What is overstock fabric?
When we started planning our initial fabric offering in June of 2015, I had one goal in mind: offer a variety of sustainable apparel fabrics that differ from the designer fabrics on the market. I have a good friend in the ethical fashion industry who used what she called “deadstock” fabric for her designs. She and a few other people gave me some contacts in the Los Angeles Fashion District for fabrics for our shop.
My first trip to the LA Fashion District was equal parts exhilarating and terrifying. I brought my sister along with me for moral support and I didn’t realize how much I would need her input when rifling through giant warehouses full of fabric. On a hot July day, she and I shuffled through the overloaded warehouses with towers of fabric leaning over us. No clearly marked exits, roughly 12 inches of room to squeeze past the rows and rows of textiles, all fire sprinklers completely blocked by the Lincoln-log-stacked piles of fabric, hunting for fabric in a wholesale overstock warehouse is not for the faint of heart.
We would find a fabric we liked and cut a quick swatch, and then swiftly retreat to the safety of the first floor, where we knew the way out in the case of emergency. I laugh thinking of those first handful of fabrics we stocked. They were an odd mix of prints and solids; we just didn’t know how to shop for a curated selection of fabrics amongst an overwhelming range of substrates.
Now that I’ve been to LA many times since, the anxiety of possibly dying in those cramped, hot warehouses with no one to find you for days (maybe weeks?) no longer accompanies me. Now I travel to LA on a mission, typically flying in early morning and back out late that evening. In about eight hours I scour every square inch of my supplier’s warehouse finding exactly what’s on my list and finalize the order just a few hours before I have to catch my flight. The fabric is shipped within a few days and on our doorstep within a week.
While I can’t predict the future, I suspect that I will always source fabric this way. We don't sell overstock fabric because it’s convenient (I’d much rather shop online) or more affordable (buying milled fabric is much cheaper). I source our overstock fabric from the LA Fashion District because it’s the most cost-effective way to bring you sustainable, high-quality apparel fabrics.
Today, I’m giving you a peek inside the overstock fabric industry. It’s not a glamorous industry and it’s certainly not hugely profitable, but it is without a doubt one sustainable option for apparel textiles. The information below applies to my experience with overstock fabric suppliers in Los Angeles and one online company out of Pennsylvania. The overstock fabric world might operate differently in New York or in Europe. Each region has its own idiosyncrasies.
What is overstock fabric?
First, let’s set one thing straight: there are several names for the same type of fabric, which can be a bit confusing. If you’ve ever heard apparel fabric described as overstock, deadstock, surplus, or jobber fabric, they all mean the same thing.
Overstock fabric is excess fabric from fashion designers, movie sets, and fabric mills that is no longer needed for the job it was originally intended for. A clothing company may decide not to continue producing a specific t-shirt design and have hundreds of yards of jersey fabric that is now useless to them. A fabric mill may have overproduced a certain substrate that they can no longer sell to their customers. This leftover fabric is then sold (usually at a loss) to a middle man called a jobber. That sale is facilitated by a broker.
What is a broker?
The overstock fabric industry has multiple middlemen facilitating the sourcing and selling of overstock fabric. The first of those is a broker who works with the clothing manufacturers, fabric mills, or movie sets. The broker is notified by the company that they have extra fabric to sell. The broker then contacts their network of jobbers (the second middleman), to see who is interested in bidding on the lot of fabric.
For the big players in the overstock fabric industry, huge lots of overstock fabric are auctioned off to jobbers “storage wars” style. Many jobbers will go to the location where the fabric is stored and take a quick peek (literally, they are not allowed to touch or look closely at the fabric) at what’s available. Whichever jobber bids the highest for the entire lot of fabric, and whether he is able to pay cash on the spot, will dictate who will win the auction.
What is a jobber?
The wholesale overstock fabric world is run by this secondary middleman called a jobber. In LA, jobbers often have brick and mortar shops in the Fashion District, just south of the downtown business district. To be considered a jobber, they resell the fabric on a wholesale basis, with large minimum order quantities, to fashion designers, smaller movie productions, and fabric stores like us.
Jobbers will sometimes specialize in specific substrates. For example, there’s a great linen jobber in LA who has an amazing selection. There’s another jobber who sells really high quality printed silks. There’s steep competition among jobbers in Los Angeles and at most shops, you can negotiate the per-yard price.
We work with the biggest jobber in LA whose warehouse is 1/4 of a long city block, four stories tall, and is absolutely jam-packed with fabric. I am not kidding when I say that they have absolutely any type of fabric we're looking for.
