Ask Biz Miss: Sustainable Fabrics

**Note: though this is a very respectfully worded request (note how she doesn’t ask specifically for my sources), it is considered good etiquette to ask advice like this from someone with a related but non-competing business, like someone who’s in fashion, or who makes baby products.  That said, when I had this exact question starting out, I asked the plush toy makers down the block from me.  They were more than gracious and generous in their help, so I’m paying it forward to all of you.  For more on the subject of crafty business etiquette, please see this article I wrote for the Bazaar Bizarre San Francisco blog.

I am currently designing my own line of stuffed animals (not meat products) and would really appreciate your advice.  I would like to make a product that takes the environment into consideration.  I am finding it extremely difficult to find recycled fabrics.  I did find recycled polyfill.  Any advice you can give on finding an environmentally aware manufacturer and materials would be greatly appreciated.

As far as sustainable fabrics go, it is difficult to find them outside of the hemp/wool/cotton/natural fibers area, but there are some polyesters that can be made from recycled plastic, such as fleece and fake furs.  I have never found a place to purchase these in small quantities, so I source my fleece in China, where the minimum for each color is 300 yards.  (I was lucky enough to have a friend whose toy company runs a reputable factory in China.  They were able to point me towards fabric mills there.)  There is a fleece called EcoFleece and a short fur called EcoPile, both available in the U.S., but these lines also require large wholesale orders.  You’ll have to do some calling around and searches through wholesale directories like ThomasNet to find them.  Some manufacturers only make/carry a set of common colors, and others can dye your fabric in any color you choose.

There is also an organization here in San Francisco called People Wear SF that held a small sustainable fabric trade show twice last year. If they do it again, it would likely be in the next month or two.  If not, someone there might have a list of past exhibitors you can contact.

Since you are starting out small, you may have to make some compromises about your fabrics.  For example, you might consider buying fabrics from a creative re-use center or something similar.  I don’t know where you are located, but here in the Bay Area we have S.C.R.A.P. in San Francisco and the East Bay Depot for Creative Re-use in Oakland.  At these places you can buy fabrics otherwise destined for the landfill and you will have lots of choices when it comes to fabric type (but maybe not color/print as much). You can also pilfer clothing and pillows from thrift stores.  Felted sweaters make excellent no-fray fabric for toys and some stores sell by the pound.

You can also just buy off-the-shelf fabrics in the beginning, and try to maintain your commitment to the environment in other ways (which is what I did).  You’ve already found some recycled fiberfill (Carlee sells this in bulk in New Jersey or you can buy corn-based fiberfill from your local fabric store), which is a good start.  You can also ship your toys using only recycled and/or re-used packaging, and you can plant trees or buy credits to make your business carbon neutral.

I hope this helps. There’s unfortunately not a lot of information out there regarding material sourcing, because it’s one way small businesses discourage competition.  If any readers have info they can share, please add it to the comments.  Thanks!

Crafty Business Questions: Etiquette

I got a lot of etiquette questions this week, so I’m posting all the answers below:

I’m just starting out, and I have lots of questions I’d like to ask successful business crafters. What’s okay and not okay to ask about?

In general, it’s okay to ask about process, not product, and it’s always best to ask for help from businesses that don’t compete with yours. For example, if you sell plush toys, it’s not okay to ask another plush artist where they get their fabric, who their distributor is, or what consignment stores they work with. Instead, try asking something like, “Can you recommend somewhere to start researching distributors/stores/wholesale fabric suppliers?” Then, instead of giving away their contacts/sources, they can give you the name of a trade association or web site where you can begin your own research.

It is also okay to ask a fellow crafter general business information, like if they can recommend any good crafty business books, marketing classes, banks, or bookkeeping software. Your successful accounting practices will not harm their business. Other things that are sometimes okay to ask about include who designed their logo/web site, and how they developed a good pricing structure. You can also ask non-competing businesses for general feedback on your Etsy store, packaging, etc.

If you are unsure about whether your question falls within the bounds of etiquette, try asking it by beginning, “Would you be comfortable sharing information with me about X? I totally understand if you’re not.” That way, it’s easy for them to say no and neither party has to resent the other.

I sell handmade toys with buttons that have clever sayings on them. Yesterday one of my customers told me she also wants to start selling (mass-produced) toys with clever buttons on them. She asked me for my button source and their pricing! I think this is really rude. How do I respond kindly without blowing my top?!

Again, this goes back to process, not product. How did you find your button source? How did you research pricing in order to comparison shop? It may be as simple as telling her you Googled the phrase “button makers” and then requested prices and samples from five local businesses. She still has to do the legwork, but you’ve answered her question helpfully, while insinuating that maybe it’s not so cool to ask a competitor for such specific information.

I’m thinking of applying for a particular craft fair, but I don’t know anyone who’s vended there. Is it okay for me to ask a random vendor (posted on their vendor page) how profitable it was for them?

This is a tricky one, but I would say yes, provided: you ask someone who does not sell competing products, you ask using the “Would you be comfortable sharing…” preface, and you don’t ask specifics, like “how much money did you make at that fair?” or “what were your best selling items?” Instead, stick to more general questions, like “was it worth your time?”, “did the customers generally fit your demographic?” and “would you do it again?”

Do you have thoughts about these questions? Do you have other etiquette questions? Ask them in the comments and I’ll try to answer them!