Finding the Right Fabric for Your Design – Where (and Where Not) to Look

This is the third post in a 3-part series. In the first post, we talked about what you are making and in the second post we talked about how to describe the fabric you are looking for.

Sourcing and buying fabric as an apparel brand is very different from purchasing fabric as a retail customer. Please do not rush out and buy fabric at your local craft store. They are set up to service individual hobby sewers and crafters — not other businesses. As an apparel brand, you’ll want to find fabric suppliers that provide wholesale pricing and fabric continuity.

Depending on your brand’s size and what type of fabric you need, you have different options available to you for buying fabric. If you are ordering in high enough volumes (somewhere over 1-2 thousand yards for many domestic mills), you can get fabric custom made to your specifications. This is a great option if you want to have a distinct fabric or a certain fiber blend in your fabric. Custom fabric does take a couple months to have made once you order it, so if you are buying custom-made fabrics, make sure you’ve planned that lead time into your production schedule.

If you don’t have the volume or need to order custom fabric, many mills and distributors carry stock fabrics in multiple colors and contents. You don’t have unlimited choices, but you do have much more leeway with minimum order quantities while still getting continuity. Because stock fabrics are made before your order instead of to order, you can usually get stock fabrics quickly.

Some companies sell deadstock fabrics which are overruns from mill custom orders, or leftover fabric from larger fashion brands. The advantage of buying deadstock is that there are usually low or no minimums and quick order time. The downside is that you don’t always know the fabric’s origin or fiber content and there is little to no continuity. This option is best for smaller brands who aren’t ordering in large quantities and don’t reuse the same fabrics season after season.

There are different ways you can go about buying these fabrics. You can work directly with a mill to order your fabric. You can also work through an agent or sales rep who represents multiple mills. There are also companies that just import fabrics and keep a warehouse of stock domestically.

Any of these types of companies may have a booth at sourcing trade shows like sourcing at MAGIC or DG Expo where you can see or order swatches from their line and write orders there.

If you would rather outsource your sourcing, some full-service factories and agencies that have relationships with mills and sales reps and can facilitate sourcing and ordering fabrics on your behalf. This is a service you will pay them for. If you are doing your own sourcing and ordering, you have to do your research and spend the time to build the contacts and know what questions to ask.

Have your list of features and fibers handy that we went through earlier. Be ready to describe the fabrics you need as well as prospective order quantities you are anticipating placing. In general, the higher quantities you order, the better price per yard you will get. In addition to the fabric specifications itself, ask the representative what their minimum order quantities and minimum sample quantities are and what their order lead times look like.

If you’ve thought through your price points and the rough material costs you will need to hit that price point, you can let the rep know what kind of fabric prices are within your budget.

Unless you are actually at a trade show booth or showroom that has a sample fabric swatch that you like, it is helpful to send your contact swatches of fabric you like and call out what you like about them (weight, construction, hand feel, color, etc.). This swatch can be cut from another fabric, a garment from your closet, or garment you bought for this purpose. Send them these swatches with the list of features and fiber blend you are searching for and ask to see what similar fabrics they offer. They will then send you swatch cards to choose from.

Once you’ve chosen a fabric, order some sample yards to wash, test, and make your fit samples out of. Samples take more fabric per garment than production so order a few extra yards to make sure you have enough. You should be ordering sample yards and testing fabrics before you start patterns and fittings.

Fabric typically arrives on a roll with the exception of sample yardage which may be folded in a shipping envelope depending on the quantity you ordered. The face side of the fabric should be the side rolled towards the inside. When your rolls of fabric arrive, make sure to tag them so that you can identify them easily. I recommend including the following information on fabric tags:

  • Mill or vendor name
  • Vendor’s sku for that fabric including the fabric color or print sku or name (very usefully to have easily accessible when it is time to reorder)
  • Your internal name or brief description of the fabric
  • Fiber content
  • Fabric weight in GSM or oz/sq yd
  • Number of yards on a full roll
  • Date the roll arrived
  • The minimum order quantity to reorder

Attach the tag to the roll core as opposed to the layers of fabric on the outside. That way you don’t have to un-attach it every time you have to use some yardage (and inevitably forget to re-attach it). Also, you might also find it useful to keep a running tally on the back of the tag of how many yards are on the roll with the date any yards were used. Once your fabrics are sourced, tested, and organized, it is time to start developing your design.

Over these three posts, we talked about the design you are making, how to describe the fabric you are looking for, and where to start looking for it. Now it is time to go out and source your own fabric! I’d love to hear, what will you be making?


Michael Lee

8:35 am April 1, 2019

We have been wanting to get some apparel swatch cards for some garments we will be making. I agree that it is important to tell suppliers what you like about the different swatches. This would help the process to get the fabric closest to what you want.

Hannah Anttila

5:59 pm September 26, 2019

Hi Alison! This series was so helpful for someone like me who’s just venturing into what it could look like to start a small business in the fashion industry, thank you. Where do you recommend buying notions?


9:21 am September 27, 2019

Hi Hannah, glad you found it helpful! What type of notions are you looking for and in what rough quantities?

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