Most people who buy fabric online purchase it through one of the established shops like Pink Castle, Hawthorne Threads, or Fat Quarter Shop. There’s a segment of the fabric buying public, though that purchases fabric through private Facebook groups. As these groups grow in size and popularity, their impact on the more mainstream stores increases.
I wanted to investigate how the Facebook fabric groups work as businesses, find out why customers are shopping this way, and then analyze the possible long-term impact they might have on the online sewing community.
From what I can tell there are two main types of fabric that are currently being sold through private Facebook groups. The first is premier quilting cottons from the big name manufacturers. The second is custom knits.
Breanne Crawford has a very large and active private Facebook fabric group called Mama Made and Beautiful where she sells premier quilting cottons from every major fabric company at deep discounts.
“It’s actually an accident that it came to be,” Breanne explains. “I started off selling handmade clothes and started Mama Made and Beautiful just to sell off some extras. It became really popular really quick and sort of took on a life of its own.”
Right now Mama Made and Beautiful has 5,950 members and Breanne says her fabric shop is a business like any other. She’s hired an employee to help her with cutting and shipping and this fall she traveled to Quilt Market to order new fabrics for her shop.
The prices at Mama Made and Beautiful are lower across the board than a typical online fabric shop. A yard of Gleeful by Sew Caroline for Art Gallery fabrics which sells for $10.75 from Fat Quarter Shop is just $8.75 at Mama Made and Beautiful. Breanne takes pre-orders for much of her fabric, selling off the bolt in advance of buying it. When she uploads new fabrics for pre-order they sell out fast.
The discount prices Breanne and other Facebook group owners offer can rub the owners of online quilt shops the wrong way. Quilt shop owners tend to feel that manufacturers should not sell to shops that are organized as “coops.” (Coops are defined as groups of customers that get together and order bulk fabric at wholesale prices, then divvy it up.) Manufacturers claim to agree, saying that if they find out that a shop is a coop they won’t sell to them.
For the most part, though, fabric isn’t sold directly by the manufacturers. Instead it’s sold through independent sales companies working as middlemen between manufacturers and retailers. The salesmen, known as fabric reps, work on commission and often have no problem selling fabric to the owners of Facebook groups.
Breanne doesn’t consider her business to be a coop anyway. “The fabric business is a very tough one. I definitely started out selling more as a ‘co-op’ mode but very quickly got into selling as a business” meaning that she does mark up her fabric.
Is she marking it up enough? Is Breanne making a profit at $8.75 per yard? A bolt of fabric costs approximately $82.50 plus $4 freight. Most bolts have about 15 yards of fabric. Selling it off at $8.75 per yard means just a $44.75 profit per bolt and she has to sell the whole bolt in order to make that. Although the margin is slim, the customer base is very devoted and Breanne says the business is doing well.
Carmen Statham is one of Breanne’s customers. About Mama Made and Beautiful she says, “Wonderful selection, great prices you can’t beat, quality fabrics, and amazing customer service. I feel like this group is family.”
Although Breanne’s low prices bother many fabric retailers, one online fabric shop owner told me that she feels powerless to do much about it. “Aside from having a lot of shop owners sending letters threatening to pull orders if [fabric sales reps] don’t stop accounts like this, which means we may have no place to order from if we had to make good on that promise, I’m not sure what to do to stop them.”
I asked Breanne if the fabric manufacturers ever question her when she places orders because she is selling through Facebook and not her own website. “I’ve had some issues with the manufacturers. Moda was one of the more hesitant ones for sure. I try to explain to them why I sell the way I do. I think the power of Facebook is incredible. When I pop up in someone’s news feed with a hot new fabric that they want, they can’t help but order. They don’t have to go to another website to see what I’ve got coming in. I’m the same way with fabrics I buy on Facebook. When it pops up in my newsfeed, it’s so much harder to resist.”
There’s also a thriving economy for custom knits on Facebook. Originating as part of the cloth diaper making community, these are businesses that order custom designed knit fabrics and then sell the yardage within private Facebook groups. These groups have now expanded beyond cloth diapers and are selling knit fabrics to all sorts of customers.
Jeni Lynn is the administrator for the custom knits Facebook group, KNITorious, which currently has 4,374 members. She says that the custom knit groups are filling a hole in the fabric market as it currently stands. “The selection of knit fabrics in mainstream fabric stores is lacking significantly,” Jeni explains. “There was a need for cute, unique prints on a quality fabric, and that’s where these custom printing groups came to be. Most of the custom groups, including KNITorious, print on cotton/lycra fabric. It’s very soft and super stretchy, making it ideal to work with to create a variety of items. Another appealing factor to custom groups is the exclusivity. Only a limited number of yardage is printed, so not everyone out there will have it.”
Like the quilting cotton groups, the custom knit groups also sell via pre-order. If enough pre-orders come in, the group owner orders that print to be produced. “All of our pre-orders run $18.50-$19 per yard,” Jeni says. “When the pre-order is closed, our group owner, Sarah, places the order with her supplier.” The fabric comes in about four weeks later and is cut and shipped to customers.
Group owners are also often the designers of the fabrics. “Some groups use clipart and put it into their own ‘design’, while others use designers to draw truly one-of-a-kind prints,” Jeni says. “KNITorious has used both, but has been using more of the designers for truly custom prints.”
Many groups buy illustrations from Shutterstock. Designer Maaike Boot’s images are particularly popular (Maaike sells her designs as custom fabric on Spoonflower where the prices are about $5 more per yard for a knit base cloth).
New private Facebook groups for custom knits are popping up frequently. To get a sense of all of them join the Custom and Knit Fabric Review and Discussion group, where 1,769 groups leaders and customers discuss all of the different groups.
Jeni summed up well why private Facebook groups are so effective for selling fabic. “I believe that Facebook is the most popular medium for these groups because it’s so easy and everyone is already there. Facebook makes it easy to connect, communicate, market, etc. and everyone is already comfortable with it.”
What does the presence of these groups mean for the online sewing community?
First, they underline the marketing potential of private Facebook groups. While overall Facebook’s algorithms have made marketing there much less effective the Facebook “Groups” app isn’t affected by the algorithm so we still see every post from the groups we’ve joined. The specialness of an exclusive community makes groups a powerful marketing space.
Second, Facebook provides a free platform from which these small fabric shops can operate. Without the cost of site hosting, ecommerce set-up, or advertising, entrepreneurs like Breanne and Jeni can pre-sell yardage at a discount to a devoted community. The profit margin is tight, though, especially for premier quilting cottons. If Breanne were to grow beyond Facebook that discount would likely be unsustainable.
Third, the market is speaking loud and clear about the desire for a greater assortment of knits in different prints, both youthful and sophisticated.
And finally, please note that most online fabric retailers are mom-and-pop shops themselves. Although the fabric they sell is a few dollars more expensive than what you can find in a Facebook group, these retailers also have a very narrow margin and they support the online sewing community more broadly by hosting and sponsoring events, sharing free patterns and tutorials, and working collaboratively with the designers who create their fabrics.