Because fabric prices are about to go up.
That’s the simple answer: you should care that China and Pakistan experienced massive flooding in 2010, that India had record droughts and that in the US and Russia cotton was underplanted to meet demand, because all those factors combine to create a shortage in cotton for 2011. And if you sew or craft or work with fabric (or wear clothes, for that matter), the shortage will affect you when you make fabric purchases.
This whole issue is both complicated and sticky. Complicated because there are an awful lot of factors involved, and sticky because there are just as many emotions. I wanted to take a day to really delve into some of those and set out what I think is an honest assessment of what the fabric world will be seeing in coming months. I’m so excited to be part of the crafting community, and have the chance every day to continue to do something that I truly love, and meet the sheer number of folks who are learning to sew and loving sewing and who are new to this entire nutty land we’re building. I worry that lack of information or misinformation will derail some of those new folks, and that a price increase will turn into dissatisfied stitchers, and want to do what I can to lay it all out on the table in advance of any price changes going into effect.
The push-back that I’m hearing the most–primarily in online forums–is that it’s “unfair” for fabric suppliers to raise their prices in 2011. The implication seems to be that this price increase is the result of choice on the part of the manufacturers and distributors for these fabrics, and that economy (or greed, depending on how cynical the post is) is at the heart of any changes. When I read these comments or hear someone respond this way, what I’m hearing is the reaction of someone who doesn’t want prices to go up on an item they want and need–totally honest, genuine reactions. Keep in mind, though, that the manufacturers don’t make their money one yard at a time–they make it over time, through building a reputation and attracting strong designers and creating a demand in the marketplace for their product: beautiful fabrics. That demand is highest when we, as the crafters and stitchers who use fabric, see other projects made with collections and covet them for our very own. Inspiring sewing projects made by someone else (and often posted on Flickr or blogs) are the number one way I get motivated to make something new. For the manufacturers, they are an invaluable way to get their name out into the public, and as a result, THEY WANT TO SELL YOU FABRIC. It is not in the fabric manufacturers’ best interest to raise prices beyond the point that customers can pay, because they won’t sell enough volume for them to continue to build their brand. While I totally get that we all push back against price increases and want to blame big businesses, in this case, that really isn’t what’s going down.
Similarly, I have seen the occasional comment indicating that customers are frustrated when they visit smaller, local fabric shops and find that prices have gone up by fifty cents or a dollar per yard. Especially for a prolific stitcher, that can feel like a punch in the gut–and that’s not to mention the budgeting we’ve all been doing already. Trust me, as a shop owner I can tell you the straight skinny: WE WANT TO SELL YOU FABRIC. And just like the manufacturers and the mills and the farmers who are further up the supply chain from me as a retailer, I hate that there is less cotton to go around right now. I feel frustrated when I get word that prices for my wholesale fabric are about to increase, because in order to stay in business, I have to purchase at a higher price, and then raise the price in the store to make room in the shop budget.
It comes down to basic economics. Now, I took an 8 am summer session class when I did the required Economics course as an undergraduate, so I didn’t learn some of the subtler nuances, but I do remember the supply and demand curve: when there is less supply and demand remains unchanged, prices increase. That’s not because those who have the product get greedy and decide to bilk those of us who want it. In this case, it’s because the farmers who grew the cotton planted it with the expectation that the crop would come in at a certain volume, and they calculated their profit based on that. Farmers, with families, who have children to feed whether the cotton crop failed or not. Farmers with futures, who have to plant cotton again next year, and can’t do that unless they’re able to make something off their crop this year. These guys aren’t carpetbaggers looking for easy pickings–they’re folks who want to make a living, and are struggling against an unforeseen event.
In order for farmers to get paid, the price has to increase on what little cotton there is. That price gets passed along to the mills who weave and print the fabric, then to the manufacturers who work with the designers and the mills to make the fabric beautiful. That price increase translates to a higher cost to me as a retailer–as much as 60 cents per yard higher beginning in January 2011. As a shop owner, and a small shop at that, I can’t put myself in a position to absorb that cost.
Think of it this way: you know the way you feel when you think about having to pay 50 cents more per yard at the fabric shop? And you multiply that out by the number of yards you’ll need for your project? And you feel frustrated, maybe a little disappointed or depressed? Imagine how you’d feel if you multiplied that by 6000 yards? Most small quilt shops, like Whipstitch, will purchase 6000 yards of fabric in the next three months, easy. And we have to pay for it up front, whether it sells to the customer or not. Raising prices by 50 cents a yard is, in many cases, below the increase that I’m having to absorb, and represents the minimum increase I can make and still stay in business.
