Talking Fabric Weight with Chinese Suppliers

When sourcing any product with a fabric component, you’ll need to discuss the specifications for the fabric with your supplier.

Two key measurements when discussing fabric are thread count and fabric weight. That sounds easy enough, right? Well, thread count is pretty straightforward, but unfortunately fabric weight is another matter when dealing with China.

There are basically two correct ways to measure fabric weight: you can measure it in grams per square meter (metric) or ounces per square yard (imperial). In my work with Chinese factories, I have found it difficult to get suppliers to commit to one system or another.

For example, let’s say I am sourcing a product that requires 16-ounce cotton canvas. A factory might tell me, “Sure, no problem. We can get 16-ounce canvas.” Now here’s the tricky part: I will then ask them if they mean the canvas is 16 ounces per square yard.

To that question, a standard reply might be: “Yes, we measure the fabric in meters” or “No, it is 16 ounces per square meter.” Here the “yes or no” will depend on whether the factory salesperson understands the difference between yards and meters. You should not assume they understand this difference.

Chinese are educated in the metric system and they will generally default to metric measurements unless you, the buyer, clarify this point. Because many customers are American, the fabric suppliers have learned to use “ounces” as a guideline for fabric weight, but often they are still buying and measuring the fabric in meters.

So let’s go over the math here. The supplier is saying the fabric weighs 16 ounces per square meter. Well, 1 meter is roughly equal to 1.094 yards so 1 square meter is roughly equal to 1.094 x 1.094 = 1.197 square yards. Let’s just round up to 1.2 square yards for simplicity.

(In fact, 1 square meter is equal to 1.1959906 square yards — but this level of precision is usually unnecessary when sourcing most soft goods like apparel and bags.)

OK, so if the supplier says the fabric is 16 ounces per square meter, we can make the following calculation: 16 ounces per square meter x (1 square meter / 1.2 square yard) = 13.3 ounces per square yard.

Well, there is a big difference between 13-ounce canvas and 16-ounce canvas. Imagine you order bags made from 13-ounce canvas when you were expecting 16-ounce canvas. That could literally destroy the commercial value of the product if such light canvas is not suitable for the product design.

One solution to this communication problem is to use grams per square meter when stipulating the specifications for an order. Since Chinese are educated with the metric system, they will understand exactly what you expect when you ask for fabric that weighs 543 grams per square meter (which is roughly 16 ounces per square yard).

Even if you communicate in grams per square meter, the problem might arise that your supplier is not comfortable committing to such an accurate measurement. Here specifying a tolerance, such as +/- 5%, is good practice. So, in the above example, you might order canvas that weighs between 515 and 570 grams per square meter.

I recommend that you attempt to get such a commitment from your supplier. In this way, buyer and supplier articulate and agree upon an acceptable range for the fabric weight. A reputable supplier should agree to a clear standard of measurement and tolerance range.

Now here’s one thing to watch out for: the factory representative may revert back to speaking in ounces later in the conversation. She may have learned that overseas buyers prefer to speak in ounces and so it becomes a habit for her. Alternatively she may prefer the brevity and simplicity of saying “16 ounces” rather than 543 grams per square meter, +/- 5% tolerance.

It’s important to keep in mind that, even if you decide it’s OK to use ounces informally in your discussion, you should absolutely get the specifications nailed down accurately with the correct unit of measurement before placing your order.

Otherwise you might be in for quite a surprise.

Designing Products That Tell a Story

Product design is tricky business. On one hand, you want to appeal to as many end-users as possible; on the other hand, you don’t want your product to be so bland that it appeals to nobody.

Yesterday I spent an afternoon discussing design with Lara Stephenson, designer and founder of Ann & Arayata. Lara creates beautiful clutches and handbags woven from raffia, a fiber from a type of palm tree.

Over lunch and multiple rounds of Americanos, Lara and I talked about how to design products that are not only beautiful but also meaningful. In short, how do you design a product which tells a story?

Ann & Arayata has a great story: the weaving technique is a specialty of rural Filipino artisans, who use only 100% natural materials and water-based dyes. By supporting this indigenous craft, Ann & Arayata is contributing to local development in these communities while also donating funds to infrastructure, food and education projects via charity L.I.F.E. For Health.

Storytelling has always been one of my strengths but product design is another matter. Talking with an expert like Lara really helped me clarify some of my thinking about design.