Updated: 3 days ago
One of the most common things I hear from my booth’s customers and passersby at craft shows is, “Where do you find your fabric? It’s so cute!” In addition to feeling a little glow at the compliment, I’m always happy to nerd out over fabric to anyone who will listen, explaining where I find my fabrics and how I choose the fabrics I’ll use in my designs.
Indeed, one of the most fun parts of my job is picking out fabrics! I can literally spend hours looking at adorable fabrics, figuring out which will make the cut (pun intended)! But as a small business owner - and for anyone else who is considering starting a sewing-based small business - the question of how to choose fabric in a sea of seemingly endless choices is an important one. Not only do we need to consider what our customers will like and the appropriate type of fabric needed to sew a particular design, there are also financial and environmental (sustainability) considerations to take into account. While I would love to buy every single fabric that catches my eye, a shiny new business credit card isn’t exactly a blank check (not to mention I don’t have the time to sew unlimited garments or the space to store endless bolts of fabric).
With so many options, it can be quite challenging to narrow things down. However, I do have some fairly strict criteria that I use when choosing textiles for my business — this helps me whittle down the seemingly endless choices, while also helping me maintain high quality standards. While I am not above the occasional “Oh my gosh this fabric is so cute!” impulse buy for my personal fabric stash, when it comes to being a responsible business owner, I have to take into consideration everything from environmental sustainability, to cost, to the aesthetic of the materials I choose. With all that in mind, how do I select the fabrics that I use for my business?
The criteria I use can be divided into two main categories: sustainability considerations and practical considerations. My strict sustainability criteria help me uphold my promise to my customers to use natural and environmentally friendly materials in my creations. In regards to practical considerations, I take into account the type of fabrics needed to sew each garment, aesthetics, and costs
Part One: Sustainability
First and foremost on my mind when selecting fabrics for my business is sustainability, and for me, sustainability comes down to two key considerations: Manufacturing Processes (how are the fabrics that I use made?) and Fiber Content (what are they made of?).
When thinking about how the fabric are made, I consider many things: Are the raw materials that will eventually become the fibers that make up the fabric grown in environmentally responsible ways? Is the manufacturing process free of harmful chemicals and dyes, producing a minimum of waste? Are the human workers in the factories that manufacture the fabrics treated well and paid a fair wage? These criteria harken back to the guidelines for sustainable crafting that I outlined in an earlier post, but I feel it’s even more important for me to adhere to these guidelines for my small business, as I am using materials on a much larger scale than I would if I was simply sewing for personal and household use.
With these criteria in mind, I prioritize purchasing organic fabrics - especially those with GOTS certification. GOTS certification is a global textile standard that verifies the fabric adheres to strict environmental standards during every step of the growing and manufacturing process, and the employees involved in these processes must be treated fairly and paid a fair wage for their labor. By selecting fabrics made by these manufacturers, I know that the fabrics I’m using were grown in ways that protect the environment and that they are free of the pesticides and harmful chemicals that are l used in conventional manufacturing processes. Some of my favorite suppliers of organic materials are Birch Organic Fabrics, Monaluna, Elvylyckan Designs, and Hawthorne Supply Co.
However, as a garment maker, there are sometimes fabrics that I may not be able to get from my go-to suppliers - either because they do not make a particular type of fabric, or because they are out of stock. In these instances, I look to my next tier, which is to find fabrics that may not be organic, but are OEKO-Tex certified – meaning the raw fibers may not be organically grown, but the manufacturing processes is free of harmful chemicals, and therefore the fabrics are certified to be free of harmful chemicals and materials.
I also try to use recycled materials if the only viable option for a particular type of fabric is synthetic fiber. For example, natural tulle is extremely difficult to find at a price that is not outrageously expensive, so I have started ordering tulle made from recycled fishing nets for my upcoming spring/summer collection. Recycled fabrics can be manufactured from existing fabrics, and even come from non-fabric origins such as recycled water bottles and the fishing nets mentioned above. Since these synthetic fibers can’t be organically grown as they are formulated from recycled plastics, the OEKO-Tex certification is a good yardstick to apply to ensure the fabric manufacturing processes are free of harmful chemicals. However, I rarely use these fabrics if I have a natural alternative as they still shed microplastics when washed, and polyester clothing is rarely recycled into something new rather than being thrown away.
Whereas manufacturing considerations come down to how the fabrics I use are made, Fiber Content looks into what the fabric is made from. When looking at fiber content, I always ask myself one very important question:
Can I Feed it to My Worms?