Most local fabric shops are like Whipstitch: we’re in this business for LOVE, not for money. I know that no one ever, ever wants to learn that prices are going to increase on something they really can’t live without (like milk or fuel or fabric–all totally in the same category, as far as I’m concerned). Those of us who work in fabric shops are all there because we love it–and because we’d probably be there anyway. We all buy fabric, too, and would love to see prices stay low. The news has been full of stories about how the failed cotton crops will affect pricing in the new year. The word I’m getting from my manufacturers representatives (the lovely ladies and gentlemen who visit the shop to show me new fabric lines in advance so I can order them to have in stock) is that prices are going up across the board, at all the major suppliers, like Robert Kaufman, Michael Miller, Alexander Henry, and Moda. It’s been a whisper for a while, then became a rumble last summer, and word is that January 1 the new pricing will go into effect. Most manufacturers are quoting 4-8% increases on their cotton lines, which translates to a recommended retail increase of 40-80 cents per yard, depending on the fabric. If you’re seeing increases at the local level of 50 cents, that’s because shops are absorbing much of the cost for you in an effort to keep prices as low as they can.
One of the best ways to meet the change head on is to support your local fabric shop. Some of the bigger box stores will either raise their prices to the maximum, or will turn to lesser-quality fabrics in order to lower their own costs, and thus keep costs low to the customer. Your local fabric store is owned by someone who loves sewing, knows you by name, and is committed to not only retailing fabric but helping you personally. By shopping with these locally-owned businesses, you’re getting to know your strongest advocate: the shop owner, who has the ear of the manufacturers in a way that you don’t, and will tirelessly work to keep prices affordable so you can keep sewing. The bigger companies, unfortunately, do not have a reputation for doing the same. As I read on one of the message boards, LadyBugPam said:
Frankly I cannot bear to touch the WM or JoAnn fabrics. I have been strictly high quality quilt shops! The prices have hiked up – but it is worth it in the long run. My quilts are made to keep. My one and only WM fabric quilt was brutally destroyed in the washer. All that work in a ball.
I shop groceries at Aldi’s – I buy discount or sale on clothing, home repairs and I keep my thermostat low in the winter and high in the summer. But my fabric habit will not suffer. My DH has a similar attitude about his beer and vehicle.
Call me crazy, but that sounds like a lady who has her priorities in order (not to mention her husband).
If you don’t have a local fabric or quilt shop near you, no worries! The internet does. Whipstitch will be delighted to be your online source for fabric, as will a number of other high-quality retailers. Be aware, though, that there are gray market retailers out there: prices are lower, but they’ve cut back on other details in order to make their prices lower. Like customer service: just look what readers of Lizzy House’s fantastic post about local quilt shops had to say about their number one requirement for repeat business–customer service. It’s sadly missing in many places, but your local shop is delighted to have you walk in the door (virtually or in the flesh), and that’s worth an extra 50 cents or a dollar to just about anyone. Or what about longevity? Those gray market retailers won’t be there down the road–they can’t be, because they won’t be able to afford to stay in business. A retailer who offers amazing service and consistent product, who you know will be there in the future, is someone you can invest in. While some may argue, as I read in one online forum, that “the sales will start when our purchasing stops,” lower prices mean shorter lifespans for shops when it means that shop owners can’t keep the doors open any longer. By shopping at your small, local fabric store, you’re working toward keeping the fabric you like coming out, keeping prices as low as possible while maintaining high quality, and supporting your community through something you love.
The short, immediate answer for you is this: if there’s something out right now that you really want and love, go ahead and grab it for yourself. After the first of the year, it will likely cost a little bit more. It’s possible that this has farther-reaching implications than we realize: even the larger manufacturers are considering raising their clothing prices for off-the-rack clothing in 2011. If prices don’t come back down in the coming year, we might find that economic reasons for sewing our own clothing are back in vogue. Having some yardage on-hand that you purchased at 2010 prices will be very handy then, indeed. Over the long term, my answer to the question of how to manage the cost of fabric is this: shop locally, make it possible for those of us a little closer to the manufacturers to advocate on your behalf to get prices to stabilize. Build a relationship with a shop owner, in person or online, so that the two of you can forge ahead together and ride it all out in stitchy harmony. I want to see you sewing for a long, long time to come–and I’m looking forward to seeing what you make!
At Whipstitch, we’re doing our best to absorb what we can of the cost of rising fabric prices. Our 2010 prices on fabric will remain in place for all inventory currently in the shop. In-coming fabrics will be priced at an increase as they arrive in 2011. I sincerely welcome your feedback and suggestions, and would love to personally answer any concerns you might have!
Looking forward to hearing from you,