guide to fabric sourcing and how to find fabric suppliers
Are you ready to start sourcing textiles for your apparel or accessories brand? Consider this the only step by step guide you will need for fabric sourcing. I will teach you how to prep, stay organized, and find fabric suppliers - whether you want to work directly with fabric mills and manufacturers or use an agent. This is the same system and process I use after 8 years working in the industry and specializing in textile sourcing!
Before you start fabric sourcing
What do you want to make?
Do you know your product? I can't tell you how many people come to me saying "I want to start a hemp brand" or "I want to start a sustainable fashion line". Hmmm. ok, that's cool. And, I would love to help you.
find your niche
You can't be everything to everyone, so start out super focused. So you want sustainable hemp, or organic cotton fabric? Ok… Are you making women or men's clothes, or maybe something androgynous? Are they casual everyday running errands but still want to look cute clothes? Or, fancy going out clothes? Do your clothes solve a problem? Or, maybe you only want to specialize in one thing - like the perfect t-shirt. Before you get started you need to decide all this. The direction of your brand and the type of product you want to make will dictate what types of fashion fabrics you will source.
tips on finding your niche
Did you play soccer in high school, do you love rollerblading, maybe you were in math league, idk? The best products, and often the most successful ones, are developed by people who know their industry. Think of what you are already into, and what type of product you would like, then use that to help guide you in developing your first products.
who is your product for?
Please don't say "people who care about sustainable fashion".
To say, we make our clothes out of recycled polyester water bottles, at this point feels like, so what? So does, everlane, billabong, nike, patagonia, even fast fashion monster ZARA, and notorious unethical Walmart!
Do your research
Take your time to figure out something special, and remember just because something sounds new to you, that does not mean it actually is. For example, did you know that sustainable fiber darling Tencel was developed in 1972 under the trade name Newcell! And now, 47 years later it is FINALLY making headlines thanks to greenwashing, but in reality, shoppers have been wearing the eco-friendly fiber for half a century! Don't be that greenwashing person do your research.
So, to recap
Before you can get started sourcing fabric, first you need to know exactly what you are making, and who you are making it for. Take your time and do your research before you jump into product development.
If you have tightened up your design and are ready to actually make the product, then, and only then is it time to start looking at fabrics.
How to source fabrics
A complete guide to fabric sourcing (including email templates).
step 1 - start with counter sourcing
If you are a beginner to the world of product development, counter sourcing is a great way to ensure you get the exact materials you are looking for without having to get into all the technical details and industry jargon. For someone who is more novice or has a degree in textiles sometimes we know what we want. For example, I could look at a shirt and say this is X% cotton, X% linen, the yarn size is Z and it was knit on a machine using a Y gauge. Oh, and the fabric also has a 10-minute enzyme rinse. Now please make it for me. But, the reality is most of you don't have this type of knowledge from working fabric sourcing jobs that take at least a decade to amass. But, don't worry, if you follow this guide you will be sourcing fabric like a pro.
step 2 - buy fabrics you like
Hit the market and check out your competitors. Who is killing it in the market you are trying to infiltrate? For example, if you are starting a yoga company. I am using this example because about 80% of the brands that reach out to me with their startup idea are yoga brands. FYI if you want to start a sustainable clothing line try to avoid yoga and swim - the market is fully saturated, competition is high, and your chances of succeeding are low. Try to think of something more original.
Anyway back to our hypothetical yoga company. You would want to shop brands like Lululemon, bandier, outdoor voices (who in my opinion the quality is crap-ola, those things bag and sag within the first 20 minutes of putting them on, but thanks to great marketing college kids love them), Patagonia, or Prana.
Now when you are shopping there are two things you want to look out for. Obviously the first is fabric. And, the second is fit. A little foreshadowing… In a few weeks, I will be releasing an article about developing the perfect fit during the process of apparel manufacturing- bought samples from competitors will be important to the process of apparel sourcing.
