Shipping Woes

Dear sewists of the world,

Does it happen to you too? You budget for an online purchase, pay the high cost of shipping internationally… and then BOOM! You get hit with customs and brokerage fees when it arrives?

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I recently bought $70CAD (That’s $50US) of fabric, and paid $40CAD ($30US) to have it shipped to Canada. When it arrived, UPS charged me $43 more to receive it! That’s suddenly some expensive fabric.

You guys shared all kinds of similar stories with me when I complained on Instagram, so i thought it would be a good conversation to bring to the blog.

Here’s what I gathered from our IG discussion:

  • Customs fees are usually random, which lures us into complacency
  • Fees have stopped some of you from ordering online
  • Customs fees are generally a percentage of the value, once the value is over a certain amount. In my case, it was over $20, and I paid about $13 on the $70 value.
  • HOWEVER, your shipping company may charge brokerage fees for their trouble. (I don’t think it’s really all that hard for them…) On this package, $30 of what I was charged just goes to UPS, who I already paid $40 to ship my bloody package.
  • Consensus is that USPS (aka. the US national post service) is the best way to avoid brokerage fees, at least for Canadians. You may still get charged customs fees, but not the expensive brokerage fees.

Here’s the challenge though – USPS would have costed me $13 more than UPS. I haven’t been charged customs on my last 3 or 4 packages, so that $13 would add up quickly to be more than what I paid UPS. On the other hand, I don’t begrudge paying my country some customs fees, but I hate paying a huge corporation who was patronizing to me on the phone when I called for an explanation. Should I pay more for shipping each time, to avoid the surprise charges from time to time? 

I’d love to hear about shipping costs and fees to your country: What has been your experience, and what is your best solution? 


68 thoughts on “Shipping Woes

  1. I’ve been lucky, and not paid any excess fees [and I order A LOT of stuff]…but then, most of it’s from the UK. I’ve had a fair few parcels from the US, Oz and China, but mostly patterns, and not massive amounts at a time. I think if that happened to me, I’d let them return it!

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      1. Just a note about UPS and not paying the brokerage fees…. If you don’t pay them the package goes into limbo – not back to the sender and so you won’t get your money back anyways, even less the shipping costs. That’s what we were told when we ordered special colour blind glasses for my stepson last Christmas and the brokerage fee was over $80.

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  2. When I lived in Montreal, I systematically refused to order if shipping was through UPS or Fedex. My first time with either of them, they charged me the fee and in one case, the fee was more than the value of the package! Plus, I had to go way out of my way to pick up my packages (no car so I was using public transportation and it took over an hour, one way). After those experiences, yep, I would pay the extra money to have my stuff shipped through USPS. (It helped that my postal pick up was around the corner.)

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    1. I also won’t order from somewhere if they ship with a couple of specific courier companies (in Australia), after they’ve ‘attempted delivery’ several times when we were home so that they clearly did not actually attempt delivery. They then took my parcel to a far away depot which I couldn’t get to – I don’t drive and there’s NO public transport to there! And they didn’t put on the card if it was for me or my partner…

      Anyway. It’s infuriating and I would just rather do without than have to spend up to two weeks trying to call people to get my parcel.

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  3. I never had to pay for brokerage fees, but I guess I was just lucky. Last year, my husband ordered something from Germany using his employee discount program. When the parcel arrived, he had the surprise: $40 in brokerage fees! It was not UPS though, it was Canada Post.

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  4. I am sorry that this happened. I ordered patterns from Style Arc (delivered to US) and did not pay any additional fees. Rarely do I send things by UPS as I have not found their prices to be competitive. Plus I would rather support public mail service than private ones. I’ve shipped things to other countries by USPS and have not gotten any comments about fees from the folks who received my packages.

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    1. Sadly, UPS is usually the cheapest option for international mail… but now I’ll know better, and try to talk myself into paying 25% most upfront…

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  5. I completely concur with your post Gillian! I’ve been ordering products online for 13 years and over the years the costs of shipping, brokerage, customs have all skyrocketed. I now AVOID ordering from the US altogether especially fabric – honestly I think this product is the worse I’ve encountered. The best place to order from is the UK however – their shipping costs are often not much different than ordering from within Canada and I’ve never been dinged with extra charges when it arrives. Also our dollar to the pound these days makes it a good option. I’ve ordered from other countries and Europe in general is pretty good actually. I ordered a pair of running shoes from the US last month (case in point here – from the US) and they only to ship to Canada through Global (be VERY careful of this international shipping conglomerate!) and the runners started out $130 USD and by the time they arrived I had paid $250 for them AND they charged me an extra $28 at pick up!! These runners unfortunately are ONLY made by this company and not sold in Canada anywhere which is why I went through the pain but its a cautionary tale for sure when it comes to fabric. Canadian companies are getting more online – Gala Fabrics here in Victoria and Vancouver is now selling fabric online and their stuff is gorgeous. I can speak for their quality and service because I buy a lot from them here so I would recommend them highly.

