Things I've been wanting to say about Cotton + Steel
My perspective as an independent patchwork shop owner in Australia
For me, being a Cotton and Steel stockist has felt like a tumultuous love affair.Its been hard work, at times stressful and sometimes there were even tears. But when it was good it made my heart sing.
I fell in love with C+S along with the rest of you because...
The founding designers of Kimberley Kight, Rashida Coleman-Hale, Sarah Watts, Alexia Marcelle-Abegg and Melody Miller brought us fabric which was fun, fresh and beautiful, but also with a fair hit of quirkiness.
To top it off, the quality of RJR's base cloth is just plain fabulous, The quilting cotton substrate is soft, but at the same time woven firmly enough that it doesn't feel flimsy.
But one of my favourite things as a shop owner is the way the C+S fabrics released each season can be mixed and matched with ease. Just look at these fabrics from Fall 2016 for example.
Even though each designer had their own distinctive style, the collections just 'hung' together so well. This is demonstrated particularly well in some of the collaborative collections like the final collaborative collections from the team, Frost and Firelight which are due in store soon.
Just click on the images and it will bring up all the prints in these collections.
The aesthetic was realised not just in the printed fabrics, but in every detail of the brand:
- From the slick videos of fabric collecitons on social media,
- the fun and funky selvages which lots of sewists now collect,
- down to the presentation and packaging of their Cotton + Steel Thread by Sulky with the cheerfully coloured spools and sweet labels.
But most of all I just loved their fabric designs.
Sometimes I would buy in entire collections, and at others just grab a few favourites. You can check out all of the Cotton and Steel fabrics in stock here
But as a business owner I needed substance, not just style
On 11 May I woke up to find the announcement on my Instagram feed that rocked us all. All five founding designers had decided to leave Cotton + Steel; the brand they'd built for RJR from a standing start. Founding designers just doesn't cover it does it? Lets call them the Fab Five.
It was yet another huge shake-up in the fabric industry. It feels like the dust had only just begun to settle after Free Spirit Fabrics were pulled back from the brink.
Scarey stuff indeed for a small shop only in its second year of business.
Why did the founding Cotton and Steel designers leave?
A few days ago Abby Glassenberg from Craft Industry Alliance wrote a blog post about systems and management issues at RJR - the manufacturer that owns Cotton + Steel.
Individual sources haven't been named, but so much of what she was saying aligned with my own experience as a patchwork shop owner. Neither the RJR executives or the designers themselves have gone on the record, but Abby has also included a number of facts which are easily verifiable. A good example is the recent departure of senior RJR staff which corroborates the main thrust of the article.
You can read Abby's full piece here
My experiences with supply
Its been an issue.
Despite the efforts of our local distributor, fabric collections often arrive incomplete, with the missing prints turning up in dribs and drabs weeks, and sometimes months later.
In fairness this happens with other fabric companies as well, and in the last 6-9 months or so, many of the issues with RJR seemed like they had improved. BUT, at the time of writing I am still waiting on this missing striped lawn from Rifle Paper Co's Amalfi, while the rest of the collection arrived mid-April.
Wearing the cost of shipping fabrics separately to customers who purchased bundles on pre-sale hits hard.
Cotton and Steel quilting cottons wholesale at a substantially higher price than other manufacturers. In an effort to keep the retail price down I've absorbed as much of the price difference as possible, but having to ship these fabrics separately to customers who purchased bundles on pre-order erodes an already narrow margin.
The fabrics that arrive late are often doomed to languish on the shelves like orphans, particularly with eagerly awaited collections like Amalfi and last year's Christmas themed Noel, when some of the companion prints have sold out and it's no longer possible to make up bundles of the full collection.
Most challenging was the beautiful, but incredibly angst-ridden Quicker by the Dozen block of the month.
I had to sit on thousands of dollars worth of fabric while I waited for the pattern and some missing key fabrics to arrive so I could kick things off.
The patterns arrived so I finally started the block of the month program 3 months later than anticipated, and I did so crossing my fingers the remainder of the missing fabric wasn’t far off. As it turned out fabric I ordered at Australian Quilt Market in November of 2016 finally arrived in September 2017.
It was hugely stressful as at that time The Next Stitch was a start up. I'd quit my job at the end of 2016 and sunk a lot of cash into establishing my business. Quicker by the Dozen was a key part of my marketing plan for 2017.
With the supply issues it felt like there was no way to protect the reputation of my fledgling business, or provide the seamless experience to my customers that I wanted.
There were tears, I was a grumpy cow to be around, and I felt like giving up.
The difficulties went even further back than this. Only a couple of months after I had started trading in 2016, I also felt the heat of big-boy bullying tactics when I started promoting an early range on social media. This was only a couple of months after I started trading in 2016 and I think I had all of 150 Instagram followers at the time. I was a minnow as my reach was miniscule.
Even though I had paid in full and the bolts were stacked on my shelves, I was forced to stop selling it for 6 weeks, until such time it was also available for sale in particular stores in the US. I wasn't the only Australian store this happened to.
I mean seriously - I bought it and so I owned it.
Has it all been worth it?
The quality of the fabric and thread is outstanding and the designs are fabulous. Each new range has been fresh and always a delight, but also immediately recognisable as C+S.
Retailing C+S has helped me build my business so its totally been worth it.
To infinity and beyond
Will you still be able to buy Cotton + Steel at The Next Stitch?
I've had quite a few people ask me this. In the short term of course the answer is
a big fat yes!
I've not had enough yet, and judging by the outpouring on social media and the way the Cotton and Steel back catalogue has been flying off the shelves, neither have you.
A landslide of new fabric from the last collections of our Fab Five is scheduled to arrive between now and the next Quilt Market in Fall Market. I don't have room for everything, but I've already been busy placing my orders.
Watch this space!
In the last few days it has been confirmed that Rifle Paper Co will be continuing to design collections for Cotton + Steel beyond their next release English Garden.
This is great news for the brand and I will also watching like a hawk for more Rifle Paper Co collections and stuff from new C+S designers.
What about future fabric collections from the Fab Five?
Honestly - I don't feel ready for a total break up with these gals. Its complicated though.
As long as the quality of the base cloth is as good as we have all come to expect and the focus of distribution is independent retailers rather than the big chain stores I will most likely lining up with my cheque book.
For now though, there is still time to jump in and pre-order the last two collaborative collections on quilting cotton from the founding designers. Firelight is running late and should have been in store by now.
Firelight is an autumn themed collection and features trippy owls, painterly florals and acorns and ginko leaves in blues.
Frost is a winter themed collection and is due in June. I't will work for your Christmas stitching projects, but is certainly a lot less Christmasy than previous holiday collections like Noel, Tinsel and Garland.
Who know's perhaps Frost will arrive in the same shipment as Firelight. \_O_/