New Adventures!

Hi, guys! I hope you’re all doing well! Today I’m both excited and terrified to tell you about my new adventure! But first, a little background.

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Some of you may know that I quit working in film and television about a year ago. I loved the business, but after nearly a decade of working nights, weekends, and everything in between, I was burnt out and looking for a 9-5 instead of the 80+hour weeks that are standard in the movie business. I started taking any non-production gigs that I could find and thinking long and hard about what my next step would be. I’d been taking evening classes at FIT here and there for a few years to learn new skills and industry techniques, but a program caught my eye several months ago and I started to take classes exclusively in the textile development & marketing program.

I think it’s logical for someone interested in the handmade movement to eventually start wondering where their materials come from, and that was something that had started to nag at the back of my mind. But I dismissed these thoughts for a while, thinking that most of the fabrics I bought in the Garment District were mill overruns or cast-offs from the fashion industry, so they can’t be too bad, right? However, as I started to take textile science classes and learn more about the processes and conditions in which textiles are made, wow, it really made me think about what I was consuming. There’s no way around it: the textile industry is a dirty, dirty business. Most of us are already aware that textiles are often manufactured in countries with lax labor laws and safety regulations, so many workers put their lives on the line to make our textiles. But did you further know that textile production was already moving overseas before many other industries since many of the common chemicals used are banned by OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal regulatory system for workplaces) in the United States? Or that cotton uses 3-5x the amount of pesticide that corn does– more than any other crop, actually? I learned that formaldehyde, the stuff you remember if you ever took a high school biology class, and a known carcinogen, is commonly used in textiles made in many parts of the world. It’s often used for wrinkle-resistant finishes, and in commercial leather production. Yuck!

This is certainly depressing, but the good news is that there are changes in the air when it comes to textile and clothing manufacturing. Incidents like the tragedy at Rana Plaza are drawing attention to the plight of garment workers, and growing consumer movements like Fashion Revolution are demanding accountability from brands. E-commerce sites like Zady and Helpsy offer ethically-made fashion to stylish consumers, and traditional brands are responding to environmental concerns by developing new, cleaner processes, like Levi’s Water, which reduce the amount of water used to manufacture a pair of jeans by as much as 96%. Incubators like Manufacture NY and the Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator are bring clothing production back to the U.S. and making it easier for designers to create more sustainable fashion. On a personal level, I’m witnessing a huge amount of interest in healthier fashion from my classmates at FIT. It’s really inspiring to see that the next generation of the fashion industry is concerned with the health of workers and the environment! Plus, there are more and more ethical options for knitters concerned about the origins of their yarn– companies like O-Wool and Brooklyn Tweed produce beautiful wools spun in the U.S., and there are countless companies doing this in the U.K. and Europe.

All that said, I still struggled to see how a home sewer like myself or a beginning designer could access healthier textiles. I’ve dug up a handful of American mills, but working with mills usually requires purchasing gigantic quantities of fabric– 5000 yards of a single type in a single color is the norm! So when a classmate told me he could sell me smaller quantities of fabric from the Japanese mill he worked for, I was intrigued. When he told me they are focused on natural fibers and are expanding their line of organic cotton, I was hooked! I did some research into Japanese labor practices and found that factories in Japan are monitored much more carefully than competitors like China, Bangladesh, or Vietnam. And they regulate the use of chemicals like formaldehyde (which, by the way, is not regulated in the U.S.).

Even though I really loved the idea of being able to offer special fabrics to other sewers, I really resisted the idea of starting a sewing business. I haaaaaaaate selling stuff (like, I was the kid that blanched whenever a fundraiser was announced for little league or band or whatever) and I really didn’t want to have to self-promote! Ick!ย  I love interacting with my blog readers and really consider them friends, so I was super uncomfortable with the thought of turning my site into a used car lot where I’m constantly pitching products to an increasingly-exasperated audience! And I have never wanted to turn sewing into my career– I love that it’s such an inspirational hobby and don’t want it to become a chore. I really gave this serious thought (for months!) before deciding to launch a small online store. At the end of the day, I came to believe that I’m not the only one out there who’s interested in finding textiles that aren’t made in a sweatshop, and that maybe this will be helpful to those of you who want more responsible fabrics, but don’t have good access to secondhand shops.