Ask the sales reps
Ask sales reps what styles are selling best. You don't need to tell them you are trying to launch a competing brand. Today, more and more shoppers are asking questions about what it is they are buying. So ask away.
Store reps are some of the best resources you will find. They know the product, they see what sells, and more importantly, they see what gets returned, and even more, more importantly why it gets returned. And, they are around the dressing rooms to hear what customers have to say about fit issues.
Seriously, sales reps can add so much value to your business. Whether you are chatting up your competitors for research information or listening to your own. They are the unsung heroes of product development.
Step 3 - Test it out yourself
Buy a few of the competitors' garments and wear them. Does the fabric end up falling apart? Does it pill (get those little balls of lint). Or maybe it loses its stretch really quickly like the outdoor voices brand. Maybe it feels hot and clammy like you are wearing a plastic bag.
The bottom line is, before you ask a fabric mill to get you the exact same fabric make sure what you are trying to copy is a good quality fabric first!
Ok did you find the perfect fabric? One that breaths, stretches, recovers, moves like a second skin, etc? Now, it's time to reach out to mills.
step 4 - find a fabric mill
A fabric mill is basically a fabric factory.
Here is a quick mini-lesson in industry lingo. I see people get this wrong all the time. And it is an indicator to someone who is in the industry that you are an imposter. So, use these terms correctly to sound more like a pro. Fabrics come from a mill. Fabric gets printed and dyed at a house - aka a print house or dye house. And, garments are made at a factory.
how to find fabric manufacturers
know the different kinds of fabric suppliers
There are two ways to source fabrics, they are direct with a mill. Or with a fabric sourcing agent. There are pros and cons to each method, so let's take a look.
When you source directly with wholesale fabric mills there is no middle man. This means that you are getting the best price possible. It also means there is less error in communication because you are speaking directly to the people making the fabric. But, on the con side of working direct, these people mean business. You need to be confident in what you want and how you want it, mills will not waste time on amateurs.
100% of my virtue + vice clients have complained to me that they were speaking with a mill or factory, everything was going great… and then all of a sudden they got ghosted. So I tell them to send me their email chain. And, to be real, I almost always get why the ghosting happened. More than a handful of times I actually knew the mill that ghosted them, and quickly was able to take over, and keep the relationship going.
If you aren't confident in your knowledge of textiles, you might want to consider an agent. Or use the handy email templates that I am providing for you in this article.
Agents will work with the factory on your behalf. They are a middle man, or woman. Agents take a commission off of your orders. So you will not be getting the best price possible. But, they are helpful in other ways.
Before approaching, a mill for fabric sourcing a good agent will have an in-depth conversation with you about what it is exactly what you are looking for. They will then offer you advice on if what you want is realistic and re-package your requests into easy to digest notes for the mill.
Pro tip most mills do not want to waste time on such lengthy convos, they want you to come to them knowing what you want and saying what you want in as few words and sentences as possible. Think Kevin from the office.
Why agents don't get ghosted
Remember how earlier I mentioned when I stepped in after a client was ghosted, and the mill was willing to work with me? This happened for two reasons.
The first is I had a relationship with them. Agents are beneficial because they have a pre-existing relationship with the supplier. We know each other, in some cases we are even friends, and we have a long term working relationship. So, obviously, a fabric supplier will trust an agent they have worked with on previous projects as opposed to a form email from a brand that may not have even launched yet.
The second is, time.
Mills know agents will not waste their time. Agents come to them with pre-vetted clients and projects. Their probability of making money working with an agent is generally higher than with some unknown startup fashion brand. That is why agents don't get ghosted but brands do.
New brands, it's great you are starting something, but sometimes you forget that our time is money. I can't tell you how many times brands have tried to take advantage of my time, asking for resources and information from me and then disappearing. That is part of the reason why I write these posts. I want to help you, but I am getting tired of answering the same questions over and over. So here you go, again, this should be a complete tool kit.
