UPDATE OCT 2020: I wrote another blog post about whether Deadstock (overstock) is really dead. You can read that here.
This seems to be the year where home sewers are taking stock of what they have, slowing down their buying and thinking more consciously about their closet. Happily, #whomademyfabric (or fibre) got a bit of attention during Fashion Revolution week. I blogged previously about a sewing revolution – what we home sewers could do besides hold up a sign and take up a picture – but this is a difficult ask given lack of transparency in the textile supply chain. One sustainable solution often quoted is overstock. You might have heard the terms deadstock or surplus. In short, it is unwanted fabric from fashion brands, textile mills, movie sets. Sometimes you will see it in fabric shops advertised as “ex-designer”. You can read about overstock from the perspective of a fabric owner here.
After speaking to some fabric store owners and sustainable fashion friends, I thought I would write up some ideas to mull over when considering whether this is sustainable. Outside of my verbal chats, my main resource for this article is from a white paper by Reverse Resources. This is a company developing software to help garment factories to track their leftover fabrics and scraps and increase transparency.
Why does overstock exist?
In the entire lifecycle of a garment, waste is generated at every stage, from fabric production (defective fibres or fabrics, overproduction, unfinished garments, cutting waste), through to distribution and disposal by consumers. When considering the different stages, my assumption is that overstock would mostly come from post-production leftovers, as this it the most likely place where you would have excess rolls of fabric. Here are some possible reasons as to why it exists:
- Brands order more yardage than necessary (source: Reverse Resources). When brands order their garments to be made, they purchase additional yardage (3-10% more than necessary) to cover production losses from inefficiency and scraps. Factory output is measured in the number of garments whilst costing is measured in yardage.
- Lack of transparency within garment factories. Accurate tracking and management information of resource use is not robust. This generates opportunity for a secondary market in leftovers.
- Faulty fabric that cannot be used in production is either sold off at low prices or destroyed to meet brand protection rules. I have heard that this is especially the case for luxury brands that have a distinctive look or have a statement cloth made. Also, brands do not tend to use the same cloth for multiple seasons.
How much overstock is there?
The data I have found on post production waste is varied depending on the source and the criteria used. Here are a few statistics; however note that this includes all types of waste and is not limited to overstock. Warning: the numbers are not insignificant when you consider how many garments are created in the world each year!
- The Ellen Macarthur Foundation analysed the global material flows of clothing. They estimated that of total losses generated between fibre production and the final garment is around 12% (based on 2015 data).
- Reverse Resource estimates that at least 25% of fibre / fabric resource purchased from textile mills and garment factories is leftover. This is based on data from 7 garment factories in Bangladesh and China plus interviews with >100 people in the fashion production industry.
- A report cited by Reverse Resources involving research by the Centre of Industrial Sustainability at the University of Cambridge estimated post-production waste figure to be 15-20% in Sri Lanka (2015 data).
The sustainability case for overstock
Now that I have given the context for overstock, let me turn to the sustainability case. At the core, the case for using overstock is the nature of the fabric itself: unwanted. By buying somebody’s unwanted fabric, you are not fuelling the demand for new fabric. The owner of the fabric isn’t profiting, and it might even be better that a middleman is paying something for it, rather than having to get rid of it some other way.
There are fashion brands that use overstock as part of their eco marketing. Take Reformation for example – their website states that 15% of their fabric sourcing is from overstock (and out of interest; 2-5% is from vintage clothing). I’m not sure whether this is considered a low or high number but I imagine one of the reasons why its not bigger is because overstock isn’t repeatable. It would be very difficult to build a whole collection with the volume of garments required if there isn’t a huge amount of leftovers of one type of fabric.
UPDATE OCTOBER 2020: Reformation has gotten bigger. Their overstock use has gone done, and it’s now around 5% rather than 15% as stated above.
And the negatives?
As you would expect, there is a downside to overstock. Even if you want to label overstock as second hand or waste, it is still virgin material. Additionally, if it is on the roll it can still be sold off by middlemen to places like fabric shops or brands like Reformation. In which case it just ends up being a source of cheap fabric. I have it on good authority that the price paid by middlemen for fabric is virtually nothing compared to the prices for which they are resold to us the end consumer!
My experience with shopping for overstock
I have visited many fabric shops and warehouses in the last few years, including places with a lot of overstock. One problem I have encountered in those places though is that I have no idea what the fibre is (except by feel). Also many of these shops also sell cheap polyester and cotton, which makes me slightly suspicious. Many times they have tried to sell me something as ex designer “oh this is ex-Hobbs or ex-Jigsaw“ (high street brands) – as if this makes the fabric superior somehow. This is not to say that I have never found quality stuff there for low prices – I certainly have – but I do question how much these shops know or care about where their stuff comes from.