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I’m keeping my inspirational and fun day job, where I give old furniture new life and get to meet incredible designers and weavers (you guys, now I want to learn how to use a floor loom SO BADLY!!!), so I’m offering a small and manageable collection of special fabrics over at my new shop, Hell Gate Fabrics. I’ve worked directly with the Japanese mill to bring you fabrics that are manufactured responsibly, and I’m hoping to expand my offerings of organicย  products as the mill expands theirs. I’ve also worked with a local fabric importer to purchase a limited quantity of overstock wax prints that he was selling to clear out room in his warehouse. These 100% cotton prints are made in his home village in Mali, where he sold them before moving to New York. I’m also having exciting conversations with some folks at the forefront of the ethical textile movement, so hopefully there will be some cool developments in the near future! I’m also hoping to grow and adapt the shop as I continue in my textile studies… I’m sure as I learn more, my vision for the shop will change a bit.

Finally, in case you’re worried, my blog isn’t going to become a place to hock my products. I’m just not interested in that, even if it makes more business sense to do so. I don’t want to lose the community and friendships I’ve made through sewing just to make a few bucks! So all business doings and new product announcements will happen on my new Instagram feed, @hellgatefabrics, and I won’t be at all offended if you don’t follow that account. Also, the cost of buying small quantities of fabric is quite high, and that’s multiplied by the fact that it’s just more expensive when it’s made in a place like Japan instead of China or Bangladesh. So, I won’t be doing blog tours or fabric giveaways because I don’t want to pass along that cost to customers. I’m keeping the margins as low as I can to keep fabric accessible to as many people as possible, and that’s just one of the ways that I’m doing that.

If you’re still reading at the end of this post, thank you for reading! I’m so proud to be part of a group of people that care so deeply about where things come from and the world that we’re leaving for the next generation. It’s so easy to become cynical about these issues or to feel like the baby steps that we’re taking just aren’t good enough, but your optimism and dedication to making the world a better place are a constant source of inspiration to me and are the reason I finally decided to take this plunge!

280 responses

  1. I wish you well on this new venture! I have often thought about buying more ethically produced and environmentally friendly fabrics and will be following your store. I enjoy following your blog also!

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  2. You will be truly filling a niche that is currently very underserved. I hope this business is super successful for you and as a person working in your old industry, I completely understand looking for other things to pour your passion in to.

    May I ask if there’s a reason the prices are in the 1/2 yard? I know there is a certain sticker shock when customers are used to bargain basement Fabric mart et al prices, but I hope your customers will understant what they’re paying for and appreciate the simpler mental maths.

    Looking forward to making many happy items of clothing from your fabrics xxx

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    • I totally find it annoying to list things by the half yard, but I just couldn’t find another way to sell half-yards (I could only use whole number units, so if I sold by the yard, customers wouldn’t be able to get 1.5 yards of something and would have to round up or down). It seemed more annoying for people to have to buy a half yard extra. ๐Ÿ˜ฆ It seems like the larger fabric companies that are able to sell fractions of yards have all built their own sites, and I’m just not tech-savvy enough for that! ๐Ÿ™‚

      I didn’t realize that you worked in film/tv! It’s a real grind sometimes, isn’t it?

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      • Ahh, that makes sense. Well in that case, I’m happy you have launched the site rather than wait till you have a team of programmers working for you!

        I work in post, so not nearly as crazy as production, but still, unpredictable, and my schedule is completely out of my control. That’s why we needed a hobby that would be there at what ever time we were able to do it, right?