Agents have a network
Instead of working with just one factory or mill agents have a deep network or partners, usually all over the world. For example, at virtue + vice we specialize in fabric sourcing in India, China, and the USA, with a few partners in Europe. If your product doesn't work at one mill agents have 20 or 30 others they can reach out to and find you what it is you need. This saves you a lot of time researching.
deadstock and markets
While agents are generally fabric wholesale suppliers, they do have access to other different types of markets, like deadstock and overstock. Which are both a great place to find cheap fabrics. Agents are also able to work directly with mills to find deals on defective or abandoned fabrics.
or, let fabric suppliers come to you
if you want to work direct, tradeshows are a great place for finding suppliers.
I am going, to be honest, mills and factories that have a booming business don't really go to tradeshows, they don't need to, they get most of their business from re-orders and referrals from current clients. The suppliers that take the time to travel to places like NY, Vegas, and even Miami are looking for new business and probably have a little more time to dedicate to a small brand that needs a little more guidance. For that reason these tradeshows are a great place for new designers and brands to start.
Tradeshows will give you access to every type of textiles you could possibly need from velvet and silks to denim and custom cotton prints, finding what you need is easy at these shows.
Google is full of mills and factories, ( Robert Kaufman, is currently holding that number one search spot ) but before you turn to the internet (the wild west of information) to try and find someone to trust in your fabric sourcing, check out a tradeshow.
Here is my personal go-to list of a few fabric sourcing trade shows that are known for having pre-vetted and trustworthy suppliers.
textile trade shows for apparel textile sourcing
functional fabric fair
"FUNCTIONAL FABRIC FAIR New York—powered by PERFORMANCE DAYS®—is a trade-exclusive event showcasing the latest trends in fabric development for the functional textile industry and provides an opportune marketplace in the United States for the sourcing of high-performance functional fabrics and accessories.
The fair is open – free of charge – to verified designers, product, purchasing or material managers looking to source fabrics and accessories for sportswear, workwear, sportive fashion, and athleisure apparel."
"Join us for one of the largest sourcing events on the East Coast for apparel fabric buyers, product R&D specialists, designers, merchandisers and sourcing professionals. Texworld USA is an international business platform and can't-miss industry event that offers a wide product range covering the entire fabric spectrum – season to season attendees discover textiles of innovative structures, material mixes, and surprising color palettes.
What you can expect at Texworld USA
Education: We aim to offer ample educational opportunities through the Texworld USA Seminar Series (organized by Lenzing Fibers) and our Texworld USA floor sessions program, Textile Talks.
Networking: Texworld USA is a dynamic industry event bringing together industry professionals from all across the globe.
Trends: Discover what is new and trending during Summer 2019 edition. Visitors will have the opportunity to take a peek into the newest color and textile offerings for Fall/Winter 2020 with Texworld Showcase.
Diverse Product Groups: We are excited to feature over 16 product groups, ensuring the largest possible variety of quality, affordable products for all apparel end-uses."
premiere vision Paris
"For 3 days, 2 times a year, at Paris-Nord Villepinte, the six major industries supplying materials and services to the global fashion industry (including Yarns, Fabrics, Leather, Designs, Accessories, Manufacturing) come together in Paris."
Premiere vision nyc
"For 40 years, Première Vision, a subsidiary of the Association Première Vision and the GL Events Group, has been organizing shows and events for professionals in the international fashion and textile industry. By constantly adapting to the needs of international markets, the Première Vision shows remain true to the same high goals: to provide its visitors a selective, quality and creative offer and services, and unique fashion information."
planet textiles - Sustainable textile summit
This one is for those of you interested (hopefully everyone reading this article) in sustainable fabric sourcing.
