How to Navigate a Fabric Trade Show

For most people, a fabric trade show would be, at best, an interesting diversion full of fairly undifferentiated textiles. For an aspiring designer, however, they’re equal parts intimidating and incredible. The sheer array of fabrics on display is a lot to navigate, even for experienced shoppers. If it’s your first fabric trade show, the variety can be completely overwhelming.

We’d rather you enjoy the experience, so we’ve channeled our years of fabric-sourcing expertise into this handy guide. The five key steps we outline below are a map that will guide you through the potentially overwhelming world of your first fabric trade show. 

With proper planning now, you’ll be able to focus on finding inspiration in the nearly-endless variety of gorgeous fabrics, textile innovations, and new technologies you’ll discover at the show.

1. Pick the right show

It might seem obvious, but you’ll never have a good experience at a show that doesn’t have what you need. You can show up with detailed dossiers on all the vendors, a comprehensive list of questions, and all your numbers dialed in, but it won’t matter if you’re at the wrong show. 

Some questions worth asking:

  • Am I ready to buy, or just exploring my options?
  • Do I want to see a wider range of materials, or a more specialized subset?
  • Am I looking for any specific vendors?
  • How far does it make sense to travel?
  • How much time do I have?
  • What’s my budget?

What are the options?

Once you know what you’re looking for, it’ll be easier to choose the show (or shows!) that is right for you.

  • Marquee shows: These are the industry flagships, where everyone from major brands to aspiring designers shows up to see the full range of what the industry has to offer. The sheer scale of these events means you should set aside at least two full days if you want to explore them thoroughly. The vendors are likely to have larger minimum order quantities (MOQs) but it is always worth checking if you see something you love. Some examples include Sourcing at Magic (Las Vegas), Texworld New York, and Première Vision (PV) in Paris. 
  • Medium shows: If the marquee shows feel overwhelming, inconvenient, or excessive, this tier provides plenty of variety at a more manageable size. These shows are also less of a time commitment – with smart planning and an early start, you should be able to explore them in a single day. Some examples include Première Vision (PV) in New and the Los Angeles Textile (LAT) show. If you decide to hit LAT, we’d love to meet you – just make an appointment to visit us at our DTLA headquarters while you’re in the city.
  • Small shows: If you want a low-key intro to the world of fabric trade shows, these events move at the perfect pace. You’ll still find major vendors at these events, but you’ll also have the chance to discover smaller-scale operations with unique offerings and an openness to lower MOQs. You can also spend more time focusing on specific partners and still see everything on offer in a single day. . Examples include The Fabric Shows (in NY, SF, Miami), The Functional Fabric Fair (Portland and NY) and Printsource (NY) for surface and textile design. 
  • Specialty shows: If you’re working on a more specialized line, like swimwear, lingerie, and outerwear, it is always worth looking for a category-specific event. While you’ll find these fabrics at the larger shows, speciality events bring a huge range of technical textiles under one roof, letting you shop a focused selection in a more low-key environment. 

If you’re not sure which show you should attend, it’s always worth asking around. Other designers are usually happy to swap tips about sourcing, and even if they don’t have suggestions it’s a great way to network. You should also draw on your mentors and, of course, the experts at Teg. We’re always happy to help.

2. Explore the extras

There’s more to most trade shows than the convention floor; there’s likely a full program of workshops, seminars, mixers, demos, and other events. Get your hands on a show directory/schedule as soon as you can and see if there’s any sessions you want to attend. Not only will this help you decide which days you’d like to attend, it will give you extra info on who will be there and their areas of specialization. 

Tip from our experts #1: Pre-register for any seminars you want to attend, and for the show itself.  Registering at the trade show’s website should be fairly straightforward, and it will ensure you’re not doing all this planning for nothing.

3. Make a plan

Even a small trade show can feel huge when it’s your first time on the convention floor. If you show up without specific goals, you’ll find yourself pulled in every direction at once and won’t be able to make the most of your time. Even if you’re only there to browse, you’ll enjoy yourself more with a solid plan in place. Figure out your goals, make a list of what you’re trying to find/accomplish, then check your show directory and pick some key vendors to visit.

