Cotton News and Why Fabric Prices Will Rise

One of my favorite bloggers, Audrey of Quilty Folk said, “There’s been a lot going on at the home front which made it seem like I didn’t have time to blog. Then I had too much to post about so it really felt like there wasn’t proper time and well, yeah. Vicious cycle.”

I always have things to talk over with you! Even over the year-plus when I didn’t post at all, there was plenty to say, and then way too much to say, and so on. And now there are a handful of things competing for my attention to write about. The winner this time is cotton.

Cotton Supply Changes and the Effect on Cotton and Fabric Prices

On January 13, 2021, the US banned imports of cotton and cotton products from Xinjiang, a region of China that produces one-fifth of the world’s cotton. The ban is punishment for human rights violations of the Muslim Uighur population, which the US and Canada have deemed to be genocide. Other violations include using forced labor (aka slavery,) systemic rape and sexual violence.

While cotton is a commodity, it actually has a number of different grades used to classify it by length, length uniformity, and strength. That means that different grades are not perfect substitutes for each other (as navel oranges are not a perfect substitute for seeded oranges,) but they do serve as substitutes. There are substitutes for the cotton grown in China, but because the total supply has dropped, with a stable overall demand, prices increase. That’s Econ 101.

There are other disruptions in supply and pricing, including costs of packaging and transportation, covid-19 constraints for production, and drops in cotton supplied by other countries, including the US and Pakistan.

The change in supply and resulting price increase affects the price of cotton for all kinds of goods, including fashion and yardage. Prices for our quilting cottons will rise, too.

Here’s a link to a blog post by Scott Fortunoff. Fortunoff is the CEO of Jaftex, one of the large quilt fabric manufacturing companies headquartered in the US. Jaftex contracts with and buys printed fabric from mills for distribution in quilt shops.

In the post he uses a hypothetical example to illustrate what a small change in cotton price does to your yard of fabric. Using made up numbers, he shows that a 20-cent per yard increase in the price he pays for printed yardage leads to a 50-cent increase in what he must sell it for, in order to maintain his profit margin after covering all costs. Generalize that thought for real numbers, and it means that a small increase in the price he pays leads to a larger increase in the price he must charge.

At the quilt shop, that same 20-cent increase in Jaftex’s purchase price might lead to a $1.00 increase in the price you pay, because the shop owner also needs to maintain their profitability to stay in business.

Of course we want to support our local quilt shops and the designers and manufacturers who bring us our raw material, but we do have choices for where we can get our fabrics. Stash, exchanges with friends, thrift shops and yard sales, these are all sources for quilting fabric. Clothing has a lot of yardage in it and can be a good source of fabric, too. You don’t need to be limited in your quilting if there are limits in your budget to absorb price increases.

Either way, it is worth it to me to pay more for yardage if it will pressure the Chinese government on this important issue.

Here are a few links to more articles, if you would like more information on this subject.

Reuters article from 1/13/21 “US Bans Imports of All Cotton… “ 

Washington Post from 2/22/21  “US Ban on China’s Xinjiang Cotton … ” (might have a paywall)

Another post from Scott Fortunoff, from 2/22/21 “Commodity Insanity”

Fortunoff from 2/15/21 “It All Starts with Greige Goods”

The Guardian from 2/22/21 “Canada Votes to Recognize China’s Treatment of Uighur Population as Genocide” 2/2/21 (disturbing/trigger warning) “Their Goal is to Destroy Everyone”

A post of mine from August 2018, which isn’t about this change in supply but about pricing relative to enacted tariffs “Tariffs and the Cost of Quilting”




20 thoughts on “Cotton News and Why Fabric Prices Will Rise

  1. Jan.

    I’m late to this post but some of the things I’ve read over the past few months have made me
    regret teaching myself to quilt. With businesses all that matters is PROFIT, On an online
    quilting group discussion I mentioned about the abuse and slave labour in the business.
    I was told it wasn’t true and that all the big name companies denied the accusations.
    I would never buy batiks after seeing the Moda video of how it’s produced. They removed
    the original version but the one on youtube now is still horrible.
    Patchwork is not popular in my country we have ONE online quilt shop and it’s expensive.
    4 yards of fabric is $85.00. I USED TO buy fabric online from the America but stopped
    when I realised Greta Thunberg could hold me personally responsible for damaging
    the ozone layer. Melanie your article and the links to the others is very interesting.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      You’re welcome. And yes, we are involved in a hobby or activity that has a mixed set of circumstances. Quilters do a lot of good in the world and are very generous, but we also use materials with problems in their sourcing and production. If we can be collectively more thoughtful about what we are buying, things will improve.

  2. Elizabeth E.

    I remember reading some of these articles, and remember — wistfully — when I paid $6/yard for fabric. I just ordered some on Hawthorne: 13 bucks a yard. Thanks, Melanie.

  3. audrey easter

    This was a really interesting read today! There’s so many details behind the scenes in how people end up pricing their goods. And thanks for the shout out! It’s a struggle sometimes to know where to keep the private life stuff private and still keep it real for the people who read our blogs. Life you’ve done recently, sometimes it’s better to just take a break and step back!:)

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Thanks for reading. The business end of quilting (or most any industry) is really interesting, once offered a little insight into it.

      As to taking a break, yeah. I think it’s okay. You and I have both seen bloggers come and go over many years. Not many can sustain it over the long term, but everyone gets to make their own choice on that. At this point, I’m glad to be back.

  4. snarkyquilter

    As you have pointed out in past posts, cotton production anywhere isn’t a benign process. I think it’s right to take a stand, but I think the Chinese government will respond by making a few cosmetic changes and then hiding abuses better. Price increases don’t seriously affect me as I buy much less fabric than I used to, and I use less because my works are smaller. I wonder if any of your readers have used one of the online fabric resale sites.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Production and consumption of any large-scale crop has both benefits and pitfalls. In truth, I’m less concerned about quilters’ fabric purchases than I am about “fast fashion” and all the clothing that is barely used before it’s discarded. But we waste our share, too, I suppose. I have not used any fabric resale site. I’ll look into that. Thanks for the suggestion.

  5. katechiconi

    Here in Australia, we have already seen how China likes to wield a big stick. They have decided they don’t like our wine, barley and coal, amongst other things. So far, their embargo of our coal has resulted in enormous hardship for the Chinese people this winter, who have been forced to do without heat and light in one of the worst winters in recent memory, so that their leaders can make some sort of point. Luckily, Australia produces a lot of its own cotton; whether it’s the same/as good, I don’t know, but I think it’s time we joined the US in this matter.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      I’m a big fan of international trade. In general it gives both (all) countries a net benefit. But there are times to rethink that and this is one of them. Thanks.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Thanks for reading and passing it on to her. My background is in finance primarily, econ as a distant second. 🙂 But I’ve always found the interplay of the different variables fascinating.

  6. Jim R

    Kind of surprising how the seemingly simple process of raising cotton to make cloth is tangled up in numerous social and political issues.


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