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Sustainable Fabric Shopping

Last week I was blessed with a couple of free days in New York City, thanks to my husband’s travel mile rewards, and our daughter’s college graduation ceremony. Since she attended Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, she never had much opportunity to sight-see in Manhattan other than on-location drawing classes. So I took the opportunity to drag her downtown to Greenwich Village, uptown to the Central Park Zoo, midtown to Times Square for a Broadway show, and even managed to squeeze in a couple of hours of fabric shopping in the Garment District…my old haunting grounds.

In the process I learned something about fabric shopping: what I once considered budget-shopping, I now see as sustainable shopping. This is because there are 2 methods of shopping for anything. You either have:

  • more money than time, or…
  • more time than money

For example if you are wardrobe shopping and have adequate funds but little time, it’s best to shop at a well-curated department store which will have a wide variety of styles in every size. But if your budget is tight then you’ll need to spend more time sifting through the assorted-style racks of off-price stores or thrift shops.

In the end, it takes more time than money to shop sustainably, however it saves resources.

24th and 9th: London Terrace Towers

Through the ’80’s I lived in Chelsea (corner of 24th Street and 9th Avenue), taking design classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology (17th St. and 7th Ave.) during the evenings, and working at a sportswear business in the Garment District (Broadway at 39th) to pay for school….and fabric. Draping and flat-pattern classes require lots and lots of fabric!

If you’re not from NYC, your idea of garment center fabric shopping would probably be Mood, the store made famous by Project Runway. But there was no Mood when I lived in NYC (it was established in 1991). Instead I shopped at the many MANY fabric outlets clustered around 38th street between 7th and 8th avenues. And here’s the difference:

  • Mood (and similar shops such as B&J fabrics) stock any fabric you could possible want, in an enormous variety of colors and prints, and charge a steep price for the convenience of saving your time by having everything you need to make a garment in one place
  • Fabric outlets sell “deadstock”, which means the assortment and availability is totally random, however the prices are far less..and at the same time more sustainable because you are using what’s already there and no longer needed by industry
Mood, NYC

It’s similar to how a restaurant sources food. If the chef orders out-of-season produce (for example putting strawberry shortcake on the menu year-round) there’s a hefty environmental price paid to ship berries across the country or around the world. It takes more effort to work around a seasonal menu, but it saves money and fuel to use what’s currently fresh and local. (At home you can cook more sustainably using produce from a crop-share: same concept, you must plan meals around what’s currently available.)

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When I was a student, I bought deadstock fabric because I had a very limited budget. Now that I can afford to buy what I want, I still prefer deadstock because it’s more sustainable. The sad part is, it’s harder to find, because the apparel industry has changed so dramatically since I was in school. Back in the ’80’s you’d walk down the streets of the garment center carefully avoiding all the workers pushing rolling racks of garments and shouting “Watch your back!”. Apparel was produced right in the city, from the sketches in the design departments, to the sample rooms, to the showrooms, then the patterns were rushed down the streets to the factory buildings. Bolts of fabric arrived from the mills down South, and finished apparel was shuttled down the crowded sidewalks and delivered to the shipping departments. And the leftover partial bolts of fabric ended up in dozens and dozens of fabric outlets along the street level, for purchase by-the-yard. The street level no longer has so many outlet fabric shops as it did decades ago, because apparel production moved from the U.S., to the Caribbean, and then to the Far East.

Now the fabric is often produced in Asia and sewn into garments in Asia, and bolt ends are sold off there. The Garment Center buildings now house pop-up sample-sales, and ready-to-wear factory apparel (mostly prom and evening wear). But if you hunt, there are still some deadstock fabric outlets. My favorite is Metro Textiles at 265 West 37th St (between 7th and 8th Avenues, 9th floor). I bought a half-bolt of this delicious Schiffli-embroidered cotton for $12 /yard :

Another fun item for the sewist to purchase in New York is Japanese pattern books, because they often have a high shipping price when ordered online. My daughter and I visited Kinokuniya across from Bryant Park (1073 Avenue of the Americas):


…where I found this new children’s pattern book:

We also went to a Japanese used-book seller, Book-Off (49 West 45th Street) which has the cutest slogan, “For the people who don’t waste”:

….where I scored a copy of this classic for a fraction of retail:

Buying used books helps sustainability as much as buying deadstock fabric! (My daughter found amazing art books at bargain prices.)

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PS: If you love window-shopping for creative inspiration, the must-see newest boutique in NYC is Love Shack Fancy in Greenwich Village (390 Bleecker Street between Perry Street and West 11th):

The interior reminds me of what Victoria’s Secret used to look like when I worked there in the ’90’s, all florals and delicious cottons….before the transformation to polyester and Lycra. Look at these gorgeous romantic ribbons, and vintage hankies tied into hairbows:

If you get the opportunity to visit New York, I highly recommend taking a break from the standard tourist spots to check out the sewing possibilities. The trim and button shops will blow you away with the assortments!

Happy Sewing!

Janet

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