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  3. I love love LOVE the depth you went into with your background, and all of your reasons for starting the online store. I’m looking forward to seeing what this new prospect brings you and the sewing community! In the mean time, it’s fabric shopping time ๐Ÿ™‚

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      • Yes! There’s a great and really approachable textbook (“Fabric Science”, by JJ Pizzuto). It’s expensive, since it’s a textbook, but I bet you could pick up the previous edition for a couple of bucks! Zady.com has a newsletter that often has interesting articles about textiles, and the Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator blog is great, too. For more technical and more current stuff, you should check out Sourcing Journal. It’s an online magazine about the textile industry and I think if you sign up for an account you can read something like 5 articles a month for free?

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  4. I have a feature request for the shop and I’m not sure it’s possible but thought I’d mention it anyway, is there a way to stop it dividing the fabric across pages? Like when you click Show All instead of 12 per page or whatever? I have a really fast internet connection so loading all at once is not a problem but clicking is annoying (OMG how lazy / whingy am I?)

    Loving the idea, the shop and the ethics behind it, good luck!

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  5. DOOD!! That’s awesome, congratulations! The way I see it is that I’m gonna buy lots and lots of fabric anyway, so I might as well support people who I know and care about ๐Ÿ™‚ From what I see, you already have a pretty delicious selection of tempting delights! ^__^ I appreciate you being sensitive to international shipping charges as well – it’s a real sticky issue for us Canadians – haha! ^_^

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  6. Good for you! This is super exciting and so needed. Congrats on taking the leap!

    I totally understand about initially having major reservations about a move… And then doing it anyways because that’s ultimately what makes sense. I recently started freelance writing and editing, and believe me I hate hate hate self promotion, marketing, etc. I’m realizing, though, that we all have our own particular strengths that translate into our unique style, and if we stick to what feels right we’ll find ways forward that work for us. Conventional wisdom around getting clients isn’t necessarily going to work for me, my friend’s method for getting clients isn’t going to perfectly work for me, either. I gotta go with “me.” which is just a long way of saying that I’m positive you’ll find a way to make this work that feels comfortable and right to you, like keeping your blog and business separate. That said, I’m pretty sure we won’t mind if you pop by now and again with shop info or just to let us know how you’re doing, as we all support you!

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    • This is such helpful advice– THANK YOU. It’s helpful to think about doing business my own way, not like the “official business way”. I hope you’re feeling happy in your new career and it’s going well for you!

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  7. great idea – and congrats! and look at all of the lycocell/tencel products you have!!! I am obsessed with it. Nice fabric choices. I love buying fabric from other seamstresses because I know I can trust their product descriptions.

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  8. I’m so glad you’re doing this! I’ve also been thinking more and more about the ethics of fabric production and its impacts socially and environmentally, so good on you for actually doing something about it. All the best with the site!

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  9. Congratulations on this new step!! Those fabrics are so scrumptuous – and I loved hearing the story and your reasons behind this new direction.

    Also, I totally understand about not wanting to go a particular direction …. and then ultimately deciding that’s what makes the most sense, and doing it anyways. I recently started freelance writing/editing, and I hate hate hate self-promotion, marketing, etc. Really, I’m so bad at it. Even though I know that’s what’s necessary when you start your own thing. However! After watching a bunch of other people launch their own side gigs/main gigs, I’ve come to realize that we all have our own personalities and strengths that make us unique … and that we all craft our own unique ‘style’ of doing business that works for us. It might not be conventional wisdom, it might not be what my science writing friend is doing … but it’s me and it’ll probably work better for me, in the long run, than going by somebody else’s rule book. Glad you’re figuring out what works for you :-). And! Everybody here seems to love you enough that if you were to pop by with an occasional update or shop-related post, I’m positive that none of us would mind! If anything, we’ll probably be curious how things are going, because we want you to do well.

    Congrats again~!!