Wait… what? Where do worms come into this? Put another way, what I’m really asking is whether fabric is compostable and safe to add to my compost (and the worms living in the compost bin). When I sew, no matter how careful I am to conserve fabric and to cut as carefully as possible to make minimal waste, there will always be some scraps, including the ends that are trimmed from the edge of garments when using my serger.
When purchasing fabric, I first look at the fiber content to determine whether the materials are made from 100% natural materials and free of harmful chemicals. If they are, then I know that the scraps my business produces can be safely transferred to my composting bin. Pretty much all of the woven (non-stretchy) fabrics that I use fall into this category, as I primarily use 100% cotton or a blend of 55% hemp & 45% cotton for my wovens, with some linen and linen/cotton blends thrown in there. I keep a medium-sized cardboard box next to my sewing table for scraps. When I’m building up inventory for a craft event or market, I often fill this box in just a couple of days of sewing! Knowing that these scraps can be composted for later use in my garden rather than going to a landfill is a weight off my mind, as I know I am doing my part to reduce waste and run a sustainable small business.
Of course, I do also incorporate knits (stretchy fabrics) into my sewing rotation to make things like t-shirts and comfy dresses. For pretty much all of my knits I use a blend of 95% cotton (usually organic cotton) and 5% spandex. However, even if the fabric used has GOTs or OEKO-Tex certification, the fabric cannot easily be composted because of the spandex (however, I still opt for organic cotton in the blend because of the more sustainable farming and manufacturing processes outlined above - also fabric that is up to 10% spandex may be composted under the right conditions, but I have opted for other solutions). I instead look for ways to reuse the scraps. It turns out, the serger trimmings and other small scraps that my sewing efforts produce make fabulous filler for dog beds and decorative throw pillows. Rather than throwing these scraps away, I save them until I have enough to fill a large box, and then use them as filler in place of fiber polyfill (which is made of pure plastic fibers) or natural wool or cotton fiber fills (which can be really expensive). I also feel better knowing that the cotton in these knits was grown in an organic and environmentally sustainable way and the cotton portion will eventually biodegrade. I feel that even with the small amount of spandex blended with the cotton, it is still a much better alternative than the common polyester (aka plastic) spandex blends that make up a large portion of knit garments on the market.
It can sometimes be a challenge to find fabrics that both meet my sustainability criteria and that also have the look and feel that I’m looking for as I work on a particular garment, but I know that these high standards are important to my customers and to me personally. As someone creating something new to put out there in the world, I can only do so in good conscience by knowing I am doing so with as little impact on the environment as possible. However, these sustainability guidelines serve an important role for my business, as they provide the framework for me to do the fun part of fabric selection: finding the super cute, soft, and fun fabrics that we all love! Only after I’ve verified a fabric supplier meets these strict criteria will I dive into their catalog and select fabrics for purchase.
Now that I've explained the sustainability framework I choose to work with, it's time to move on to practical considerations (that is, finding fabric that meets my sewing and design needs).
Part Two: Practical Considerations
Fabric Weight & Use
As a kid, I remember that going to pick out fabric usually meant going to our local JoAnn Fabrics or quilt shop and walking through rows and rows of cotton prints, and picking out something that looked cute. It’s cotton, it’s pretty, why not make a dress out of it?
Not so fast. Sure, you CAN make a dress out of these fabrics. The problem is, these off-the-shelf fabrics from big craft stores are generally medium to heavy “quilting weight” cotton, and are not made for creating garments, so they’re going to be heavier and stiffer, and anything made from them will “look homemade” if you know what I mean.
Now, in fairness, there are plenty of fabrics - particularly poplins – that can be used for both quilting/crafting and for garment making, but it all comes down to finding fabric that is the right weight so that it has the proper amount of movement and drape for the garment being made. The point remains that when selecting fabric, just stating the fiber content (i.e.: 100% organic cotton) isn’t actually that useful. The canvas I use for sewing overalls and the lightweight lawn I use for making flowy dresses are both made up of 100% organic cotton, however, the look, feel, and weight of these fabrics are vastly different. The canvas is relatively thick and heavy as it's designed to hold up to heavy outdoor play, and the fabric itself needs to be strong enough to hold the overall buttons and buckles in place without tearing or stretching. The lawn, by contrast, is light, flowy, and made to easily gather into full skirts and puffy sleeves. They have the same fiber content, but vastly different uses and weights. All of the garments in the images below are made with 100% organic cotton, but their weights and uses are vastly different.
