Fabric Adventures in Beijing

A few months ago, I wrote a post about making a sweater for my adorable new nephew.  It was one of my first articles of actual clothing, and I was just happy it fit.  His parents, bless their kind and generous souls, loved it – they raved about it several times, saying it was his go-to for outerwear, church wear, and just about any dapper wear.  Hooray!  While on a rare visit to the U.S., his mom (my sis-in-law) commented “y’know what would be even more awesome?  Elbow patches.”

And thus a mission was launched – I simply HAD to add patches to my next item in my mini-haberdashery line.  I mean, seriously… shawl collar baby sweaters with little Dr. Doolittle patches?  AAAAAAH TOO CUTE!  The question was, how do I accomplish this in Beijing?

First, I had to decide on a type of fabric.  I had an idea of what I wanted, but China, being the land of plenty-and-inconvenient, wasn’t going to just have a Joann’s I could hop in and out in a ten minute spree.  After asking around a bit, one wonderful local friend offered to take me to The Fabric Market.  They had an upholstery section singularly dedicated to covering furniture, it would be easy to find something there, right?

Yeah, you already know the answer.  The thing is, everything is available in China. Obviously.  The question I’ve learned to ask myself is, how complicated will it be to find what I want?

Finally, one rainy fateful afternoon, we finally set out to the market (only the upholstery section, mind you, which apparently is only a FRACTION of the size of the entire market – airplane hangars, remember?), me with my yarn and a suede sample in hand to say, “I want something like unto this”.

I couldn’t find photos of the upholstery section, but here is a quick sampling of what accosts you when you reach said market:

In a lot of ways, Beijing can be a scavenger’s DREAM.  Imagine these stalls, multiplied by approximately four hundred, all staffed by people willing to bargain and give you a good deal.

Before I continue my story, I want to share one of the few useful things I learned in grad school and still retain today.  I studied survey methodology, which is a really fancy way of saying “how to ask people really mundane questions”.  One of the most pertinent pieces of information I took away was a summary of decision making.

People (according to my graduate studies), tend to make decisions in two general camps:  satisficers and maximizers.  As the labels would imply, satisficers look at their options in the order they are presented to them, until they see the first one that satisfies their basic needs.  (Pretty much all men I’ve ever met when it comes to underwear shopping.)  Maximizers, on the other hand, need to see ALL of their options, weigh them out, and then, based on the total selection, carefully choose the one that maximizes all of their decision making criteria. Yes… I am a maximizer.

The problem with maximizers (other than the agonizingly long amount of time you have to wait when you’re at a restaurant and have ordered your dish and your maximizing friend is still hemming and hawing over two choices) is that, at some point, there are just simply going to be too many choices to choose from.  The amount of options, multiplied by the different potential combinations, is just beyond an average human brain to comprehend.

So, if you haven’t already figured it out, please let me make this very clear: shopping in Beijing quickly turns into a maximizer’s worst nightmare.  Whatever you want, there will be five thousand stalls of it, all selling the same stuff, all approximately the same quality, for all approximately the same price.  BUT, a few stalls will have something just a *wee* bit different, so in your mind, you’re inexorably pulled towards each one, checking juuuust to make sure you haven’t missed a total treasure.  Just writing this brings me stress.  My brain simply shuts down after about 58 minutes (I’ve timed it).

Okay, back to my story.  Knowing that I would be confronted with a conflagration of fabric options, I went in with three basic criteria:  it had to match my color palette, it had to be a reasonable price, and it had to be a reasonably close fabric to microsuede (whatever that is).  My ideal would be all three, if I got two out of three I’d have to consider the day a success.

To spare you the excruciating details of my shopping saga, I’d like to impart the knowledge I took away from that day:

  • Chinese people really love velour.  I mean like, really, really, really love velour, and not just the kind that says Juicy across your butt, but the shiny, shimmery, Austin Powers leisure suit purple kind of velour.  Bolts and bolts and pallets of it.
  • Not only is each stall filled with bolts of velour (and other jacquardy things), each stall also has five million little sample swatches of fabric that you can special order to your heart’s content.  My mind was overcome.
  • Despite the quadrillions of options, I’ve come to discover here in Beijing that when you say “I want this type of fabric, in this color, for this price”, for some reason the answer is always no.  I mean, really?  NOBODY had suede-like synthetic, machine washable fabric among your five zillion options??  Sometimes I feel like they say no just because your request sounds complicated and they don’t feel like looking.  Because honestly, if I was managing a store with eight hundred thousand swatches, I wouldn’t feel like looking either.
  • One of the stores I entered I happened to pick up a fabric swatch and there it was: the most gorgeous, perfect, suede polyester in the most gorgeous, perfect, beautiful colors.  How much?? I demanded.  “Oh… THAT’S imported from Taiwan.  $25 a yard.  Oh you only want one yard?  No we won’t order it for you.” *face palm*

Finally after three hours, I stormed back into the first shop I’d entered, found some less-nappy, minimally shimmery, velour-esque stuff in more or less the colors that I wanted, and the one bright shining star was that it was $1.50 per half meter and in total I spent $6.50 for what I wanted.  Aaaand really… at the end of the day, the material worked out just fine.

So let that be a lesson to all who shop in China… sometimes China just wins.  But aren’t the patches AWESOME??

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3 thoughts on “Fabric Adventures in Beijing

  1. OK Jen you have about four months to hate me or prepare yourself or both because I really, really, really want to go to this market and really, really, really do not want to bring Dick and Nathaniel! Thank you in advance;-)

  2. So happy I can across this post. I live in beijing and am looking for a place where I can find upholstery fabric. Do you remember what stall you went to? Would you happen to have a card that you could scan me? I too am a maximizer 🙂

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