We’re living in deeply worrying and uncertain times. Coronavirus has put most of the world into a form of stasis, while health workers and scientists do battle on our behalf. There is little most of us can do to help them except follow the rules, stay home where possible, practise social distancing and try to protect ourselves and the lives of others.
Where does this leave the fabric and textiles industry, and how does it impact us, the buyers and sellers?
Some manufacturers and wholesalers have closed
The first thing to note is that some textile manufacturers in the worst hit European areas such as Northern Italy and Spain have closed their operations, and it’s likely that some Turkish, American and Asian textile plants will close down at least temporarily, if they haven’t already done so.
No one wants to close but some fabric manufacturing operations can’t guarantee social distancing, and while the virus continues to rampage through the world they have a duty of care to their employees – so they must close. Or, in the worst-hit regions, their governments have mandated that they must shut down. So fabric supply is being interrupted – textiles are not being woven or printed in the same volumes as before.
The other issue is international shipping. Around 80% of global trade is transported by commercial shipping – container ships circling the oceans carrying everything from cars to food, to, yes, textiles. Some ports such as those in China and other parts of Asia have been closed completely for a time; others are holding freight on the quayside, and operations at big hub ports across the world are much reduced as staff go off sick and social-distancing means staff numbers must be cut.
This is also the case for some, but not all, UK fabric wholesalers. Some staff can work from home, such as accounts personnel and customer service people, but warehouse staff cannot. All UK wholesalers are focused on keeping their employees safe. Plus most wholesalers are smaller than you think - they don’t have huge amounts of people, so for some it’s almost impossible for them to run on a skeleton staff, because that’s how they operate anyway.
Most Northern European wholesalers continue to operate. My Dutch and German wholesalers have put safeguards in place and they are continuing to send out orders…for now.
What about fabric shops in the UK?
All high-street fabric shops with a brick-and-mortar store have closed in accordance with the Coronavirus Act 2020. This does not mean their online operations are necessarily affected but for many it does give them a huge headache. Their stock is located in their shop. If that shop is in a high street or town centre away from where they live they have a dilemma: should they go there every day and cut fabric? What do they do about ordering and receiving new stock?
The last few weeks have been incredibly stressful for these businesses. Some have understandably decided that they will close temporarily. It’s a traumatic decision for any retailer selling fabric. Their livelihoods are at risk, and almost all fabric shops in high streets are micro-companies, often run by one of two people. They work on tight margins and any interruption in business can be catastrophic.
When this is over we must support these small businesses, go into their shops regularly and buy from them.
What about online fabric shops?
Others, like Simple Life Fabrics, are online only. I don’t have a physical shop. It’s easier for me but that doesn’t mean that things are all plain sailing for people running online-only businesses.
I can walk once per day to the Royal Mail depot to post orders. Others cannot do this because they live too far away. Yes, they can send via couriers who will collect but this can be expensive for them and means that they must change the business processes they have honed over many years.
I can receive fabric orders from wholesalers whenever they are sent – others cannot. And many wholesalers are now insisting that you must receive orders on their terms; you cannot specify a delivery time or date. Others still have family obligations and health issues that mean it’s just too risky or impractical for them to continue as normal.
Wholesalers are closing because of the virus and manufacturers are not working at full capacity – this is creating delays in the system, which means even online shops can’t secure the fabric as fast as they used to.
Simple Life Fabrics and many others may seem unaffected, but there are serious and stressful issues we are grappling with every day.
Once this is over we must support all online businesses and buy from them regularly.
What does all this mean for you as a fabric buyer?
At the moment there is only a small change. Some of your usual shops have closed, but many others are still open and sending orders.
Much depends on how long the Coronavirus crisis continues.
The longer it goes on for the more likely it is that fabric supplies will run low. If it lasts for six months, the interruption in manufacturing will start to hit. Wholesalers will not be able to get the fabric in and all fabric shops will be hit.
You will see less fabric for sale and more online shops will close.
What about Simple Life Fabrics?
I am determined to continue as normal – I will do everything humanly possible to make sure that I deliver exactly the same service in exactly the same timescales. It has become a mission for me. I am utterly focused on delivering for you. I'm totally committed because I know how important creating and making is in the lives of so many people; how much joy fabric can bring and what it means to you - and to me - especially at this most difficult of times.
But in the end, I don’t know - any more than anyone else - what the future holds.
But I do know that if we all support each other, be kind to each other, we can ride out this storm and come out the other end stronger, closer and more resilient than ever before.
Stay safe and please take care of yourself.