On the flip side, I know some fabric shops avoid overstock. One reason is the repeatability issue. If there is high demand for something that sells out too quickly, then there are complaints about lack of availability! (can’t please everybody). I obviously don’t own a fabric shop, but I have wondered why so many shops carry the same fabrics (recognisable by the prints and fibre content combination). If you have wondered the same, then do a google for wholesale fabric and click through the websites of wholesalers. You’ll probably see a lot of prints you recognize from the smaller shops. I can only assume this is milled (produced for the sewing market) rather than overstock.
So is overstock a yay or nay?
From a sustainability perspective, overstock is a yay for me when compared to milled fabrics (e.g Lady McElroy cotton lawn florals, Atelier Brunette fabrics). These are made specifically for sewing and are usually printed on conventionally produced fabrics (no organic or any sustainability angle for that matter). But overstock doesn’t always have the cool designs and prints on branded fabrics. So I think there is room for both to co-exist when it comes to home sewing. I would love to see more of these fabric brands incorporate green thinking into their production; maybe this is something to campaign for.
Let me finish by saying that I don’t believe the exclusive use of overstock by the home sewer is the sustainability solution. The root cause needs to be addressed and there is an onus on the fashion brands to change their ways. They can help to control overstock and production waste; and unless everyone starts making their clothes instead of buying them (or we go back to the days of make do and mend), there will always be more RTW clothes than homemade ones! To this end, I think it is really valuable to have companies like Reverse Resources who are coming up with different ideas to reduce and reuse factory waste.
What do you think about overstock as a sustainable solution? Do you think we will make any difference at all whether we choose to buy overstock or not?
UPDATE OCT 2020: this link will take you to my part 2 on deadstock (overstock) and whether is really dead.
I agree that overstock has more pluses than minuses. I’ve successfully purchased a fair amount of overstock fabric from often pattern designers or very small fabric sellers – never not knowing the fiber content however. That is just too important to me. I won’t buy polyester. I never liked it when it became popular in the ’70’s. The fabric/fashion industry continue to re-release it for every generation until that generation figures out it’s downside, refuses to wear/buy for the ridiculously high asking price and demands natural fibers once again. I’ve witnessed this cycle a few times. Poly is poly 🙂 I read how different the NEW polyester is which always makes me laugh – it breathes! it’s comfortable! it’s just like silk! No it isn’t and it doesn’t.
Hi Kathleen, thats great that you’ve managed to find so many sources of overstock. As I mentioned sometimes I am deeply suspicious of the fibre content, especially when it comes from big warehouses. I’m sure you have read Allie’s article on sourcing and I think a lot of it depends on the store as well as the wholesaler. As for polyester, I’m not totally averse to it as it has its uses. Personally I’d rather be hiking in a recycled polyester jacket from Patagonia than a wool coat or layers of jersey!
Very interesting blog post. I work in a handweaving milk where we produce our own cloth and make our own garments on a very very small scale. Reading this post has made me proud that we have very little waste in our cloth production! Garments are cut from cloth and the bigger scraps are put into a crafting box for crafters and quilters. Only the very very small scraps are binned. When there is a mistake in the cloth we just mend it! Really enjoying your posts Kate, they stop and make you think.
Hi Charlotte, nice to hear from you here. I had forgotten that you work in a textile mill and do sewing there! I’m sure I’ve seen a lot of the tweed from your mill in various stores and its nice to see cloth being produced locally and know a bit more about the process. Thanks for reading and hope you are doing well.
I haven’t thought of overstock at all, but have one or two pieces in my stash. Thanks for the education! It is better to buy the “unwanted” that would otherwise be disposed of, but as you say the home sewist plays a smaller part in the equation and the issue lies more on the brands as to decreasing the volume of “unwanted” by-products in the first place.
To be honest I’m not sure what is stocked where in Oz. Spotlight I suspect is probably milled – how else would everybody everywhere be buying the pink cranes rayon – similarly with We Are The Fabric Store which has all the merino stuff. Tessuti maybe different. If you go there one day please do ask them; I’d love to know! But again, different fabric for different purposes. If you want something very specific sometimes new has to be the way to go.
