Attendees of QuiltCon in Austin, Texas this weekend weren’t able to buy the commemorative show pin as they have in years past. The pin, which is typically included in a pre-sold swag bag for early ticket holders, and is available for sale on the show floor, is manufactured in China where factories are currently closed due to coronavirus.

“Our QuiltCon 2020 pins that were ordered months ago were not produced or shipped due to quarantines in the area of the factory. We were notified late the week before QuiltCon that we would not be receiving the pins in time,” says Karen Cooper, Executive Director of the Modern Quilt Guild (MQG). $10 coupons to the MQG shop were included in the swag bags instead.

The MQG is not the only organization in the crafts industry facing product delays. In fact, craft businesses large and small are now experiencing supply chain disruptions due to the impact of the coronavirus. Just after the new year the novel coronavirus, which originated in WuHan City in the Hubei Province of China, and is highly contagious, began to spread.

Factories begin to shut down

On January 30 the World Health Organization declared coronavirus a global emergency. The Chinese government imposed factory shutdowns for an additional 10 days after the Lunar New Year celebration to try to control the spread of the virus. Factories were supposed to reopen on February 9, but bureaucratic hurdles have made it nearly impossible and many remain closed. Craft companies that rely on Chinese factories to manufacture their products are now beginning to experience the effects of those closures. Production has come to a halt, shipping from China is uncertain, and US inventory levels are dropping.

Checker Distributors, a leading distributor of quilting and sewing products that carries 125,000 SKUs from nearly 1,000 brands, is beginning to feel the effects of the disruption. President Brad Krieger, President of Checker Distributors says that some of Checker’s in-house brand of notions are now depleted and reorders are delayed due to factory closures in China. 12,000 units of one of those products were scheduled to go into a popular sewing subscription box this month but were unavailable.

Nichole Schneider, Proprietary Brand Manager for Checker, says the factories she’s working with in China are still closed. Some may reopen this week while others are saying early April.

“While the factory to make the product may be open, the factory that supplies the labels or packaging is still closed, meaning a complete product will not ship until all resume business as usual.”

“Office personnel have been working remotely since Chinese New Year ended, but shipping brokers have remained closed due to lack of workers to do the shipping.”

She says when factories do reopen production will not ramp up to normal levels immediately. “When production resumes, the backlog will be great for actual production and also capacity to ship.” Schneider says FedEx Air from China is supposed to reopen this week, but she hasn’t yet heard when boat shipments will resume.

Sourcing woes

For very small craft businesses not being able to source supplies from China means searching for alternatives at a significant cost increase. Coral Furrow sells handcrafted jewelry on her Amazon Handmade shop, Absolutely Coral Dee. She typically orders jewelry supplies from shops on AliExpress, but over the past few weeks, she hasn’t been able to get what she needs. “I’m unable to order my basic findings from factories in China, such as headpins, simple metal spacers, and split rings,” she says. “I placed an order, they took my money and then a few days later I get an email message saying my order is on hold due to factory shut down from the coronavirus.” She’s begun sourcing supplies in the US at a significant price increase. “They cost me 500 percent more. So my prices will have to go up and some of my funds are held up and not returned.”

Some craft business owners wonder whether supplies they’re ordering from China could be contaminated. Khara LaFontaine makes sporty headbands for women and girls and sells them online through her site, BeachGirl Bands, and on Amazon. LaFontaine orders fabric, ribbon, velvet, and elastic from China. She says her cost to source the same supplies in the US is significantly higher. “50 yards of velvet sourced in China is $4.00. That same product in the US at wholesale is $24,” she says.

Most worrisome for LaFontaine, though, is the safety of the supplies when they do resume shipping. “I’m hesitant to order at all as no one seems to have solid information on how the virus is passed,” she says. “Scary times.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it may be possible for the virus to spread through indirect contact, although it’s spread primarily from person-to-person.

Craft businesses that routinely work with Chinese factories knew to stock up on inventory before the Lunar New Year holiday. The fact that factories didn’t reopen, and now some are still closed, though, has meant that stock levels are now beginning to run low. “We had ordered shipments before Christmas to get before the Chinese New Year so we’re well-stocked and have had no trouble so far,” says Janelle MacKay of the sewing pattern and supply company Emmaline Bags. “I think it was a bigger problem for anyone who didn’t know to order before Chinese New Year and found out that they couldn’t get an emergency order after they had returned from the New Year, as the holiday was extended.”

MacKay also expressed concern about the safety of the items she’s receiving and is exercising extra precautions. “We have received shipments that were sent since the 17th, and are actually holding them for 10 days before we open them and they are not from near Hubei at all, but we just want to be cautious,” she says.

Moving out of China

When the tariffs on Chinese imports were first announced in the summer of 2018 some companies in the crafts industry began moving production out of China and into other countries in Asia. Jaftex, the parent company of A. E. Nathan Company, Blank Quilting Corporation, and Studioe Fabrics, was among them. “With the tariff situation in China, we were fortunate to have moved almost all of our production away from China,” explains Scott Fortunoff, President of those divisions. Jaftex also owns Free Spirit which now has just one product produced in China, a 108” cotton sateen backing fabrics. Managing Director of Free Spirit, Nancy Jewell, says their mill is not running. “About a month ago, we received word from the mill that they were closed and reopening was delayed.  This past week, the mill informed us that office workers are back to work, but production workers will not be back to work at the end of this month.”

Jewell at Free Spirit expressed concern about the virus spreading to Korea where the majority of Free Spirit fabrics are printed.

“Listening to the news I’m hearing that the virus is detected in South Korea,” she says. “This would be a real issue for our entire industry if the virus gets to epic proportions like in China.”

This week the US government issued a Level 2 travel advisory for South Korea. 

The reality is that manufacturing today for many craft companies involves a complex, interdependent supply chain coming from more than one country. Ehsan Alipour, Founder and CEO of Oliso, a popular iron company, says that although their irons are manufactured in China, “it’s all interdependent. We have component electronic parts in our products coming from Korea. We’re keeping our eye on transportation, shipping, and labor. There are so many factors.” Still, Alipour says, now is no time to be pushy. “It’s a time for sympathy. A time to be patient, to reach out and offer help where we can.”

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