My New York Fabric Shopping Trip

In March, I got a chance to do some fabric shopping in New York and this is my perspective on the experience. You may find some of this useful for your next, or first, visit there.

If I had to summarize the experience, I would say fabric shopping in New York is everything it is not in Nova Scotia. This was for, both, better and worse. Starting with finding the good stuff, most of it was located in one place, in the Garment District near Times Square in the borough of Manhattan. That’s the New York most of us know, with Broadway, the Empire State, Madison Square Gardens, and so on.

The Garment District is roughly bounded by West 34th to 40th Streets between 9th and 6th Avenues. Many of the fabric shops are at the centre of this area, around 38th and 39th Streets, just west of 7th Avenue. Get off at the Times Square subway stop (42nd Street) or Penn Station (33rd Street) to get there most easily, given each block going north and south is barely a minute’s walk. In this Garment District core, there were generally two types of fabric shops. One was the corporate department store style shops. The family owned boutique sized warehouse style shops contrasted them enough to be almost polar opposites, aside from massive selection available in both. However, neither type was similar enough to stores in Nova Scotia to say one or the other resembled fabric stores here.

The department style stores are like the big fabric stores in Nova Scotia. They were well organized, with prices on everything, and salespeople who generally worked away at customers requesting their help. The major differences in them were the variety of selection and price tags that came with them. The variety of selection was not surprising. This was New York, a fashion capital of the world, after all. What was surprising was the prices on the fabrics.

I didn’t see anything below $25.20 a yard! That would be a yard, so multiply by 1.11 to get the metre equivalent of $28 a metre! I didn’t look that hard for anything below this, to be honest, cynical there would be much given there were some stuff at $225.80 a yard ($251/m)! If there were Nova Scotia price scale items, I probably wouldn’t have liked it because a lot of the expensive stuff were similar enough to materials I could buy in Nova Scotia at under $20 a metre. To be fair, though, “similar” is not the same. All it takes is a subtle abstract pattern, or some fine strength quality, to the fabric to differentiate it from the generally less varied selection in Nova Scotia to make the difference to a buyer. I saw all kinds of abstract patterns on textured fabrics that I would wear compared to the floral ones I only seem to be able to find in Nova Scotia. Unfortunately, I wasn’t skilled enough to take the risk on them at the prices they were, though. I still needed to learn how to sew some things “right” and testing on $50 a yard fabric was not practical in my finances.

Finally, in many cases of the more exotic fabrics, a yard or two was all you were going to be able to buy. The selection variety was aided by this limited quantity of a lot of fabrics, instead of rolls of 20-50 metres of each fabric. These department style stores hung them from rods all over the shot, on books resembling pant hangers, in a manner something like a wall of two or three clothing racks above each other. Overall, it was all a quaint experience, shopping at these large stores, but not in my budget.

By contrast, the smaller stores were more in my budget. There wasn’t much above $25 a yard, but you had to ask the price on pretty much everything because very little stock had a price tag on it, or even around it. If you didn’t ask, the workers were likely to come and tell you, or hustle you for it. These shops were predominantly own, or staffed by, people of Jewish, Middle Eastern, Indian or African descent, and you didn’t have to look or hear their accents to know it. They brought their hustling and bargaining culture with them. If you wanted to shop in peace, you were almost going to have to ask for it. They’ll either cross your path over and over again, which isn’t hard in a warehouse packed but hole in the wall sized shop, or suddenly walk with you. Some weren’t as aggressive and only stalked you from a distance, but they were nice enough to give you “specials” all the time – like “$18 but $15 for you”.

These little shops were so packed I didn’t know how they would have ever gotten to some of the fabrics for which you could see. If I had wanted to be annoying in return, I’d have asked to see some of the packed away fabrics only not to buy. However, they also seemed like they might go postal on you if you had done that and did not buy. Best just to ask to be left alone, telling them you don’t know what you’re looking for – very true human nature – and that you’d ask once you find out. Still, between having to interact with them each time you wanted to know a price and trying to make decisions on fabrics without knowing price, it was not a pleasant experience. Bring pen and paper to make notes, then ask all your questions at once, would be my advice.

With their bargaining styles in the little shops, you could take advantage of that to ask for a better price, or walk out. I saw plenty of clients doing that, believe it or not, with complimentary expletives and personal insults. Welcome to New York, indeed, where hustling can work both ways! Pending the nature of the shop owners, though, they may let you walk out, so don’t always assume you can bargain them down. To be fair on how they work to get your business, though, at least these little stores will give you samples, up to what the signs posted said. I guess some clients took advantage of that. The big stores won’t likely give you samples unless you know them by name, which probably means you are known by name as a designer in New York. Bigger isn’t better for everything!

The little shops, having less space, had less selection each compared to the big stores. However, that neither meant they didn’t have a lot of selection, nor that their overall selection was less than the department stores. In the latter case, together, they definitely had more selection than the large department stores.  They just tended to have a little fabric focus in each little shop. Most don’t specify that in their names, but you can see it when you come in the stores. Many of the fabric stock focus tended to be cultural, like Indian stores having more Indian fabrics, whether for saris or paisley prints. African stores had more bright African prints. However, there were shops focus on linens, spandex and fabrics with common elements other than culture.

Price comparison is also a challenge in these little shops. All tended to have a fair amount of stock of all the general fabrics. Finding the shop with the lowest price for that “common” fabric you’re looking for, like Chinese brocade that were all over the place, in all sorts of patterns and colours, but also at all sorts of prices from $8 to $25 a yard. A little shop’s specialty fabrics usually came at a cheaper price than similar fabrics at another store with a focus on some other fabric type. However, their more common fabrics were probably a bit more expensive than in some other places to make up for those other bargains. This is a nightmare for some shoppers, but Heaven for those who love to have to work it to find a bargain… aside from the Devil’s advocates constantly following you around! The deals are definitely to be found in the little shops, including some you might not expect like them sharing their big staff order lunches with you if you caught them at the right time!

So what’s the best way to shop at all these stores? I would say bring pen and paper, and allot at least a couple of days of shopping. Make notes and shop around your first day, but don’t buy much. Bargain to see how low you can go in some of the shops to know the real price of fabrics you’re interested in before making final decisions. Then come back a second day with a better idea of what you want, from where and for what price. You won’t likely have a lot of bargaining power coming back to where you had bargained before and walked out on, but at least you’ll know what you’ll be able to get. If you have a small camera or smart phone camera, bring it along to take photos of what you’re interested in as after all those fabrics, your memory won’t be able to recall everything clearly. It might be a tough strategy the rest of your friends and/or family might not go for, but release them in New York. It’s not like there’s nothing else to do there for a couple of days! Besides, New York generally never closes. Times Square is still vibrant at 3 AM as 3 PM, but more electrifying. The fabric stores tend to close at sundown, and some, like the Jewish ones, don’t open Saturdays for religious reasons. Either that or bring a fabric addict like yourself with you on your trip.

And what fabrics did I buy in New York? Not much. I got some metallic Flintstone prints for scrub style pyjamas. You try finding metallic Flintstone prints for $5 a yard in Nova Scotia! However, I’ve got a long list of items I’ll be coming back for in August, when I’m due back in New York for other reasons. Ask me what I came home with then!


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