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  6. I’ve never ordered online from foreign vendors. (I live in the U.S.). My husband and I honeymooned in Nova Scotia, Canada (LOVELY area!!) and were delighted to find that a US dollar cost only $1.03 in Canada at the time. So, being that the currency difference is mere pennies, I don’t blame you for being so irate that the shipping costs add up to so much!

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    1. Aw, lucky you! I feel like only people in the US and UK can buy in-country, and the rest of us are stuck with bad conversion rates and high shipping! (Right now a Canadian dollar only buys $0.75 US!)

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  7. I avoid ordering from outside Europe just for this reason. I don´t mind paying for customs but the amount is unpredicatable and sometimes totally random. If I order anything I´d like to know the total cost before ordering. I didn´t know UPS charged brokerage fees, so that explains a lot. But it´s still ridiculous, it´s their bloody job. Luckily, my BIL travels to the US at least once a year, so I make him pick up some stuff each time. Saves me on shipping and customs.

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    1. Thats handy! I do have an American aunt who comes to see my Granny in Ottawa (aka. 7 hours drive from here)… once I had her bring something north for me, but I feel bad asking her to do it often, because I know she likes to travel light!

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  8. I had no idea this was a thing! I don’t think I could stomach all those fees, I want to know exactly how much I’m paying for something. My sympathies.

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  9. How frustrating!! I am sorry you’re dealing with this, and that it’s something you have to think about every time you want to order online. =( Like you, I don’t take issue with the principle of customs fees, but it is really awful that UPS can take such a hefty fee for itself (or withhold your goods) without having to provide any sort of documentation as to their “inconvenience” in getting your package to you in Canada that might justify the need for any fee at all, let alone such an exorbitant amount in relation to the package’s value. ESPECIALLY after they took your $$ to ship it to Canada in the first place!! (And this post makes me even more frustrated that there are people in the US who want to dismantle our USPS–I would not enjoy being at the mercy of for-profit corporations when it comes to getting all our mail and parcels.)

    I don’t pretend to understand why customs fees aren’t applied consistently (spoiled USian here…), and I really don’t know which shipping method would be better for you; it really sounds like a lose-lose, especially if you end up getting tagged by customs. Ugh. So absent any helpful advice, I will just offer my sympathy and frustration in solidarity. I at least hope that you loved the fabric in the end!! =’D

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    1. Thanks for the sympathy!😉 I really hope our national post organisations stay strong – it’s such an amazing service to have things brought right to you door from around the world!

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  10. I hear you loud and clear. You need some friend in the US to ship the goods to you instead of the company you bought from. She could say is a gift and no duties are due. Just give her the money for the shipping🙂

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    1. I’ve had people offer to do that… it’s just hard to know if the savings would be worth the hassle and extra time for someone else!

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  11. WHAT????? Charging over forty bucks for a $70.00 purchase!!!!! WOWZA….that makes my blood boil. I agree that USPS is the best way to go for shipping. When I order something online to be shipping from the US to Canada, which is rarely, I contact them and ask if they can mail USPS at the lowest rate available. Sometimes the web sites only have USPS 2 day air shipping etc. as an option. The surface mail rates are much cheaper…but then I guess there is more ‘chance’ of your parcel going awol? It’s never happened to me, but as I said, I don’t order a lot to be shipped directly to me in Canada from the US.

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    1. The USPS cheaper rates historically have not included standard insurance and tracking, but this situation is improving. Tracking has recently been added to First Class parcels via USPS. Many shipping calculator add-ons for websites (like PayPal’s) do not have the ability to offer multiple options. Although not an optimum situation, many vendors will work with you if you want the cheaper option. I’ve found that most people usually opt for International Priority Mail because of the speed of delivery, insurance and tracking.

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    2. That’s great to know! I’ve never really kept track of who was shipping my packages… I just pick the cheapest option! I’m defintely learning from the comments here that it’s worth sticking with USPS!

