Product Development Using Deadstock Fabrics

If you use deadstock fabrics, you’re going to need to take a different approach to designing and developing new styles. 

I always say that you need to know your fabric before starting development, but that is assuming you are sourcing new textiles and that the pattern will only ever be made in that particular fabric. Knowing your fabric is important for development, but when using deadstock, the process looks a bit different.

The difference with deadstock

When working with new textiles, you have much more (or even complete) control over the fabrics, colors, and quantities. You know the source and the content of the fabrics. You can develop your own materials specific to what you need for your design. You can dial in your patterns and production just for a specific fabric and reorder the fabric again and again.

With deadstock, this is not the case. You have to work with what is already made and available. There are more constraints, more unknowns, more turnover. You might only be able to get a partial roll of a fabric and never be able to find that same one again. There may be more flaws in the fabric that you don’t realize until your design is in production. 

Deadstock fabrics are still a good option for brands that want to lower their environmental impact and be creative within the constraints. The design and development process just looks a bit different when working with deadstock. So how do you approach designing and developing with deadstock? Let’s break it down.

Categorize your styles and fabric options

The first thing you’ll want to do is to put your designs into buckets by fabric category. Consider the fabric weight, feel, and look that would be best suited for each design. These categories will be different depending on how broad of a product offering you have, but should combine fabrics of similar properties. For example, you can combine a button-up and a sundress into a category like “lightweight woven – not sheer” or a tee shirt and bodysuit into a category for “stretch knit”. By categorizing your styles into these buckets, you now know what types of deadstock fabrics to look for.

If you already have some deadstock swatches at this point, you can match these to the appropriate buckets you’ve created. They may not all fit into your buckets, but that is fine. Put the ones that aren’t a good match into additional buckets that you may use later.

Identify optimal fabric width

For styles that you’ve already developed, you’ll want to take note of what fabric width is optimal for that pattern. (Ask your patternmaker if you don’t have this info). The pattern is likely engineered to fit efficiently on a certain width of fabric and deviating too much from that could result in a lot of wasted fabric which is counterproductive if you are using deadstock to reduce waste. Beyond yield efficiency, styles with large pattern pieces may require a certain width just to be able to fit the largest pieces.

Even if you haven’t drafted any patterns for your designs yet, make note of the width of different deadstock fabrics. Wherever possible, keep the fabric widths within each bucket within a range of a few inches. This will make both patternmaking and production more efficient!

When you go to source deadstock fabrics, bring your list of fabric categories plus a list of your styles, the ideal fabric width, and the yield. This will help you select the best fabrics and quickly estimate how many pieces you will be able to cut from a given fabric. 

Establish a testing process for new fabrics

The deadstock fabrics you use will change from season to season and you might even use two different fabrics for the same style within the same season. You will go through many more different fabrics than a brand that is using new materials. Because of this, it is important to have a process to test new fabrics. 

You might think it isn’t worth doing meticulous testing on a fabric you can only get 20 yards of. I agree, but some testing is necessary. You’ll need to know whether a particular fabric meets the standards for one of your fabric category buckets. Without any sort of testing process or standards, your product quality will end up inconsistent and your customers will be frustrated. Fabric drastically affects the fit, look, and feel of a garment, so if the fit of your styles differs too much between seasons or colorways, that dilutes product quality and complicates your marketing.

For each fabric category bucket, create a set of standards that a new fabric needs to meet to be considered. This can include things like shrinkage amounts, care instructions, opacity, fiber content, drape, weight, etc. Some of the tests can be subjective: does this new fabric drape and feel similar to the other fabrics you’ve used for this design before? Some are more objective: the fabric needs to be wider than 53” cuttable and shrink between 2-4% in length when washed and dried with a particular set of care instructions.

If you test a new fabric and it meets the requirements of one of your buckets, you can use it for the styles you grouped in that bucket.

Plan your seasonal line

Once your styles and fabrics have been tested and organized, it is time to plan your line! This is the fun part for designers. You can do this digitally, but I recommend printing out little flat sketches of your designs and getting out your bag of deadstock swatches and doing this on a table top or cork board. 

Lay out your flat sketches into the collections you want to release and group the fabrics into the buckets they belong in. Then start placing the fabric swatches with the corresponding styles in the same bucket you want to use them for. Play around with different colorways and combinations until you have a line you are happy with for the season. You’ve already done the work of identifying the technical needs, so now it is about finding the right assortment and color story for a cohesive collection.

Be flexible

While being organized and testing against your standards reduces the unknowns of working with deadstock, it doesn’t eliminate all potential surprises. You never know when a fabric you were hoping to use gets snatched up by another designer or if there are fabric damages deeper in the roll that you didn’t know about. It is best to stay flexible with your plans when working with deadstock. 

Patience is also key. Sometimes you can’t find just the right fabric for a particular design when you want it. It might be worth holding that style for a future collection and keeping an eye out for the right fabric in the meantime. If you try to force a fabric that didn’t meet your predetermined standards to work for a style, it probably won’t turn out how you’d hoped. 

Designing and developing new styles with deadstock fabrics is like a well-mapped out treasure hunt. You know the goal and do the planning and organization up front so that as you navigate the journey, you know the right fit when you see it.

Leave a Reply