Fun fact: Our jobber provided all of the small ditzy floral prints you see in the TV show Westworld. All of those fabrics were overstock fabrics found in their warehouse from various sources collected over the years.
This is the part where I disappoint you a little bit, because I know the question of where we buy our fabric will come up after I publish this. Unfortunately, due to the nature of this blog post, I have decided not to divulge our jobber’s information to protect the sensitive information they provided us.
The overstock fabric and jobber industry tends to operate in a pretty archaic way. I can count on one hand how many jobbers have websites where you can actually browse the fabric offering. Only one of those lets you actually buy the fabric online.
Fabric swatches of the textiles we decided to purchase from our jobber.
My jobber sends me paper invoices in the mail and there is absolutely no semblance of an inventory tracking system. When I pick out a fabric I want, they have to pull out every bolt they can physically see (if it’s on the bottom of the stack, it’s pried out with a crowbar) and roll it out to count it yard by yard.
The jobber has a finite amount of each fabric, their inventory of each substrate ranging anywhere between 20 and 500 yards. This is why we often can't restock our fabrics. Once my supplier has sold out of a particular fabric, it's gone for good.
At first, I was baffled by the inefficiency of most jobber’s inventory systems. But then I learned a few facts about my jobber in particular, that would make it nearly impossible to track inventory on every item.
Our jobber estimates that he has well over a million of yards of fabric in his warehouse, some substrates originating from far back as the 80s. Anywhere from 1,000 to 40,000 yards of fabric are received in the warehouse per day and just as much flows back out.
The overstock fabric industry runs purely on the connections of the broker and the jobber. There’s practically no marketing involved, beyond the brightly painted exteriors on the jobbers' warehouses that proudly tout their offering. In the three years I’ve been sourcing overstock fabric I’ve never received a newsletter or notification of a sale happening. The industry runs purely on who you know and what you need at any given time.
Is Overstock Fabric Sustainable?
To answer this question, it’s important first to understand the differences between milled fabric and overstock fabric. Milled fabric is manufactured per the customer's specifications and is produced thousands of yards at a time. Companies like Robert Kaufman, Windham, and RJR are producing milled fabric, usually in factories in Asia.
The best quality milled fabric typically comes from the UK, Japan, and Italy. The lowest quality textiles tend to originate from China. Milling fabric is an incredibly water and energy intensive process and many overseas factories don’t have great environmental practices surrounding their production. There are some factories producing fabric in a sustainable way, but those textiles come with a much higher price tag.
Also, because most fabric is milled overseas, it’s important to consider the environmental effects of shipping the fabric halfway across the world to the end consumer. Our fabric is shipped from California to Colorado (hopefully one day we can ship directly from Los Angeles!) and then to your doorstep. It’s far less taxing on the environment to source the fabric from such a close proximity.
Of course, overstock fabric is milled fabric that was at one time shipped from overseas, but it's considered secondhand. By offering overstock fabric, we’ve lessened the demand for new fabric to be created at mills.
Now, you might be asking yourself, "But if we increase the demand for overstock fabric, doesn't that, in turn, increase the demand for milled fabric?"
Personally, I don't think it does. Companies that are selling their excess fabric to jobbers are almost always selling the fabric for a fraction of what they paid for it. There’s no profit to be made on the sale of the fabric for the initial customer. Selling the excess fabric is simply a way to incur less of a loss than they would if the fabric were thrown away altogether. While this low-margins, archaic, price-haggling industry might seem slightly mysterious, there is no doubt that jobbers are doing our world some good.
Other Sustainable Fabric Options
Keep in mind that there are other sustainable textile options on the market; organic and recycled fabrics are more sustainably produced. You’ll see a much higher price tag for those fabrics because they’re far more expensive to manufacture.
We recommend that you do some research around sustainable textiles and implement a buying strategy that feels good to you. Purchasing a mix of organic/recycled fabrics along with overstock fabrics is a great place to start if you’d like your sewing habit to be more environmentally friendly and you're on a budget. Sourcing some of your fabrics locally from your independent fabric store is also a great way to support your local community.
While I certainly don’t know what the future holds, Indiesew will, for the foreseeable future, sell almost exclusively overstock fabric simply because we think it’s the most affordable way to get a sustainable fabric option into your hands. You can always find out if a fabric we sell is overstock by checking out the description of each fabric. All of the fabrics in our shop currently are overstock.
We are growing our fabric selection over the next few months based on the feedback you provided in our 2017 customer survey. Make sure you sign up for our newsletter to be notified when new fabric hits the shop!
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