In my professional life so far, I have worked for three textile companies. All of them had mills or production facilities right here in the USA. One was a cotton converter (meaning they printed on cotton) whose main advantage was the artwork created by their designers. The division of that company I worked for no longer exists. The second fabric company I worked for was an elastomeric (stretch) fabric company, who sold to most of the world's best known lingerie, swimsuit, and sportswear companies. The last one I worked for was a wool, cashmere, and luxury fabrics company, who sold to luxury clothing and home furnishing manufacturers, and also had a clothing division of its own.
While working for these companies, I learned an awful lot about the fabrics they sold, the production process, and how the system works. Lemme tell you... the process is fraught with potential disasters, scheduling problems, dye problems, overage and/or shortage problems, payment problems, equipment problems, shipping and documentation problems... you've got to REALLY know what you're doing, on SO many levels, and know who you are dealing with, to stay in business as a textile company. The amount of effort they put in is admirable.
Which brings me to my bigger point. The rent these businesses have to pay to maintain a space in the garment district is HUGE! What an effort a fabric store has to make to even SURVIVE, much less thrive in the district these days. Seriously Herculean. One store owner said to me, "If I could just get even three more customers a day, do you know what a big difference that would make for me?" I mean, really, they are doing their best to offer us great stuff at great prices, and I admire them all for even being willing to try!
So where does all that great fabric come from? There are times when fabrics, produced by textile mills are rejected by the intended customer for a variety of reasons. The reason for their rejection does not always render those fabrics status as "second quality goods". They just weren't suitable for the intended buyer. There can be quality issues, like oil stains from the machines, or dye problems, machine stop marks, streaky colors, thread or weaving issues... the list goes on and on. However, when you personally need just a few yards for a project, these kinds of problems will likely not matter so much to you, especially if you can cut around them, or don't notice a small imperfection. This leftover fabric is often taken by whoever will pay for it, and ends up being used by another manufacturer, or in a fabric store. there can also be production overruns, discontinued colors and styles, and other reasons why the fabric is available to you as a retail customer.
Some fabric is specifically made for the home sewing market and retail customers not buying in large quantities, and is sold directly to the stores.
The fabrics you find are made in many different countries, with quite a variety of fiber content variations, and you won't necessarily know how to launder and care for it. Some stores have knowledgeable staff who will give you care instructions if you ask (New York Elegant, Spandex House, B&J, Mood, and Rosen and Chadick come to mind), but some will have no idea, and offer no assistance at all. If you are already here in New York, and don't mind making more than one trip to the garment district, you can always get swatches (most stores allow this) and wash test the fabrics yourself for comparison. You can also do burn tests at home, if desired. Don't abuse the ability to swatch! Try to only do it for fabrics you actually intend to buy. Stores impose limits because of swatch abuse by the indecisive... and students... ahem.
Sometimes you find something so inspiring, you simply MUST take a swatch, and figure it out later. An example of this is below, from New York Elegant Fabrics. I saw this puffy, weird, textural fabric, and wanted to squeal with delight. I asked one of the staffers (who I know was a textile designer before her career at NY Elegant) I regularly chat with, what she thought this fabric could be used for. She shrugged, and said "Jacket?" Sounds like that could be pretty cool. I thought about this... until this morning.... when it hit me like a thunderbolt!!!! In the spare time I don't have, I really want to recover my sofa (messily, on purpose) in an exaggerated, prehistoric animal print. This is Flintstone cartoon inspired... bear with me here... I am often inspired by cartoons... and the "rock" pillows must be made of THIS FABRIC! Oh, I just ACHE to make this happen!!!!! Where oh where will I find the time?????
Secondly, with time I will make, I had to seize this fabric from Metro Textiles. It is an oversized, blurry purple rose print charmeuse, that I almost hesitated to share with you guys because I love it so, and wish for no one else to have access. Then, I decided that was silly. After all, he's probably sold out of it by now... snicker... snicker...
A picture doesn't do it justice. Had to be a video.
So there ya go. Find your inspiration. Go fabric "window shopping", and you'll find things that will haunt your dreams. And see my previous post if you would like to join me on a garment district tour on November 2nd this year.