Note, everything below was written in November 2011 - so some have changed/moved since...
So... since I've been to a frighteningly large number of them now, and I can see that this is the topic that lands most of you here, I'm gonna give you a true garmento-style guided tour of the garment district, so you know what to do and where to go when looking for fabrics, creative ideas, and so many tidbits of info you'll never be able to find elsewhere. Here goes... and this is gonna be good... Promise.
A place to start:
For the completely uninitiated, purse-clutching tourist who is scared of her/his own shadow, the garment district is a wild, hustly-bustly, noisy place. Not only that, storefront leasing prices have SKYROCKETED in recent years, leaving some of the quaint sewing shops that have been priced out of their spots, to be replaced with peep show booths and sex shops. Ignore them, and whistle some tunes from "My Fair Lady" as you walk by, if that makes you feel better. All of these stores are all within walking distance from one another.
First stop for the newbie, and anyone else:
Paron Fabrics (moving in March 2012 - see comments below)
206 West 40th Street (between 7th and 8th Avenues)
The closest subway stop is the 42nd Street/Times Square station
Note: This store has since moved.
Very reasonable prices, and very descriptive labels on the bolts, describing the fabric, it's purpose (sometimes), and which designer used it. Sometimes the prices are downright fabulous! Here's the trick, though... There isn't very much of many of the fabrics. This place is selling the designers' "leftovers", so you can't think about stuff and come back later. If you do that, chances are, it will be gone. You can't go to this store with a list, unless you are looking for the most common of common goods. Another benefit is that the colors and fabrications available are usually very much on trend. Also, the lighting in this store is problematic, making it hard to get an accurate read on colors. I must say that the fabric is very well organized, and be sure to check the discount room to your left, halfway through the store. If you get a swatch of a fabric you're considering, you can take it outside in daylight to check it. Staff can be a bit surly, but they mean well.
For the more confident fabric shopper:
Rosen and Chadick
561 7th Ave (corner of 40th Street)
NY, NY 10018
Peacefully nestled on the 2nd floor of an office building, Rosen and Chadick is my favorite fabric store. Family owned and operated for what seems like my lifetime now - and probably, actually has been - this is a store where you are greeted like a friend, the employees are treated well, the staff is knowledgeable, and you'll find fabrics you won't find in other stores. They really go out of their way to curate a beautiful assortment of fabrics, and natural fibers abound. Their shirtings are wonderful, and their wools and cashmeres are absolutely TO DIE... Look to your right, behind the wall near the register. Check out the fabrics that hang there. I mean, seriously, have you ever...? I know! They also sell silk tulle, cotton lace, washed linen, necktie fabrics, very classy printed cottons, silk velvets, and I could just go on and on... They also have lovely ruffled organza strips attached to netting, sold by the yard! What a great way to make those puffy, lightweight skirts for gowns that have become so popular! And they have the best quality denims you are likely to find in the area. Just don't expect them to have too much time for you... they do have a constant flow of industry types to serve as well.
For the fancy lace seeker:
If you are doing bride, pageant, formal, or really fancy, embellished, formal menswear, this is the place for you. Don't expect to collect swatches here, and go in ready to discuss what you are looking for; there isn't much looking around happening in this space. They do have beautiful things you won't find elsewhere. And, if nothing else, look in their windows at the entrance of the store. They are the masters of creatively wrapping beautiful lace on dressforms in ways that will positively melt you.
For the creative fabricaholic:
222 West 40th Street
New York, NY 10018
Why should you go? Actually, you'd need a good reason not to go. And I can't think of any. Take a deep breath before entering. In this store, you will find a wonderland of fabric. A wide variety of price points and quality levels can be found here, but there is so much that will excite you. This place has got it all. The best of their selection are the stretch jerseys, the bamboo fabrics, their wide assortment of silks, the upstairs coating and home furnishing fabrics, their novelty denims, canvas and twills... and the fabulous specialty fabrics at the front of the store will excite your imagination. Expect to spend some real quality time in here. (pssst... they also have Missoni knits... ooooh...)
For the fashionista:
Note: I've been back since, and your experience kinda does depend on you "Mood"! Ha! I stick to my point about not going if pressed for time and stressed out. Those two don't go together well anywhere, but definitely not here, where you might occasionally be asked to wait while they are filming.
For your tools and supplies:
Steinlauf & Stoller
239 West 39th St.
New York, N.Y 10018
Everything you are looking for, when it comes to supplies. Interfacings, pattern paper, grommet presses, scissors (sharpening, too!), rulers, threads, chalk, special pencils, pins, boning, hooks, bra cups, shoulder pads, labels... lotsa stuff. A whole range of interfacing types and purposes. They will shorten zippers to size, explain boning types, all kinds of things. Whether you get a smile or not depends on the day. They've been in business since the 40's, and that's obvious. (I mean that in a good way)
Manhattan Wardrobe Supply
For leather, suede skins, and related trims:
Leather, Suede, Skins
261 West 35th Street, 11th Floor
New York, NY 10001
Yup, you have to take an elevator. Yup, you have to be buzzed in. Yup, floor to ceiling... nothing but leathers, suedes, ostrich, alligator, etc. Wild colors... creative paradise. Cool trims. Don't know how to work with leather? Don't expect them to explain it to you. Get this book, buy the right supplies, and go from there.
To get your buttonholes done for you:
This place is like magic. They'll make precise, perfect, factory buttonholes for you. Keyhole or regular. Cheap. Fast. I've heard a rumor that they will also fuse expanses of fabric for you (great if you are making a coat, for example), but I haven't experienced that personally. The garment center is full of secrets... By the way, I think that rumor is false.
To get your grommets done:
Steinlauf and Stoller
The woman perched on a little seat right up front in that store? That's what she's doing. Putting grommets in things for people. Custom curtains, bags and garments... she'll also replace or move a jeans button. Cheap. Fast.
For dance, swim and other stretch:
NY Theatrical Supply/ Spandex House
My ONLY source for performance stretch fabrics. If you will dance, run, swim, or otherwise require some help from the fabric to move and breathe, you can find it here. They have powernets you can use for linings that will give you the body f a rock star! I've used their fabrics for swimwear clients, and tell you, they have the best stuff ever!
For your embellishment/notions/trim needs:
Floor to ceiling buttons, trims, toggles, sequins, feathers, fur hooks, etc. Be careful of the prices, though. Some things are unreasonably high priced compared to stores just a few blocks away. Can't understand why. Look at other stores first, and only buy what's really special here.
Lotsa trims, lotsa buttons. Lettering, pilow forms, novelty zippers. I've been going to this store forever. Love them.
Why you should go:
Plenty of trims, best for the person who loves fanciness and things that sparkle!