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Readers,

Do you subscribe to swatching services from fabric vendors?

If you do, do you buy much fabric or use the matching service for coordinating thread, linings, interfacings or buttons?  Do you spend enough to qualify for discounts on future purchases or earn a free extension of your subscription?

Do you find that the services seem to know your coloring, tastes, and lifestyle, simplify your shopping, and help you move straight to sewing items for the coming season’s wardrobe?

And then do you follow through and sew those clothes?

I’ve been thinking lately about swatching services, because I subscribe to two:  Sawyer Brook’s Distinctive Touch and Vogue Fabrics by Mail. My six-month Distinctive Touch subscription just ended, as a friendly notice recently reminded me:

Distinctive Touch’s more or less monthly envelopes of 20 swatches have been a bright spot among the bills and flyers in our postal haul.

Sawyer Brook’s Fall III 2018 swatch collection

Likewise, Vogue Fabrics by Mail’s appearance in our mailbox six times a year is cause for a little celebration. Each mailing brings about 50 swatches to be pasted, taped, or stapled into a catalogue designed around a theme. Vogue’s fall swatch collection theme was pirates–female pirates, to be precise. 

(Don’t ask me to explain what pirates have to do with bottom-weight stretch wovens; I really don’t know.)

Swatches automatically prompt thoughts of possibility, and now I’m thinking that has been their greatest virtue for me.

Being in a city–no, an entire state!–without a comprehensive fashion-fabric store is far from ideal, especially after I was spoiled for choice for 25 years at the fabulous Treadle Yard Goods in St. Paul, Minnesota.  Now that going to a fabric store is a rare treat I find it’s easier to succumb to the enticements of swatching services.

Only some of the many swatches from Vogue Fabrics by Mail Fall catalogue.

But the fact of the matter is, in the 4 1/2 years I’ve been living in this fabric desert  I haven’t bought anything from a swatching service. Possibilities are fine, daydreams are fine, but nothing has fired my imagination to the point where I actually placed an order.

So I started thinking more about swatching.

How did various little bits of fabric arrive in my sewing room, anyway?

And how many of those samples led to a purchase and eventually to realizing an idea? This was very interesting to think about.

I reacquainted myself with the contents of my two boxes of swatches. And I came up with a fresh perspective on swatching.

I’m not going to renew my subscriptions to these swatching services, and now I know why. When I think of all the factors that have to combine to make a fabric right for me, it’s increasingly unlikely that a preselected assortment will yield many winners.

Vogue Fabrics presents collections of fabrics coordinated by color and pattern six times a year.

Every fabric has a multitude of characteristics:

  • color
  • color contrast
  • color brightness or mutedness
  • texture
  • fiber content
  • pattern
  • sheen
  • weight
  • drape
  • hand
  • weave or knit

The main characteristic that knocks so many fabrics out of the running for me is color. Warm colors look better on me, eliminating almost all the cool colors right from the get-go. Black looks harsh on me now, so fabrics with more than a little black in them are out.

The next big eliminator is probably contrast. If the contrast is much more or less than my contrast, it’s not a good match.

Next is probably pattern, which includes the elements of color, shape, and scale. Most patterns fall by the wayside because one of these factors is not a good fit.

And so on: I admire a fabric for its color–but wish it were a different weight. I like the texture–but wish it didn’t have scratchy wool fibers in it.

Once in a while a fabric does tick all the boxes but I don’t love it enough to commit to learning to work with it, or I don’t have coordinates for it.

Till now I hadn’t realized how out of sorts this winnowing process leaves me. I feel like a finicky cat turning up my nose at every tempting morsel. I’m dissatisfied with the swatches, but equally dissatisfied with myself for being dissatisfied!

With this scenario repeating itself month after month, you’d think I’d finally get the message:

If I want fabrics that suit me, the starting point can’t be an average of thousands of customers and what the fabric vendors think they can sell in enough quantities to make their service profitable. The starting point has to be me.

And so I’m better off inventing my own swatch service for my one and only customer: myself.

I could track this customer’s preferences for colors and patterns; fibers and textures; and what fabrics, buttons, and patterns she wants to combine for which seasons and occasions. I would alert her to fabrics only when I found any that met all of her specifications.

I’d watch for interesting fabrics that might fall outside her present requirements but pull her forward–maybe even toward dusting off her serger and learning to use it!

On behalf of my only customer I wouldn’t hesitate to pay what most online vendors charge for individual swatching.

And on my travels I’d browse fabric stores, finger the yardage, and swatch for my customer in person.

Prepackaged swatch catalogues, it turns out, just don’t work for this persnickety customer of mine. So I will let her subscriptions lapse and reallocate the money for online individual swatch requests.

But if ever a fashion fabric store opens again in central Ohio, guess who will be vying to be first in the door.