Episode 23: What is the best way to source fabrics?




Fabric, Mills, Sustainable Sourcing, Textile Agents, Trade shows



Welcome to the Fashion Unearthed podcast. If you need help navigating the fashion industry sustainably, you have come to the right place. I'm your host Belinda Humphrey and my hope is to simplify the fashion industry so that businesses can make the best decisions for people, planet and product.


Hello, and welcome to episode 23 of the Fashion Unearthed podcast. Today's episode is the third week of a six week summer series where I answer the most popular questions from the audience. I hope everyone is enjoying the format and episodes so far, but again, just a bit of a quick disclaimer, this is general advice. I don't know your exact situation. So even though I'm answering question, please consider your own situation still and a reminder as well that I'm working on that new guide that I'm planning to release around the end of January, which will focus on ethical and sustainable sourcing. So make sure to sign up to my newsletter as I'll be releasing an exclusive offer to subscribe only when it launches, you can sign up by heading to belindahumphrey.com

So the question for this week is how to source fabrics, which can be a very long answer. But I'll try to simplify and distil the main things. I get this question a lot actually and people I think just want a simple answer or contact for a fabric mill but there's so much to think about before jumping in and sending an email.


So the first thing you need to think about is what you want to make. Fabric Mills specialise in particular fabrics and fibres, sometimes, due to the machinery requirements. If you're making outdoor jackets, you need a mill that works with those particular fabrics. There's no point being recommended a jersey fabric mill. Sometimes it can help to buy samples of things for fabrics and this can be especially helpful if you're new to the industry. You can cut them up and send the fabrics to people so they know exactly what to source. And actually even experienced people will do this still in the industry, especially if something is new to them. Because a lot can be done to the fabric after it's knitted or woven in the finishing process too. So just because something's 100% Cotton, that might not tell the whole story that might have been brushed, or it might have been peached or there might have been washed.

Next, consider where you're making your item. Ideally, you want a mill close by to your factory, which will save on transport time costs and carbon emissions from shipping. Fabric lead times can be anywhere from a month for sampling to eight weeks for production and that's before we add transit time.


So there are two ways to source fabrics. You can go direct or you can work with a fabric agent. Either way, asking what their minimums are should be one of your first questions. And if it's too high, ask them if they can do less with a surcharge. When you go direct, you're dealing directly with the fabric mill, you're getting the best price and you're talking directly to the experts making the fabric. Doing your research before dealing direct with the mill will pay off. They prefer to work with people who know what they want, and how to explain what they want. They generally don't want to waste time with people new to the industry educating them.


The second way is to find a fabric agent. The benefit of using an agent is that they'll have existing relationships with the mills and be able to articulate what you want. And the mills will trust the agents too because they've spent the time getting to know you and your needs. So they don't have to do it. They're a middle person and will get a commission on the order, so you might not get the best price, but it could be a good option if you're new to the industry as it will provide that extra level of service and I guess translation or interpretation between you and the mill. They'll also have the experience and be able to offer advice on what you're wanting and if that's realistic. The other benefit of using an agent is they often have a few different mills and source bases that they have existing relationships with. So you could have a higher chance of getting what you need without having to do all that research yourself.


So where to look. If you want to work directly, trade shows are the best place to start. Mills exhibiting here are often looking for new business. So we'll spend a bit more time talking to you and your requirements. Now, obviously thanks to COVID that's made it a bit more difficult. However many trade shows have gone online. So you could still register and go through the list of exhibitors and make contact with anyone you might think of suitable. Some popular trade fairs are Intertextile in Shanghai, Premiere Vision in Paris or even the International Sourcing Expo here in Melbourne. And like I said, even if you don't physically go you can often get access to the exhibitors list which you can search through.


Another way is that because a lot of brands are listing all of their suppliers on their website, you can often find some mills that way. There is of course no guarantee that they want to work with you or they have the product that you're looking for, but it is an option. There's also a relatively new way that I've seen emerging for fabric mills in the way of online platforms that connect mills to businesses, you have to be vetted to be accepted both as a business and a mill. But it's another option, and I guess another platform connecting the two. Of course, there are Facebook groups and Alibaba but I'm sure if you're listening to this episode, you've already experienced what a minefield those platforms are.


But another way is you can ask another business for an introduction, or ask them who they're using. Some are open to sharing their suppliers, particularly in the sustainability space so that they can help other brands make better decisions, too. But some won't, as they see it as part of their advantage or the competitive edge.


Finally, a little insider tip, if you found a factory, ask them what Mills they already have existing relationship with, or even ask them the other brands that they're working for? What fabric Mills do they use?, you might get an introduction that way.


So in summary, get clear on your product first, and then just get out and start researching. When communicating with Mills or agents be clear and decisive. You want to be taken seriously and don't get disheartened many people will tell you that even with industry experience, it can be hard and time consuming to get what you're looking for. So, research and get swatches from a few at the same time to keep your options open and keep persisting.


I hope you found that helpful and thanks so much for sending in the question. Make sure to get on the email list if you're particularly interested in ethical and sustainable sourcing as like I said, I'm working on a new guide due to be released at the end of January and subscribers only will get an exclusive offer. Head to the website belindahumphrey.com to get on the list.


And I'd love to know if something was particularly interesting to you in today's episode, you can DM me on Instagram @belindahumphrey_ or send me email info@belindahumphrey.com. and finally, as always, if you're listening on the go or out and about enjoying a break over the holiday season, you'll find the show notes or the transcript and any links on the website in the podcast section. Thanks so much for listening. See you next time.


Thanks for listening to the Fashion Unearthed podcast. If you want to get in touch head over to belindahumphrey.com or you can find me on Instagram @belindahumphrey_


Disclaimer: Whilst every effort is made to ensure that information is accurate at the time of recording, much like the fashion industry itself, this information may change. 


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