"Discover the future. Learn about radical new environmental initiatives and business models in the textile supply chain. Understand the trends. See how disruptive technologies and financial innovations can create new opportunities. Meet the new leaders. Planet Textiles features innovators in the global textile and retail businesses who are reshaping the industry. Connect. Delegates will have ongoing opportunities to forge new relationships at Planet Textiles. Explore the ecosystem. Planet Textiles explores company engagement, collaboration, transparency and how to measure."
sourcing at magic
"In August, all 12 MAGIC shows will be hosted under one roof at the Las Vegas Convention Center. SOURCING AT MAGIC is your link to the entire global supply chain. This incredible source of inspiration, education, innovation, and resources is what keeps fashion moving. With over 40 countries represented, this must-see destination attracts designers, brands and retailers alike to discover what they need to move their business forward."
The London Textile Fair - for fabric sourcing UK
"WITH MORE THAN 470 EXHIBITORS, THE LONDON TEXTILE FAIR IS THE UK’S PREMIER PLATFORM FOR FASHION FABRICS, CLOTHING ACCESSORIES, PRINT STUDIOS, AND VINTAGE GARMENTS.
TLTF provides manufacturers and their agents with the opportunity to showcase their products to the most influential British buyers and designers. The show is one of the top industry events within the UK with an increasing international appeal.
Location: The Business Design Centre, 52 Upper Street, Islington, London N1 0QH"
apparel textile sourcing at the Mana Wynwood Convention center
Back to our yoga brand example. Miami has become a hot spot for swimwear, resort wear, and yoga athleisure wear. If you are looking for those types of fabrics, this is a tradeshow that might be worth the trip.
"Apparel Textile Sourcing Miami 2019 is more than a sourcing show, it is three days of networking, free seminars, and inspiration.
ATSM 2019 connects the southeastern United States, North America, Latin America, and the Caribbean to the international marketplace for apparel, textiles, and fashion.
The 2019 ATSM Seminar Series focuses on the most prominent topics affecting apparel and trade. Visit our seminars page to see our line-up from last year's show. (2019 Schedule to be announced)
• FABRIC & TRIM
• Swimwear & Resort wear
• B2B Ecommerce, Technology and Sustainable Sourcing"
who are your competitors using?
There is one last way to find a mill. Thanks to transparency more and more brands are listing on their websites and social media who it is they are working with. Everlane and Madewell are two that are known for listing their fabric mills and factories. If you like one of their fabrics go ahead and reach out to the mill and ask for the same thing. Easy, right?
Ok, so you know what you want to source, and you found the fashion fabric sourcing partner that you want to work with, now what?
step 5 - Introduce yourself.
Say hello, and let the factory know a little bit about yourself, your product, and what it is you need from them.
Here is an email template to do this.
Hello mill name,
My name is ____________. I am the the founder, product developer, designers, etc of the brand ____________. I found your company through Google, tradeshow, a friend or colleague, etc.
(Now give a little info about your brand, BUT no more than 4 sentences, remember we are all busy people. We really don't care how the idea came to you and your best friend while on vacation in Fiji).
Sentence one: What your brand is making
Sentence two: Your timeline - have you launched? when do you plan to launch? If possible insert a hyperlink to your website here.
Sentence three: What your brand is looking for, aka the types of fabrics you need.
Sentence four: Your projected order size. (one of the best ways to get ghosted really quickly by a factory is to tell them you plan on huge orders, and the try to order only a few yards - adios, sayonara). Be honest. If you are small, let them know - they might be willing to work with you, or sometimes even refer you to someone else that can help you if you aren't a good fit.
Thank you for your time,
social media link
step 6 - ask for counter swatches
If the mill does not answer or does not want to work with you, that's ok. Keep emailing. Eventually, you will find a partner that is the right fit.
If they do want to work with you, it's time to send a cutting.
Send a cutting of the fabric you like to the mill.
And, tell them why it is you like the fabric. Chances are they do not have the exact same fabric as the one you are sending, but they have one that is very similar.
When sending swatches make sure to label them clearly. Give each fabric a name, or number code, so nothing gets confusing. And, always type up a clear list of what you are sending.
Here is an email template for counter sourcing fabrics.
