Where to get supplies to build tactical gear

This post is sure to be a work in progress.

A note on the principles used in the selection of supply: there are generally options on where to get things. As an engineer, I like to follow a process for making decisions and this extends to my selection of where to get my materials. First and foremost, I need to get the right thing. There do not seem to be as many suppliers for tactical gear materials as there are suppliers of materials for making ladies garments. Sometimes I have to get something from the only place I can get it. My next consideration is price, along with other logistics. Much of my shopping is done in bargain and remnant bins. I recycle when I can and I’ve found that there’s a lot of material that can be salvaged from items bought at the dollar store. Following this, I shop on principle. This is my, “feel good,” level of where I’m shopping. Some stores bother my senses. As an American, I like to buy US-made materials when possible, but this is often simply not possible, especially given that this is my third-priority constraint. Finally, I shop on logistics. This is usually availability: can I use a slightly different color, can I buy it locally, is the store on my route back from the supermarket likely to have the right thing in stock, etc.

Wal-Mart

Yup, that made the first on the list.

Con:

  • When I’m looking for a specific thing, the closest Wal-Mart to me is historically about 50% likely to have it in stock.
  • Wal-Mart is really bad about labeling stuff. I believe that they have a dedicated supply chain and that they reduce their costs by relaxing labeling requirements where they can. Pick up an average bolt of fabric and you’re unlikely to find much more useful information than the price, which isn’t even labeled correctly sometimes. Don’t bother reading the labels on the remnants: my experience shows that they’re always wrong, sometimes so much so that one may think they’re trying to trip you up.
  • The store may be open 24 hours but there’s often no one at the cutting counter. If you’ve ever bought ammo at Wal-Mart, you know what this is like. I’ve gotten lucky but that seems to be the exception rather than the rule.

Pro:

  • Prices, prices, prices. Sometimes they mess themselves up with labeling. Other times they just sell a cheap product at a low price. My average by-the-yard fabric ticket at Wal-Mart is about 40% less expensive than a fabric store, even with coupons.
  • Convenience plays into everything. I live in a metropolitan area and there are no less than 5 Wal-Marts that fall close to my normal errand routes. Often, lack of stock is reversed entirely, into an exciting variety of choices, by the fact that I can drive 15 minutes to the next store and see what they have.
  • To take convenience further, Wal-Mart isn’t a fabric store. It’s an everything store. There’s something to be said for being able to pick up groceries for dinner, toothpaste when I run out, some random hardware (tactical gear projects often require random hardware), and some project needs, all at the same time. As long as they have it all in one store, or this all goes out the window.

Jo-Ann Fabric

If you’re ever going to make needle touch fabric, sign up for their email specials. More than 50% of the time, I get a coupon for 20% off my entire purchase (quick math: if you can sustain that, you can shop there knowing that the prices are 10% below what’s marked). You can order online for in-store pick-up as well, which is an option I’ve never tried.

Con:

  • Even with the coupons, their prices are high. This is compounded by the fact that half the store is usually on sale at varying degrees of markdown. I’m a detail-oriented, obsessive-compulsive engineer and their pricing feels completely opaque to me even though everything is marked. My ticket is always higher than I expect it to be.
  • There’s too much. I appreciate selection but at some point, it becomes a combination of dizzying and candy-shop. It takes time, lots of time, to go through all the options that are close but not quite right. It also takes a while to learn the planogram so that you can find things. You’ll find a similar point on the, “pros,” section.

Pro:

  • Their selection is good. It’s not amazing, not for tactical gear. If I was making more ladies dresses or children’s clothing, I’m sure I’d be floored. There are fantastic options on things like thread color and ribbon though.
  • Someone is always around who can help you. As a last resort, you can always ask the person who helps you at the cutting counter. It usually seems like they don’t hire anyone who hasn’t been sewing for most of their life. Once again, they’re way more knowledgeable about things like calico prints than different coatings for 500D poly weave, but they’ll always listen to your question and give you a reasonable answer. I’ve even had my checker give me advice on the best collection of coupons to use, although maybe they’re not supposed to do that.
  • If you’re looking for a deep selection of remnants, bargain fabrics and specials, this is the place. My local store has three full rows of discount fabrics, albeit disorganized. Their tactical-suitable fabrics may all start at $15 a yard but with some investigation and a little willingness to buy for future projects you can get down to Wal-Mart prices sometimes.

Rockywoods

Order online: http://www.rockywoods.com/

This is a very common source mentioned around the Internet in the circles of homemade tactical gear. The neatest thing about them is that if you’re near Denver and willing to put up with their admittedly non-retail hours, you can stop by to inspect sample books of anything they have. Otherwise, I feel like there are a lot of big production shops who get their materials here.