When purchasing fabric, I carefully consider what I want to make, how it’s going to be used, and the “look” I’m trying to achieve when selecting fabrics. I might fall in love with a fabric with an adorable print, but if it’s the wrong weight, then it’s not something worth purchasing. As a rule, I try to let design dictate my fabric choices, rather than the other way around. Put another way, rather than buying fabric and hoping that I will figure out what I want to make with it “someday”, I instead decide first what I want to make and the type of fabric I want to use for the design and then go to find fabrics that will work. This helps me avoid the “someday” trap. I think a lot of sewing and crafting enthusiasts fall into this trap – purchasing fabric or other materials because they are cute, or on sale, with the idea that they will figure out what to make with it later, when in reality the fabric sits on a shelf cluttering up the craft studio. As a small business owner, I don’t have the funds or the space to purchase “someday” fabric. Everything I buy has to have a concrete design in mind. That doesn’t mean I have to start sewing with it immediately – I often purchase fabric a couple of seasons ahead - but there has to be a plan for the fabric before I buy.
I’ve alluded to this a bit above, but the look and feel of the fabric is extremely important. I tend to gravitate toward soft and smooth fabrics with cute, nature-inspired prints. You’ll see a lot of flowers, animals, and insects in the fabrics I choose because I personally draw a lot of inspiration from nature. I also love soft and flowy fabrics like cotton lawn, and I look for knit fabrics that are super soft since they are comfortable on the skin.
Since I sew primarily children’s clothing, I also look for fabrics that wash well and are easy to care for. Cotton lawn is one of my favorite fabrics, not only because it is so soft and smooth, but also because it is less prone to wrinkling and shrinkage due to its high thread count, and the knits I choose are also high quality so they can withstand several trips through the washer and dryer. I won’t go into the specifics of every single type of fabric I use here but suffice to say, the look, feel, and washability of any fabric I buy are of the utmost importance.
I mentioned this above, but it bears repeating: the aesthetics of any fabric I choose needs to match the designs I am planning to make. I have to hold back from buying fabric just because it is cute — I first need to make sure the fabric type matches up with the designs I gave in mind.
While I wish I could just ignore costs, getting fabric at the right price is extremely important. That isn’t to say I buy cheap fabric — high quality, sustainable fabric doesn’t come cheap — but rather I need to be responsible with what I buy and make sure the price matches the quality of the fabric. I do my best to keep the costs for my customers reasonable without compromising on the sustainability criteria discussed above. Time also needs to be considered a cost. Indeed, if there is any piece of advice I could impart to someone else who is thinking about starting a creative endeavor, it is to remember that your time is valuable — you can’t just sell to cover the cost of materials. You need to support yourself, and your skill holds value.
When I think about cost, I’m looking to balance the monetary cost of materials against the time investment it takes to sew a particular design. For example, many of the knit fabrics I use are relatively expensive compared with the woven fabrics I use, but usually, the designs I make with them are (relatively) less time-intensive, such as for the Woodland Whimsy Dress. On the flip side, many of the woven fabrics I use cost less per yard, but the designs I make with them tend to be more intricate and time-consuming, such as the Enchanted Forest Dress pictured below. This balance of time and materials helps to keep my business financially stable — if I were making designs that were both costly and highly labor intensive, there is no way I could sustain my business. It is fortunate that the balance worked out so that the more costly materials can be sewn more quickly and vice versa.
Gathering all of the ruffles for the enchanted forest dress is VERY time-consuming. So many ruffles!
What this boils down to when I am buying fabric is that I need to look at the monetary cost of the fabric, while also considering the design I’m going to make and the time it will take to complete. How much will I have to sell the item for to recoup the cost of the materials, time, and overhead going into it, and will that price be reasonable to my customers? If the answer is no, then it’s best to continue searching for an equivalent fabric at a better price. Additionally purchasing fabrics in the correct quantities is very important, which again, brings me back to my rule that I only select fabric that I already have a design planned for. Otherwise, I would end up with a bunch of fabric lying around taking up important funds and inventory space, potentially leaving me unable to get the fabric needed for my most popular items. Even for fabric that is perfect for a design that I have planned, I need to do my best not to order more than I can use, to ensure the fabric is not wasted.
To sum it all up, While picking out fabric is super fun, it is also so important that I choose the right fabrics for my small business, prioritizing sustainability, safety, and environmental stewardship while balancing these ethical responsibilities against practical considerations such as aesthetics and cost. If you’re still here with me at the end of this very long post, then I hope you’ve found this information helpful and enlightening!