Hi name of mill contact,
Today I am sending you # of swatches via insert FedEx, DHL, or postal service tracking number here. Please confirm upon receipt. (This request is standard industry lingo, the factory will then send you a quick email saying hey we received your swatches and are getting to work).
Please note the package includes the below items:
List your items here, (remember to make sure to be clear in your documentation and naming of each item so there is no confusion).
BONUS: take photos
Take photos of what you are sending and include them in the email so there is absolutely zero chance for confusion. If you take photos, all you need to say is…
Please see the attached photos for your easy reference.
And that's it! Stick to the script to sound like an industry pro and keep it professional.
step 7 - review the mills counter swatches
Upon receiving your swatches, the mill will go into their library of fabrics and check out what is currently running and pull some similar items. They will then send swatches of fabrics back to you that they think might be a good fit based on your original swatches sent to them.
FYI, you are responsible for paying for your own shipping charges here. It is not the mills responsibility to front shipping costs for a brand.
step 8 test it out, sample first
Did the mill send you a fabric you like? Test it out! If they didn't explain to them why you didn't like the fabric and ask more more swatches.
Don't get bullied into placing an order immediately when sourcing fabrics. You should always be able to test your fabric out first. And, testing fabric is crucial to the integrity and quality of your product.
A small swatch of fabric might look great, but you need to buy a few meters, make a garment and test out how the fabric performs. I see many brands skipping this step, and if often leads to product quality nightmares, and product returns down the line.
If a mill will not let you sample before you commit to a big bulk order, don't work with them. There are sooooo many mills out there in the world, and the ethical ones will always let you sample first. Not being allowed to sample is a red flag to run the other way and not work with that supplier.
step 9 - stay organized
You are going to have so many swatches going out, coming in, and information floating around. Stay organized.
I always use and excel to keep track of my fabrics. Here is a screenshot of a handy template to help you stay organized.
keep key information organized with an FDS
What's on an FDS? An FDS is a Fabric Data Sheet. It is a quick 1-page form with all of the fabrics crucial information.
An FDS contains the following info.
This is also referred to as a quality number.
The percent of fiber types that make up the fabric
FABRIC WEAVE OR KNIT TYPE
Examples would be plain weave, or 3x1 twill for woven fabric, or jersey for knit fabrics
The size of the yarns
Yarns per inch (YPI) for wovens, or stitches per inch (SPI) for knits.
SAMPLE MINIMUM ORDER QUANTITY (MOQ)
What is the least amount of meters of fabric you can order in a sample order
SAMPLING PRICE AND VALIDITY DATE
What is the price, and how long that price is good for? Prices change as the market changes
SAMPLE LEAD TIME
How long it takes to get sample the fabric
BULK MINIMUM ORDER QUANTITY (MOQ)
How much fabric do you need to order for the bulk price
BULK PRICE AND VALIDITY DATE
How long it will take to make and ship your fabric when you place a bulk order
SPECIAL FINISHES OR TREATMENTS
Washes, waterproofing, softening, etc
MOQ pro tip
Can't meet the minimum order quantity? Partner up, and work collaboratively. Sometimes you can get a few small brands together and all place an order together in order to meet the minimum. Or sometimes, factories will let your "bulk order" be a sample order. This helps with a low minimum, But the downside is a higher price. Sampling orders are usually 1.5 to 2 times the cost of bulk orders.
Place your bulk order
So you sampled, and still, love the fabric? Now it is time to place the bulk order for your production. Generally, it is industry standard to pay 50% of the order cost at the time the order is placed, and 50% once the fabric is ready to ship.
If a mill asks for 100% payment up front, run the other way. They are most likely scammers, and your fabrics will never ship.
step 10 - Manage your bulk order
It takes anywhere from 1-4 months for a bulk fabric order, generally. Follow up with the mill periodically - like once every 10-20 days depending on how long your lead time is. And ask if everything is on track to ship on time or if there are any issues that may delay the shipment.
You sourced your first fabrics! Next, it's time to talk about making those fabrics into a garment…