When you get to the venue on the day of the show, take a lap, explore the layout, check the scene – you’ve earned a moment of pure awe at the amazing array of textiles you’re about to discover. Once you’ve had your fill of the spectacle, head straight to your key vendors. You’ve already planned out your goals and purchases, so you should be able to move efficiently through the list. Then you’re back to searching for inspiration, taking in header cards (swatches), and enjoying the experience.

4. Shop at the right scale

You’re probably not ready to buy thousands – or even hundreds – of yards of fabric. That’s okay! In fact, it’s probably better to start small anyway; jumping straight into your first show and making a massive purchase right off the bat is a recipe for buyer’s remorse. And there are vendors who will happily sell you smaller volumes, if you know where to look.

The key to success is a simple question. At every booth, before you start browsing, ask their minimum yardage for sampling and their minimum yardage for production. Once you know they can meet your needs, shop away – you just don’t want to find the perfect fabric and then have your heart broken by astronomically high minimums.

5. Sample smartly

You always want to order sample yardage before committing to a larger production order. It is absolutely okay to only commit to purchasing sample yardage at the show, or shortly afterwards. Don’t let an aggressive seller pressure you into making a huge upfront order – if the samples turn out great, you’ll be back for the production yardage. 

You will want to make sure the fabric you want will still be in stock when you need it. If a seller can’t guarantee continuity (the industry term) for a fabric, walk away. There is something worse than heartbreakingly high minimums, it turns out, and it’s having samples you love and no way to get the fabric you need for the production run.

There is, of course, one exception to that rule. It is possible that you’ll be able to handle production with an order of “sample” yardage. You’ll almost always pay a higher price per yard when you’re hitting the sample minimum, but that’s okay. It’s better to pay more per yard for the right amount of your dream fabric than it is to save pennies on a sub-standard second choice. 

A common complaint about fabric shows and frankly the industry at large is that vendors don’t prioritize small or emerging designers. If it happens, don’t take it personally – they do this to everyone. No matter how much a vendor loves fabric and fashion, they’re still a business. They will prioritize “high value” customers who make large purchases. 

That does not mean you have to let them push you around, or accept someone being rude to your face. If you don’t feel welcome, walk away – you’re surrounded by gorgeous fabrics, and there are people in the industry who care about helping new designers make their dreams come true. You just have to find them.

Tip from our experts #2: Don’t forget your wholesale license! You won’t get far at a trade show without it.

Tip from our experts #3: A few other key questions to ask sellers – What stock do they currently have available? What are their lead times? Do the lead times vary between sample and production yardage? Can they work with your timeline?

The Aftermath

After a long day (or days!) of networking, sourcing, filling out paperwork, and walking miles through the endless halls of various venues, you deserve a break. Rest your feet, see friends for dinner, give your brain a break and try not to spend the whole time staring at swatches. It’s always helpful to clear your head before making a commitment and ordering fabric.

Just don’t let your head clear too much. No matter how thorough your note taking is, pertinent details and recently formed connections have a tendency to fade as the days slip away. By the 3rd day after the show, you should start tackling the following list of next steps:

  • Contact vendors to follow up about planned orders or gather more info (headers, swatches, sample yardage etc.)
  • Start a sourcing archive – put all the business cards you collected, or at least the information on them, somewhere close at hand so you can refer to them in the future. Add the name of the show, the dates, and any other details that will help you use this info in the future. 
  • Reach out to any other designers, seminar speakers, or vendors you connected with on a personal level and start building the relationship. Following folks you liked or admired on social is a good start, but a truly robust network takes active maintenance, not just the occasional liked post.

Tip from our experts #4: All fabric shows have websites, they don’t always have detailed up-to-date information. What they do almost always have is a phone number – if you have any questions after the show, give the show a call. 

The Alternative

Congratulations! You made it through the whole post and hopefully, your first fabric trade show! With any luck, reading this ahead of time made the whole thing feel a lot more manageable. 

But if it didn’t, that’s okay too! Like any step on the journey from first designs to fashion line, you don’t have to face this challenge alone. If reading this post left you more overwhelmed than ever, consider working with one of our Fabric Sourcing Managers instead. It’s not free, but it will certainly save you time and might end up saving you some money, as well. Our team has years of experience tracking down the finest textiles at the fairest prices, and we’d love to apply that expertise to bringing your vision to life. Give us a call at 800-916-0910 or reach out to us at https://tegmade.com/get-in-touch/. We’ll tell you all about it.

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