Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Elusive Cotton Knit Fabric (or, My Big City Adventures)

Thick, high quality cotton knit fabric. That has become my holy grail.

It seems straightforward enough. It’ll Fit’ll needs thick, high quality cotton knit fabric for the one-piece body shirts (like Onesies) that we’ll be producing for children in sizes 3T through 7. So, I need to find a supplier, place an order, receive the fabric, test it for shrinkage, communicate the shrinkage rate to the pattern maker (so that the pattern can be adjusted to account for that shrinkage), finalize the pattern, and head to production.

But, as it turns out, finding cotton knit fabric is not as easy as it sounds. Our requirements are reasonable and minimal. First, we want high quality fabric because we want the best for you and your children. We want It’ll Fit’ll clothes to last a long time, through frequent wear, rough play and regular washing and drying. Second, we want attractive colors and patterns. Most of the body suits we create will be clearly outerwear; some of them will be bright white and appropriate for under or outerwear. Third (and last – see, we’re not too demanding…) we need the fabric cost to be reasonable – so that we can offer the finished product to you at a reasonable price. Simple, right? Surprisingly – not really.

I began the quest with great enthusiasm and confidence that I’d have an array of wonderful fabrics from which to choose. I am fortunate to live near Chicago and to be able to attend the bi-annual fabric and trim shows held at the Apparel Center (next to the Merchandise Mart) in Chicago. That show had provided a few great sources for denim and twill fabrics when I sought those. So, I left the house one bright morning excited about shifting and sorting through the many possible cotton knit fabrics I expected to find.

Imagine my surprise when I found absolutely no cotton knit fabrics at the show. Moreover, when I asked the textile company reps about finding that fabric they were at a loss to give me references or leads. A few particularly helpful folks did give me some ideas about how to go about finding a source (for example: call a Chicago-based tee shirt company and ask for their cotton source.)

Undiscouraged (I guess ignorance really can be bliss), and all dressed up in my fashionable clothes – including a great pair of heeled shoes – I set off to meet a friend for coffee and conversation after, and around the corner from, the show. I was feeling upbeat, positive that I could work through this little obstacle, and – honestly – probably just a little too big for my britches. Leave it to the universe to put you right back where you belong. One moment I was striding confidently across the busy Chicago street – an urbane city woman, full of mission and poise. The next moment I was on my hands and knees in the middle of the street, the contents of my purse sprawled all around me – like a bumpkin playing dress-up. Oops. The heel of my stylish shoe had gotten caught in a pot hole and I’d been sent flying. A kind woman hurried into the street to help me up and gave me some great advice: “The shoes are adorable, but you’ve got to watch where you’re walking.” Yep, I’ll say! Oh well…at least the coffee and conversation were very nice, the bruises were relatively small, and the shoes were unscathed.

Back in the ease of my regular, barefooted life, in my home office that looks out on old farm fields I made the calls and followed the avenues suggested to me at the show….To no avail. I realized that I’d need to attend a larger scale fabric show in either Los Angeles or New York City.

I do believe that most things work out just the way they’re meant to. It’s not exactly fatalism – a belief that all events are predetermined and cannot be changed by human actions – but close. I think we can impact some of the fine tuning and detail – and, after all, I do believe (as Mies van der Rohe said) that "God is in the details." So how encouraging and validating that a great, long time friend (who founded a consulting firm) called with an opportunity to do a bit of work for her. It’s a perfect situation. The work – in support of a large, global corporation - is interesting and intellectually stimulating, personally rewarding, and gives me a front seat view to history in the making. Now, having conquered the learning curve, the time commitment will be minimal. The income – just having a positive cash flow for a change - will be a huge help to It’ll Fit’ll’s financial position. And, on top of all that – I’ve been able to spend time with a great friend (we’ve known each other for over 20 years), who I respect intellectually (she’s brilliant and has a Ph.D.), who makes me laugh and who has coaxed me back onto the top of my game.

As if all of that weren’t wonderful enough, the first working engagement that I did with my friend required that I travel to the New York City area – last week when a textile show was taking place at the Javits Convention Center. So it seemed that all of the pieces were falling perfectly into place.

The flight to the northeast was smooth, uneventful. Once I checked into the hotel, I took the train to Penn Station in NYC and then a $10 (with tip) cab ride to the convention center. No heels or fancy fashions this time; I was wearing my travel clothes – rubber, insulated topsiders, jeans, ski jacket. Luckily, there were no missteps or public humiliations on this fabric mission. Unluckily, though, there were no textile makers that could provide It’ll Fit’ll with cotton knit material. This show showed predominately high performance fabrics, apparently. (Though as I told Susie, 100% cotton knit performs perfectly in my estimation.) At any rate, among the nearly overwhelming collection of suppliers, all of which were from Asia, I found only two that had the right fabric. Neither of them would sell to us, though, because our volumes are too small to meet their minimum. Nor would they put me in touch with other customers to whom, I suggested, I could add my small volumes. Though I would have paid a premium to another customer to make it worthwhile to bother with me and my small volumes, the mills dismissed that idea out of hand.

While the NYC textile show was a disappointment, the experience was exhilarating. I couldn’t get a cab from the convention center to the train station; it was during the rush hour. A limo driver offered to take me there for $25 – he must have thought I was quite a rube - so I enjoyed an invigorating walk instead. And, that sense of invigoration continued for a very long while – I feel it still. I realized that not every endeavor will be a success. Sometimes just trying something different, stretching yourself, living a new experience – those are the successes.

And so over the following two days I turned from the It’ll Fit’ll focus to my friend’s business. Funny thing, though – one of the people in the second day of the training sessions I helped teach works in the apparel industry. She has not only a possible cotton knit fabric source for me, but other resource suggestions and advice as well.

Intersting how those fates work. Sometimes the answers that we seek aren’t in those exciting, enchanting, far-away locales. Sometimes the best answers are where we least think to look: in the workaday world and the comfort of old friends.


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2 comments:

thedomesticdiva said...

oh my...sounds like you and I are on similar missions for cute high quality knit fabrics for children. I have a boys' clothing line.

I live in NYC and have trekked through the fashion district in search of the elusive knits...people in NYC tell me the knits are in Los Angeles. So next month, I'm not only going to the LA Textile Show (TALA), but also going to roam the fabric district there. I'll let you know if I score.

With friendship,
Lisa

Anonymous said...

Quality knits? I have been in search of these just for my own home sewing for my handicapped daughter. Up to recently I was able to buy stretch pants/shirts from Gymboree. Their knit fabric is to die for. It holds up to wash upon wash upon wash. With child that goes through many shirts a day that is essential. Have you actually found anyone that will sell low quantities to private individuals?