While trade fairs remain the primary channel for finding suppliers for any kind of fabric, the sourcing of luxury fabrics and fibres has seen a small revolution over the last decade - thanks in large part to the development of web-based technologies that have integrated face-to-face contact with online services.

The Internet can assist in narrowing a product search down to a geographical area or product type, due to the increasing number of associations that are now promoting themselves and their industry standards online.

The UK Fashion and Textile Association (UKFT), for example, recently launched a database to promote British suppliers called 'Let's Make It Here', while the American Apparel Producers' Network (AAPN) also hosts a database of suppliers for sourcing purposes.

For the environmentally sensitive, there are even non-governmental organisations such as the Hong Kong-based Redress, which is dedicated to providing a database of sustainable fabric suppliers from Hong Kong and mainland China.

Specialist consortiums can provide not only links to suppliers, but also to product information, including important quality standards such as those set by the Cashmere and Camel Hair Manufacturers Institute, Mohair South Africa, or even Seri.co for the Italian silk producers federation.

Despite the power of these research tools, however, manufacturers believe they have yet to outstrip trade fairs and meetings as the primary mode of engagement with buyers.

Lindsay Taylor, sales director at Savile Row luxury fabric supplier Holland & Sherry, said that although she finds the web useful for purposes such as finding updated stock information, ordering instantaneously and communicating with clients - no medium can replace personal contact.

"There's no such thing as a touchy, feely, smelly Internet yet," she said. "Textiles are a tactile business and the face-to-face relationship we have with clients is fundamental."

According to Taylor, trade fairs continue to provide the best opportunities to see a variety of suppliers under one roof, to see and touch the fabrics being offered, and to showcase the evolving trends among rare and luxury fibres.

The world's largest textile fair, Première Vision, in Paris, attracted almost 43,300 visitors in 2011, and was complimented by an online database of 680 exhibitors that could be customised by buyers to produce a list of suppliers by categories such as style, activity and country.

Meanwhile, Italian textile fairs tend to be smaller and more specialised. Pitti Immagine Filati, for example, which is held annually in Florence, attracts more than 5,200 certified buyers and more than 100 specialist brands. Last year, the Pitti shows were flanked by online fairs through the e-pitti.com virtual showrooms showcasing more than 4,000 products.

Over in Asia/Pacific, Chinese textile fairs are numerous - and significantly larger. In Shanghai, for instance, the SpinExpo fair in 2011 attracted more than 10,200 visitors, while Intertextile in Beijing saw visits from 26,000 people in 2012 from 78 different countries.

High quality natural fibres
One particular trend that cropped up across trade fairs last year appeared to be an increasing interest in high quality natural fibres with historical or traditional values - and sustainable growing practices. These added significant marketing value to the end product in terms of the consumers' perception of its quality, such as in the case of Scottish cashmere.

Wool, for instance, is an interesting example of a natural fibre that is carving out an increasingly larger space in the luxury market thanks to technological innovation and breeding - with the finest Australian merino wool now available with a micron count (a useful measure to indicate the diameter and resulting softness of a fibre) equal to that of cashmere.

Australian Wool Innovation Limited (AWI), a not-for-profit conglomerate of 29,000 Australian woolgrowers launched a 'Wool Lab' earlier this year in Florence at the Pitti Immagine Uomo shows, to highlight the best of the finest merino fibres and fabrics on offer.

Although the fine Australian wool industry is focused on the sizeable Chinese market for luxury fabrics, it is interesting to note that the Wool Lab chose four of the world's biggest and most important textile and fashion fairs to present its new concept - three of which are in Europe: SpinExpo, in Shanghai, Milano Unica, in Milan, Première Vision, in Paris, and Munich Fabric Start. Wool Lab also flanked its campaign with a smartphone app swatch book, offering digital snapshots.

Quality assurance
In this period of increasing integration of web technologies with traditional trade fairs, quality assurance has also assumed important dimensions.

High-end suppliers such as Holland & Sherry have their own on-site laboratories that undertake analysis of the colour, tensile strength and other characteristics of a fabric, which can be provided on request by a client.

Taylor added, though, that some clients request samples sent to their own laboratories - where their own testing is carried out - before even placing an order.

The Laboratorio di Analisi e Ricerca Tessile (LART), or 'textile research and analysis,' laboratory in Modena, Italy, performs thousands of textile and fibre tests every year for Italy's biggest luxury apparel houses.

The laboratory's Vittorio Cianci, said some of the most common problems with luxury fabrics include pilling on cashmere, and sweat staining on silk. Testing, said Cianci, shows just how many bad quality products are actually on the market.

"It all comes down to money. Analysis is usually only undertaken when absolutely necessary such as for export requirements...a lot of problems are related to cost cutting and bad quality," he said.

"You would be surprised how many problems there are in the top-end of the apparel sector to save as little as 20 or 30 cents a garment where at times there is reliance on a brand name rather than on quality [...] in my opinion, however, whoever is not working with quality in mind is destined to fail."