Depending on your level of experience in the apparel industry, searching for fabrics will need to be different from person to person or from company to company. Each of the below processes is a great way to work through this stage of the development cycle though. None is better or worse than the other. It’s just a matter of starting where you're comfortable.
Start-Up Level Processes:
Fabric stores are available around the world for every-day consumers to shop. Jo-Ann’s Fabric Store is one that I used to frequent when I was a teenager making my own clothes at home. As I started to search for more diverse options in college, I did a lot of my shopping at Mood Fabrics Online, the largest online fabric store out there. It is extremely difficult to purchase fabrics without touching and seeing them in person though. So if you are going to shop online, see if the store will do “swatching” for you.
In the swatching process, a store representative will take your fabric requests and clip small squares of their available options off of the larger fabric bolts. They’ll then tape or staple those swatches to cards, detailing the fabric name, quality, code and cost. Once you receive that swatch card, you can then at least feel the thickness, see the true color and quality of the materials before you purchase.
From there, whether you’ve gone to a physical store or worked through the swatching process with an online seller, you just purchase the amount of yardage you need and you can start sewing. Once you have prototypes that you like in fabrics that you’re happy with, you can take them to a manufacturer or sourcing professional to help you find larger quantities of that fabric (or as close as possible) for production runs.
Intermediate Level Processes:
If you are somewhere in between these other two levels, attending fabric trade shows can be a great intermediate process to source fabrics. Meeting employees of a variety of mills and suppliers in one location, while having the chance to look at the fabric headers they brought with them to the show is a great way to maximize your time for fabric sourcing. If you’ve made samples by buying fabrics at a local store, you can bring them with you to search for similar fabrics. And from there, you’ll have started to build those professional relationships that will get you to the next level.
Professional Level Processes:
If you’ve been in the apparel industry for years or already have a professional sourcing partner on your team, it can be much easier to reach out to your preferred mills directly to source your fabrics. You’ll want to start with what we call “headers” of fabric at this level. Headers are usually an eight-inch square of fabric that comes attached to a professional card, which outlines the fabric name, quality, code and cost. Professional fabric headers will also include weight of the fabric (either in ounces or grams per square meter) and width of the fabric roll. Knowing these finer details will help with the planning of your production processes. For example, more pieces of a garment can be cut from a 60” wide roll of fabric than a 45” roll of fabric.
Once you’ve received headers, many of the bigger industry mills will allow you to ask for one or two yards of your favorite options. This will allow you to do some early or in-house prototyping to determine if the materials will yield the fit, look and feel that you wanted. From here, you’ll need to invest in ordering official sample yardage rolls to sample at your factory before going into production runs of both material and apparel.
The number of different kinds of fabrics available to find are practically endless. Some companies even thrive on developing all of their own fabrics from scratch when they can’t find exactly what they need! The most important thing to have at this stage of your apparel development process is your vision. Envisioning what fabric is ideal for your line will help you to recognize it as soon as you see it on the shelf. And if you find something out of your price range, don’t be frustrated. Write down the content of the fabric you love, its weight and any other details you can find. Take those specifications to other mills and suppliers to see if they can offer you something similar at a better price. Don’t give up! Your ideal fabric is out there.