Where Our Fabrics Are Made

_MG_6827sm.jpg

Recently I shared some thoughts on What it Means (to me) to Care with an eye on the Slow Fashion October movement.  I ended with these questions:

So, what about my hobbyjob?  What about my favorite fabrics and other quilting supplies?  Does it make any sense to champion handmade if the fabrics are also imported?  Is my blog supporting a sustainable creative culture or a hoarding consumerism?  How can I inspire others to grow in compassion and mindfulness for our neighbors, our world?

Today I want to unpack the question of where our fabrics are made and the ethical ramifications for the hobbyist quilter.  I will be focusing on designer quilting cottons, since that is what I buy and what I promote via my sponsors. 

It should be noted that I am by no means an unbiased reporter (if there could be one).  For seven years now Stitched in Color has been supported by fabric shop sponsors who sell these fabrics.  I am part of the quilting industry.  But I do care.  That's why I'm writing on this topic.  I invite you to use this information as a springboard to do your own research as well!


Where Designer Fabrics are Manufactured

I chose to research manufacturing for Freespirit, Art Gallery, Moda, American Made Brand, Cloud 9, Cotton & Steel, Windham and Robert Kaufman. 

First off, information about manufacturing is not readily available.  I did not find this topic addressed on "About Us" or "FAQ" pages.  After researching brand websites, I Googled to locate references to fabric mills on official websites.  I also emailed direct questions to most of the above houses in hopes of confirming information.  I received a response from Art Gallery, promises of responses from others, but no other information.

::results::

  • Kona Cotton:  Korea/Indonesia/Thailand
  • Friedlander by Robert Kaufman:  Japan
  • Freespirit:  Korea
  • Art Gallery: South Korea
  • Cotton & Steel:  Japan
  • Moda:  Korea/Japan
  • Cloud 9:  Indian subcontinent
  • American Made Brand:  United States
 image by  NRDC/Julia Bovey

Why are fabrics dyed and printed primarily overseas? 

Sewing garments is very labor intensive work, but printing and dying fabrics is not.  The fabric manufacturing industry is very mechanized.  With advanced technology, a few experienced workers can produce large volumes of fabric.  This balance of labor has the potential to protect the industry from labor abuse. 

From my research, it seems that some designer fabric houses are choosing to manufacture based on technology sources, rather than based on cheap labor sources.

In an interview with Modern Sewciety, Melody Miller explained that Cotton & Steel uses fabric mills in Japan.

Our fabric is made at what we think is the best print making facility in Japan, which is the best in the world for print making, for silk screening on cotton.
— Melody Miller, Modern Sewciety, February 2017

Some houses seek out mills that are certified for producing fabric at higher standards than necessary for their product.  This seems to be the case for both Art Gallery and Robert Kaufman, at least when it comes to manufacturing Kona Cotton

Kona® is certified under Oeko-Tex. All of our mills meet the highest standards and also process organic fabrics for the international marketplace.
— Yael Kaufman, Robert Kaufman Fabrics

I do not know why the United States does not match these technologies so that the fabrics could be manufactured closer to their consumer market.  Perhaps there are patents, lack of interest or complex political barriers?  I don't know.  I was unable to find articles on the topic and was hoping to receive insight from the manufacturers I contacted.  I will let you know if I do hear back from them with helpful information.


Fabric Ethics

The fact is that most designer fabrics are manufactured in Asia.  Are they being produced ethically?  Let's discuss labor and environmental concerns briefly.

Labor

Of the countries on our list, Japan has the best labor policies and highest minimum wage.  South Korea is not far behind Japan as far as wage laws, but the country was just named as one of the 10 Worst Countries for Working People by the International Trade Union Confederation Global Rights Index 2017, which cited concerns of protest suppression, discrimination and precarious work.  Both Indonesia and Thailand have minimum wages similar to China, which is to say indecent.  (Source Minimum Wage by Country, Wikipedia)

We only work with first class Mills that are OEKO-TEX and GOTS Certificated. These are public companies that obey all the USA and International laws. They are at the same level as any USA Company.
— Walter Bravo, Art Gallery Fabrics
Art Gallery Fabrics.png

But a country's minimum wage does not necessarily tell us how the employees in a particular fabric mill are treated.  Mills can become GOTS Certified, which requires ongoing tests meant to uncover abusive labor practices including child labor.  Even if the fabrics you are buying are not organic, if they were made in a GOTS Certified mill, you can be confident the workers are fairly treated.  Both Art Gallery Fabrics and Kona Cottons are made in such mills.

For more information about OEKO-TEX vs. GOTS Certification see this article.  For another point of view regarding designer fabric manufacturer and labor ethics, see this blog post.


Environment

I am also concerned about the environmental impact of designer fabrics.  Another advantage of GOTS Certified mills is that they are capable of complying with strict rules for sustainable manufacturing throughout the process.  This takes into consideration waste water treatment, air pollution and the safety of materials used in production.  Even if they use some different materials for the non-certified goods, they likely have environmentally friendly support structures that apply to all the goods they produce.

That's another vote in favor of Art Gallery Fabrics and Kona Cottons.  It seems odd to me that these companies are not boldly sharing that they produce fabrics in GOTS Certified mills, if that is the case.  It also makes me wonder if some of the others may do the same and simply not bother telling us?

I was not able to find much more verified information about environmental impacts.  Still, the obvious takeaway is that we can be environmentally responsible in our hobby by reducing waste, which includes using the supplies we have and enjoying our scraps. 

_MG_7885sm.jpg

We can also consider companies like American Made Brand, who make their solid quilting cotton line with fibers grown in the U.S.A. and manufactured here too.  Buying a local product is often a huge step forward environmentally.

I hope my research has provided some helpful information.  This is definitely not the whole story, but I did my best.  Hopefully we can raise a little awareness so that each of us and the fabric manufacturers we love can work on improving our choices!

*Updated 11/8/17 with information from Robert Kaufman