Con:

  • They’re not the cheapest source for anything. Add to this the fact that you have to pay shipping fees and you’ll be out a pretty penny for anything you order. I’d love to get into their wholesale program but I don’t order enough of any one thing yet.
  • Their website isn’t the friendliest anyone’s ever built. Finding things can be a challenge sometimes. If you’re used to shopping on Amazon, you’ll probably be gloriously underwhelmed by their technical acumen. I’ve ordered from them without issue before though, so even if it’s slightly challenging, it all works out.

Pro:

  • This. Is. The. Source. I didn’t shop from Rockywoods for a while into my foray into tactical gear; when I finally visited, I felt like I’d arrived at the promised land. I don’t know if there’s anything in the realm of materials for tactical gear that they don’t have.
  • They’re good — not the best, but good — at samples. You’ve got to pay for them but their sample prices are reasonable if you’re willing to spend the time doing research. They arrive quickly and they’re very clearly labeled.
  • … and that labeling. We’re talking, in gory detail. This is the diametric opposite of Wal-Mart, where you have to figure out how many inches wide the fabric sits on the bolt. Also throw in some recommendations and quite a lot of disorganized but still highly useful details on how to use what they have. Want to know what weight of thread you need for a specific fabric and whether that thread will work in your home sewing machine? They’ll tell you and provide you with a handy link to buy it 1,000 meters at a time on their site.
  • They ship by FedEx. This is a personal concern because I’ve had so many awful experiences with most other domestic carriers in the past. In 3 diverse addresses where I’ve received many, many packages, I have received FedEx packages before listed delivery dates just because it was easier for them to deliver early. I appreciate their giving me the option I want.

Seattle Fabrics

Order online: http://seattlefabrics.com/

I can’t tell if they’re trying to sell their wares to me or the DIY equestrian-and-yacht-gear community (does such a thing even exist?). That having been said, I do still get quite a bit of material from them so they’re obviously not trying not to sell to me, which counts for a lot.

Con:

  • Your accountant and wallet will divorce you if you spend too much time shopping there. I’m not even talking shipping costs, which aren’t cheap either. I try to limit what I buy from them to that which I can’t get elsewhere.
  • If they’re competing with Rockywoods for the De Profundis Award for Worst Online Retailer Website, the glove has been thrown. I can’t understand their navigation, if you can even call it that. To exacerbate the problem, their checkout process is through some other website that’s not cleanly integrated. My shopping cart times out after less than a day so I can’t compile an order while I’m working on projects, or at least not without writing stuff down on paper.

Pro:

  • If Rockywoods is the promised land of materials, Seattle Fabrics is the promised land of samples. I don’t order from them as frequently but when I do, I know exactly what I’m getting because I’ve already touched it. Hand is important to those who sew and select fabric and these folks know how to deliver to that. Check out their cross-product sample packs if you’re starting out: you get a variety of materials rather than colors so you know where to look. They also label their samples really well.
  • I think they pride themselves on having a really interesting selection of things. They don’t have the largest selection but it seems to be tailored towards quirky people who like to build quirky outdoor gear. Need a specialty wool-blend technical fabric? Want to build that cycling jersey from Hawaiian print? Now you know where to get the stuff.
  • They seem to want to help. It works, they build a good relation with their customer by providing information for the small-volume hobbyist crowd.

Ripstop By The Roll

Order online: https://ripstopbytheroll.com/

I’m not going to go into as much detail here because I simply don’t use a lot of ripstop. They do sell other things but those seem more of support for the ripstop. This is unfortunate because they have a fantastic website and great customer service. Their selection is carefully groomed for folks into extreme camping. If your tactical gear needs are closer to that than mine are, this may be the place for you.

eBay

I’m not providing the URL. Either you’re already eBay-aware or you tend to avoid it. Ordering materials from eBay is like ordering anything else from eBay: if you find the right thing at the right price and you know what you’re looking for, you can make out like a bandit. Then again, there’s a reason they have so much buyer protection. If you don’t look carefully you may end up with something you didn’t want and often the seller’s description just didn’t match what you want. Also check the shipping carefully. I’ve had items held up in customs for long periods of time or shipped through carriers that I have no visibility into.

There is an entire primary market of materials from foreign sources, primarily Asia. eBay is the most consumer-oriented and least industry-oriented gateway into those. I have no doubt that there is a factory somewhere that’s made every single thing exactly the way I need it and has an overrun of ten times what I’d ever use that they’d be willing to sell me for ten cents on the dollar. I’m not in that market though, for a variety of reasons.

 

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