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  10. Hello! I’ve been lurkily (is that a word?!) reading your blog for a couple of years. The launch of your new Japan related business seems an appropriate time to pop out and say hello, as I live in Tokyo. The fabric district here is amazing. I wish I was able to get there more often but all the sewing I used to do is on hiatus as I’m a full time teacher and raising three kids. I hope you’ll come here sometime, I’m sure you would love it. Come on, it’ll be a business trip, right?! Wishing you well~~

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  11. I read this last week, but didn’t have the chance to comment then, but I feel so hugely excited for you – what a fantastic venture. I also feel completely delighted – I don’t go for organic/fair-trade fabric every time – or even nearly all of the time – because often I find that the drape/prints available would mean that I wouldn’t actually end up wearing the garment…which completely defeats the purpose of the organic aspect in terms of waste. But it does bother me. The fabrics you’ve sourced really look amazing though and as though they don’t compromise on these things at all!

    Reading your post also made me feel slightly ill – my son’s black school trousers are all made of non-iron, stain-resistant fabric…reading that it was formaldehyde that was probably used to make these this way left me feeling appalled and I’m going to research something more lovely (it seems nearly all boys’ school trousers are made with teflon coating etc in the UK!).

    I know exactly what you mean about being salesy – it’s painful. But I’d actually love to hear about your fabrics! I’ve followed you on Instagram, but would never mind reading about them here too and especially seeing what you’ve made with them yourself – it’s always really lovely seeing exactly how a fabric looks when it’s been made up before buying it!

    Florence x

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    • Ahhh, Florence, thank you for your kind words! But I hear you- it’s so eye-opening, in a horrible way, to learn more about the textile industry. I was really shocked to read about how dirty and disgusting so many of the processes are… and these are the things we wear next to our skin! Eww! Hopefully it will become easier and easier to find clean textiles, especially ones with drape and shine, instead of that sort of crunchy quilting cotton feel.

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  12. I read this last week, but didnโ€™t have the chance to comment then, but I feel so hugely excited for you โ€“ what a fantastic venture. I also feel completely delighted โ€“ I donโ€™t go for organic/fair-trade fabric every time โ€“ or even nearly all of the time โ€“ because often I find that the drape/prints available would mean that I wouldnโ€™t actually end up wearing the garmentโ€ฆwhich completely defeats the purpose of the organic aspect in terms of waste. But it does bother me. The fabrics youโ€™ve sourced really look amazing though and as though they donโ€™t compromise on these things at all!

    Reading your post also made me feel slightly ill โ€“ my sonโ€™s black school trousers are all made of non-iron, stain-resistant fabricโ€ฆreading that it was formaldehyde that was probably used to make these this way left me feeling appalled and Iโ€™m going to research something more lovely (it seems nearly all boysโ€™ school trousers are made with teflon coating etc in the UK!).

    I know exactly what you mean about being salesy โ€“ itโ€™s painful. But Iโ€™d actually love to hear about your fabrics! Iโ€™ve followed you on Instagram, but would never mind reading about them here too and especially seeing what youโ€™ve made with them yourself โ€“ itโ€™s always really lovely seeing exactly how a fabric looks when itโ€™s been made up before buying it!

    Florence x

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  13. Waoo !! Congrats for this new adventures ๐Ÿ™‚ I totally understand your concern about your blog and your sewing friends. I went through this too, because I am the owner of a French yarn webshop, L’รฉchappรฉe Laine. At the beginning, personnal and professionnal blogs were united in one, and two years ago I decided to split it in two parts. Now, I have 2 blogs and 2 IG accounts. Many of my followers don’t know the link between the 2, and I feel free to say what I want on my personal spaces.
    It’s important to talk about your business and your products too, because it “humanizes” the business. And it doesn’t mean that your are too pushy ๐Ÿ˜‰
    I really like your paprika cotton/lyocell, it’s so difficult to find these fabrics… You ship to France ๐Ÿ˜€ ?