I’m sure Spotlight has all milled stuff only. I’ve recently seen the odd bolt of Tory Burch at The Fabric Store (but they’re most famous for merino fabrics and they carry a wide Liberty range, which I’m sure are all milled), and at Tessuti I’ve seen YSL, Marc Jacobs, Max Mara overstock. The good thing at these stores is that they do list the composition so you know what you’re buying. Usually sold at similar or higher prices than the non-brand stuff of similar composition. But yes, I think if one buys overstock just because of the brand or even just because they’re “unwanted”, not because there’s a need for that specific fabric, then it’s not really an act of sustainability…
Indeed, and it is hard sometimes to resist the lure of branded stuff, whether its clothing or fabric. I’ve managed to avoid buying fabric for nearly 6 months but you might have read on IG comments that I’ve discovered vintage fashion over the weekend – some small boutiques managed to convince me that its not all 1950s florals or second hand Zara! I bought two things and am doing a couple of alterations but that is a slippery slope of discovery and I need to retain self control. I am in the market for a piece of black silk though for a slip dress and am thinking a big maxi skirt would do the trick if I can find it second hand.
I know that from time to time spotlight has got end of line fabrics, however they tend to come from over runs of milled fabrics rather than designer ends. I’ve seen bolts of old Michael Miller quilting fabric and the likes appear over the years.
Lincraft, which is another Australian chain, also get overstock fabrics on occasion. I know this for certain as I picked up a fabric which was used by one of my favourite local designers a few seasons later.
As for The Fabric Store they do stock a large number of overstock fabrics, or at least that was what I was told on my last visit. The denim I purchased was an overstock fabric while the Liberty was probably milled.
Kate, actually most of the Fabric Store fabric is overstock, and is occasionally marked with the designer name. As far as I know, the only fabric that isn’t is their linen, which is the only repeatable fabric they stock. Have a look at their website – it lists new in fabric, and always says that it’s limited, and comes from designers.
The merino mostly comes from companies like Icebreaker, who sell them their overstock – which is why the merino doesn’t come in a range of colours for each type, and they’re all pretty random.
So you’re good with the merino, but less so with the linen – apart from the fact that linen is a much more planet-friendly fibre than cotton.
I love your sustainable sewing posts.
For my children I usually use new organic fabric. But for myself I often (not always) buy my fabric from a local overstock store. This owner sources mostly high quality (couture) overstock in France and Italy ( I live in the netherlands). He often has catalogs from different brands were you can see what they made with the fabric.
He will allways do a burn test if I ask after the fiber content. I think he’s good at it, but of course it’s also trust based, so maybe not the best way.
He also sells the fabric that has mistakes or a differtent drape than wanted. I like the; there’s nothing more than this, it gives a higher rotation (and adds to the uniqueness).
The prices are really good, given the quality, but not cheap. The funny thing in this barn based shop are the other customers, people travel far for a visit and make it a day out. I’ve even seen several rented buses to accommodate a sewing class or other group from Belgium and Germany.
From sustainability view I should really sew from my stash more. And be even more aware of fabric origin.
Hello Anne, thanks for reading and sounds like we are on the same page! My toddler is usually dressed in something I made from new organic fabric. When he grew up from being a baby people stopped giving us their hand me downs, although I sometimes still go to one of the charity stores which has lots of kids things.
Happy to hear you are looking at sewing from your stash. Because I decided to do this and create the #makeyourstash Instagram challenge I have not bought fabric for nearly 6 months, although there are some silk pieces I think I will buy soon. That sounds a good fabric shop you have there. Whereabouts is this store? Sometimes go to the Netherlands to visit my in laws and they live in the south – if it is not too far maybe I could go.
Hello Kate, I have to say that with 3 children it’s not only memade anymore, I simply can’t keep up there growing pace! I hoped my 1yo could wear his 3yo borthers clothes, but they have a totaly different size and the older one was very succesfull at destroying his clothes with crawling and drooling… So I try to keep a 50/50% rate.
It is interesting how people stop giving you their handmedowns after the babyphase. I try to pass my daughters (5yo) clothes to others, because I would love it if someone gave me clothes. And it’s cute to see my me made dresses being worn to death by my neighbors daughters.
The shop is in Eindhoven, Harrie Bosch modestoffen. You should check the opening hours on the web, because it’s only 3 or 4 days a week.
Where was the Liberty overstock stall in Birmingham that you pictured?
It was inside the rag market – but I heard this weekend that he is gone unfortunately!
Oh nooo 🙁 I thought it might be there and am going to Birmingham in August so got my hopes up… sigh!
I know i’m a bit late to this blog post but I was looking for overstock fabrics in the UK and that’s when I found your blog. I still can’t find any overstock suppliers in the UK only Croft Mill and i’m not sure all of their fabrics are old stock. Do you know of any other sources in the UK?
Love your blog and now follow you on Instagram too.
Hi Wendy, thanks for your kind comments 🙂 You can try Fabric Godmother or New Craft House for online shopping (look for where they say ex-designer). And if you are in London, Goldhawk Road has lots of stuff and also Misan – but these shops are a bit of a mixed bag.
That’s great thankyou I will have a look at those, thankyou and keep up the good work.????