHING OUT
Follow up. Don't worry; you're not being annoying.
A lot of brands send one email, don’t get a reply, and then give up. If you want to succeed in finding the perfect ethical and sustainable fabric suppliers, I need you to channel your inner Steve Urkle pining after Laura. (gif of family matters)
Don’t give up.
If you don’t get a reply, remember it’s not personal. Mills are busy. They get tons of inquiries, so emails often slip through the cracks.
Also, understand that mills are super old school when it comes to communication. So, sometimes the best thing to do is get on the phone and call them.
ALTERNATIVES TO WORKING DIRECTLY WITH A FABRIC SUPPLIER
Quick reminder - mills are the fabric makers of the supply chain. They do the actual magic of turning yarns into textiles. So, it’s understandable why everyone thinks that working directly with a fabric mill is the “professional” way to go, but it often isn’t the best option for small startups.
Yes, you will get the best pricing, but often mills only want to work directly with more established brands that will give them bigger orders.
So, if you don’t work directly with a mill, then who can you work with? The good news? There are many other options out there!
On the other extreme of the fabric manufacturing supply chain are retailers. Retailers can be great for small amounts of fabrics.
- Tons of options
- You can buy as little as a yard or even a half yard of fabric.
- Higher price
- Once they stop carrying the fabric, you can’t reorder it (reordering old fabric would be like going into the Gap and saying, “I want that shirt you made 5 years ago – 10 pieces of it, please”).
In Between Options...
WHOLESALE FABRIC SUPPLIERS
Fabric wholesalers are kind of like retailers but usually require larger quantities, and unlike a retailer, they can re-order old fabric for you.
- Wholesale fabrics have relatively low MOQs (minimum order quantities).
- Fabric is in stock so you can get started right away.
- You can re-order fabric if you need more.
- Better pricing than a retailer but not the very best
(The most forgotten about supply chain member, but sometimes the most helpful.)
Converters buy fabrics to process themselves. They tend to specialize in dying, printing, and finishing fabrics.
- If you want a custom print or color on your fabric, working with a converter can reduce the number of contacts you need to keep track of in your supply chain.
- You can sometimes get really cool prints from their deadstock collections.
- Typically, they want higher MOQs; some will do very small MOQs like digital printers, but the price will be on the higher side.
The most famous example of a jobber is MOOD fabric.
Traditionally, they bought and resold discounted fabrics. But today, many of them are kind of a rip-off (especially the people selling on Etsy).
- They get some really cool stuff; it is great inspiration shopping with large varieties, and they are constantly adding new arrivals to their fabric collections.
- Eco-friendly. They resell fabric that is old, slightly damaged, or second quality.
- Higher prices
- Like deadstock, once it’s gone, it’s gone.
Fabric agents partner with many different fabric companies and can help find you what you need (they do not work directly for the mill, FYI a sales rep would be a person who is employed by the actual mill).
Agents are great for getting your hands on hard to find novelty fabrics because of their deep supply chain networks. So, they can usually help you find almost anything.
- Fabric agents have tons of industry connections.
- They will do all the hard work for you.
- Agents don’t always work transparently.
- They can sometimes take large commissions.
ASK YOUR FACTORY
Lastly, you can ask your factory. Factories have some of the best connections in the industry, plus they get to see where all of their customers are ordering their fabrics from.
And, if you work with a full package factory, they will source your entire product on your behalf.
- The easiest, least stressful way to get your product made.
- Often, there will be a lack of transparency on price and where the materials are coming from.
There is no right answer when it comes to choosing a manufacturer of fabrics. It’s up to the brand, their needs, and their comfort level.
GLOSSARY OF FABRIC SUPPLIER TERMS
It’s time for you to start sourcing your own fabrics. But, before I go, here are a few common industry terms that fabric makers often use, and should be in your vocabulary.
There are too many to name them all here. If you need help identifying different types of fabric terms like double knit, cotton jersey, french terry, tie dye, cotton spandex, satin, what stretch is, and more, check out this glossary. And keep in mind, it’s better to send a picture of what you want than to call something the wrong name and end up getting the wrong fabric.
WHEN TALKING ABOUT ORDER QUANTITIES
- MOQ (minimum order quantity) - This is the minimum amount of fabric that needs to be ordered to work with the fabric supplier. Every manufacturer will have a different MOQ. And, MOQs can range from 1 yard to 10,000 yards.
- Fiber dye – Fibers are dyed, then made into yarns, and then made into fabric. This is often how heathered fabrics are made.
- Yarn dye – Fibers are spun into yarns, and then the yarns are dyed. The dyed yarns are then used to create patterns in the fabric. An example of a yarn-dyed fabric is plaid.
- Fabric dye - Yarns are dyed, fabric is made, and then the entire fabric is dyed one color.
- PFD or PFP – Semi-bleach process that prepares fabrics for dye or printing.
- Greige – Undyed; the step before PFP or PFD.
PACKING TERMS TO KNOW
- Doubled and rolled d/r – On a bolt, there will be a crease down the center. Be careful, sometimes, this crease doesn’t come out and you need to cut around it.
- ROT – Rolled on a tube.
- Put up – How many yards are on a roll?
WHAT DID YOU LEARN?
Let me know in the comments: how are you going to change your strategy for reaching out to fabric suppliers? Let me know if it works!