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    • Sandra, thanks so much for commenting! It’s really useful to hear your perspective! I’m hopping over to check out your shop now! And yes, I ship to France! If you see anything you like, just send me an email and I’ll look up the cheapest shipping rates! ๐Ÿ™‚

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  14. Congratulations Sonja! I’ve been off the blog radar since Rhinebeck and when I heard that you started a fabric line at the Victory book launch party last week. I was like, “how could I have missed this news!” Good luck with the new venture. It’s nice to have someone we trust to buy fabric from!

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  17. Congratulations!! Sharing your story was inspiring to me…I’ve just begun blogging with my sights on building a small business. So far from now, BUT the reason I mentioned that is because it almost sounded like you were whispering an apology to your sewing friends/blog readers for selling a good. I have wanted to blog for years but always thought that nobody would be interested in yet ANOTHER sewing blog…..but I finally came to my senses and followed advice that I would give a friend….why not? You are a brave and smart entrepreneur who saw a hole that needed filling….many good wishes for a ton of success!
    Genevieve xo

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    • Thank you for your kind words, Genevieve!! And I’m so glad that you went for it and started your blog! I’m excited to hear about your business, whenever you decide to get started. You are so right– if my friend was hesitating about this, I would tell her to go for it! ๐Ÿ™‚

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    • It’s so hard to change your relationship with work/career/blogging… and it’s hard to get the balance right! I feel like your business is such a lovely one. I’m glad you took the plunge! ๐Ÿ™‚

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  18. Wow, well done you! A big bravo for taking the leap! Also thank you for helping to shed light on an issue it’s so easy to stick your head in the sand about… Wishing you super success, can’t wait to see what you have in store!

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  19. Waaaaa this is so freakin’ awesome!!! ๐Ÿ˜€ (I actually read this as soon as it came out, and have been saving it as ‘unread’ in my blog reader until I could open it on a computer to comment – yes, it’s that awesome, haha!)

    Such a great idea, and so much gorgeous fabric. ๐Ÿ™‚ I hope it’s hugely successful for you! Yay!! ๐Ÿ˜€

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  20. This is really exciting for you, Sonja! I’m intensely curious how textiles are made and where they come from. I have the Fabric Science book… just because. I’m glad you see you’ve found a passion for sourcing these textiles! (I wouldn’t mind seeing your business stuff on your regular Instagram at all. It would make total sense to me and I’d love to see behind the scenes!)

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  21. These are fantastic news! Your fabric selection is so beautiful… I love that you pay attention to sustainability when it comes to fabrics – I have been thinking about opening a small etsy/dawanda shop for a while, providing beautiful fabrics especially for people in my area (austria, germany), but it’s so difficult to find fair produced ones at a reasonable price. Still learning a lot and I’m far from starting, but hearing your story is so encouraging and inspiring!

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  22. Amazing news (late comment even if I read your post on bloglovin a few weeks ago!)I wish you loads of good things to you with this new project! It’s very good you started it! I really like the idea of your shop and I will defo have a look often. The only problem we have, canadians, when we order in the US is the customs …!! Sooo ennoying!
    I hope you’ll still have time to show us your makes tho! Apparently it’s a lot of work to start a business like this … I wish you all the best!

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  23. I’m finally catching up with my blog reader, and I just caught this post! Congrats! I’m so proud of you for launching something like this. I’ve looked into textile processes in the past with the intention of choosing better fabrics, but I’ve never followed through to the end. Thank you for doing a bit of the work for us all!

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  24. So happy to find yet another sewist who is interested in where our fabric is coming from! It is something I am very passionate about as well. I’m in the UK and probably international shipping is a bit difficult, but one day maybe when I’ll get to New York, I might be able to get my hands on some lovely sustainable fabric. In the meantime, best of luck and keep flying the (sustainably sourced) flag!!

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  25. Thank you, thank you, thank you for your awareness of what goes on in the textile industry. Though I love fabric stores and fabric shopping is my therapy, I’m looking more towards thrift shops and rummage sales for my fabric. While the manufacturing process for RTW is an environmental disaster, at least I can feel good about not putting any new fabric into production.

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