Today in S4H Summer School, we're learning about shopping. Now, I know most of you already have mad shopping skills, but we're taking on a topic that has generated some controversy in recent years: buying sewing supplies - especially fabric - online. How on earth can you experience such a tactile item as fabric digitally? Don't you have to see the rich colors, feel the texture, match the designs to one another with your own two eyes?! Well... you are reading this online at a website where we acquire about 75% of our fabric from digital swatches. Both virtual and hands-on shopping fill important niches. We believe browsing at and buying from your favorite local stores is a wonderful sensory and social opportunity, but we also love the in-your-jammies convenience and selection of shopping online.
In case you've been on a desert island for the last 10 years, we have some big news for you: online shopping is huge! And it's only getting bigger. According to the Wall Street Journal, in 2011 Americans spent $200 billion with online retailers. Over the next four years that number is expected to grow to $327 billion. Even if you're not the government, that's a lot of money.
A few years ago, online sales were dominated by "commodity" items – things like electronics, music and books that were available from many different stores. You often got the cheapest price when buying from a website. But for unique, high-end items like clothes, shoes, and designer fabrics, many people still felt they needed to go to a retail store to physically examine the merchandise.
Today, it's those same luxury items that are seeing the most impressive growth in online sales (even Steinway pianos can be purchased on the web). Online retailers have figured out that with enough information about the product; collateral technologies, such as real-time chat and video support; and an extremely forgiving return policy, shoppers don't have to worry about buying the wrong thing. Plus, an online store has the ability to offer many times the selection of a traditional store. In fact, one of the fastest growing categories is the combo-shop: brick and mortar retailers adding online stores to their overall shopping experience.
Why shopping online for fabric makes more sense now than ever
Think about it. The reason you leave empty handed from a store is because they didn't have what you wanted. While there might have been several dozen choices of a certain type of fabric, a good online store might have hundreds in that same category. The selection is up-to-date and the pricing competitive.
Yes, but what about the need to physically feel the fabric and see it on the bolt before you buy? What about the fact we love to browse and brainstorm surrounded by all the beautiful colors and prints. As we mentioned above, we are certainly not saying you should NEVER enjoy the experience of running your hands through the fabric selection at a local fabric shop. It's similar to the trend of eBooks. Once folks try an eReader, most really enjoy them, and they are astounded by the wealth of books and other publications at their fingertips. Does this mean they will never, ever crack open a book again? Of course not. It's an evolution and an opportunity. Hold on to what you love about the original experience, but don't be afraid to take advantage of everything the new technology has to offer.
The better online fabric stores provide quite a bit of information about their material. In addition, improvements in digital photography and computer screens mean what you're seeing at home will be very close to the actual color. (And remember, those yellowish fluorescent lights can alter a fabric's true color.)
And if you absolutely need to touch the fabric and even do a little test sewing before you order eight yards of something, you can still do that from home. Many online fabric stores will send you swatches at a lower cost than a cross-town car trip. And all of the ones we've dealt with have easy return policies. If you don't like the fabric, you can send it back for a full refund.
Tips for buying fabric online
Find an online store that's recommended by sewers and quilters you trust. One of the positives of the web is the fact that businesses who provide superior service will have a good reputation in forums and on blog networks.
Buy fabric you're familiar with. This isn't to say, don't experiment. But if you've had success with a certain type of cotton, you can safely buy it again without having to first order a swatch.
Of course, you're safe anyway because you can always send it back. And speaking of sending it back... Be familiar with the website's return policy. In fact, go find it before you put anything in your cart. Most online stores will take your fabric back and refund your money with no questions asked. Some will even pay return shipping. Generally speaking, the fabric has to be undamaged, and if it was a special order, there may be a restocking fee.
The NEW Sew4Home Marketplace
Last month, we unveiled a new category on Sew4Home: Marketplace. When we originally launched the site, we had our Shopping Directory, which included some of our trusted retailers for the purpose of helping readers find the fabrics and notions we used in our tutorials.
Increasingly, we received requests from businesses interested in letting our visitors know about their online shops and products. This truly broadened our view of the interesting items available, the specialty shops out there, and all the unique and terrific finds. Plus, we get emails everyday from readers asking for our help to find everything from fabric and notions to tools and machines. So we re-vamped our shopping solution to make it possible to bring you more of what you're looking for in great sewing supplies.
One of the things we're most proud of is our ability to bring you all our wonderful projects and tutorials without a subscription or any fees. The only way we can do this is through the support of our sponsors and advertisers. Without them, Sew4Home cannot exist. We aren't shy about bringing the two worlds together: sponsors and advertisers who can showcase their brands and products in front of an enthusiastic audience; consumers who learn about the tools to make their sewing process the best it can be. The synergy keeps everyone happy and allows us to offer great projects, patterns and more free of charge. One promise we make is that if we try a product and don't like it, we won't promote it in our tutorials (we've had to turn down a few products that didn't work for us as expected).
Your S4H Summer School homework: shop 'til you drop. How fun is that?!