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  12. I order quite a bit from the U.S. and use mostly USPS if I’m having them shipped to my home. I won’t use courier company unless I see the brokerage fee up front – I hate surprises. I am also very fortunate to live close to the U.S. border so I often have parcels sent to a UPS store just a few minutes over the border. There is a flat rate of $5 US for the service on parcels up to a certain weight (which I can’t remember but I rarely get charged more than $5). This works great for me because a lot of U.S. online retailers ship free in the U.S. so I just end up paying the $5.

    I always declare these purchases when I come back across the border and I would say for the last 2-3 years I have been sent in to pay taxes and fees only a couple of times. I have often brought back purchases totaling in the $100 range and have been waived through customs.

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    1. How handy to be right near the border! I’m a good few hours away, so it’s probably not worth it for me… but I’ll try to stick with USPS from now on!

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  13. Have you thought of just booting it down to Hamilton to shop there? If you plan right, with gas it would probably be cheaper…you might just have to buy a bunch all at once to make it worth the drive? Screw shipping. Like I’ve mentioned before, I avoid US, or international unless I’m looking for something VERY specific, then I use the PO box.

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    1. I do shop locally most of the time, even though it always means 30-60 minutes driving each way… this was actually my oder for the Cali Fabric Blogging crew, so I had to order online!😉

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  14. Yes, it has happened to me. Fabricmart used to have $8 shipping fee to Canada. I didn’t realize they upped their shipping fee to $20 and on that same package I got hit with customs for a cost that included the shipping as well. I was so pissed off that I didn’t do any international shipping after that.

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  15. Gillian – To add to my musings from Instagram… Caroline over at Blackbird Fabrics seems to have figured out a way to alleviate Customs in reverse. By that I mean fabric purchased in Canada and shipped to the U.S. I’ve been meaning to contact her and ask about the mechanics of this as if I could figure out a way to use her service model for shipments to Canada, it might make a difference to my freighty concerns. This alchemy could apply to you, too.
    Here’s a link to her blog post where she talks about her setup: http://blog.blackbirdfabrics.com/shop-news-usps-shipping/

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    1. I’m pretty sure Closet Case Files does the same… pays a courrier to transport shipments across the border so they aren’t shipped internationally. I imagine ti only works because they are both quite close to the border. Hope you can get it working for you, though!

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  16. It’s always amazed me how expensive it is to ship from Canada to the US, when they literally touch each other for thousands of miles! It’s not like there’s an ocean or multiple continents in between. If it were me, and I ordered a lot of packages, I might continue to take the gamble, but if I didn’t order as often, I think the odds might be better to go the USPS route. Of course, if you paid that higher rate more than a couple of times, you might have paid for the USPS rates anyway. I think basically what I’m saying is: don’t order anything from the US until they get their shit together? (I feel like an asshat for saying that about my own country, but…)

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    1. Isn’t it silly how much more it costs to ship something across that invisible border? I used to order online a lot more, and I’ve slowed now… but every once in a while, I get suckered in!

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  17. I’m careful of what I buy from US because of above. I’m in UK and import duty and VAT are charged consistently over a certain value (which includes p&p which I think is ridiculous); there is a handling charge too which is about 8GBP. I was once hit by a company similar to your description which made costs even higher (could well have been same company).
    I don’t buy fabric or kits from Craftsy even on sale as not worth it for what they charge for postage, though the kits are very very tempting! Cheaper postage might make it worthwhile. I did buy a particular fabric I really wanted from US but was careful about value – it was cheaper to buy with all costs than I could find elsewhere. I’m tempted by the cheap patterns from the US but again postage can be high.
    I buy from UK and Europe mainly. I recently wanted to buy a kit of notions for about $25 from US. Postage was going to be nearly $50! The vendor suggested stuffing the package with a lot more notions for same postage price – I didn’t need more notions and in addition that would put import costs way up.

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    1. Isn’t it frustrating knowing that other people can get the same stuff for so much less, just because they live in a more major economy? Ugh. We do have more and more fabric options in Canada, but nothing at a bargain price point! And I do so love a bargain!

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  18. I’m an eBay seller in the US and know what a problem shipping internationally is. Canada rates are lower than most but the USPS keeps raising rates until you could scream. I only use USPS for international because the other shippers do charge much more in the long run and they tend to be a bit more careful with handling. My international selling has dropped significantly over the years due to increased cost which is hard to understand. It costs much less to ship from Canada to the US than from US to Canada. I never charge more than what the po charges me….no handling or packing charges…only exact postage and it is still an absolute shock. I will always use the cheapest method. For example: first class international is up to four pounds(in US it’s up to 13 ounces with an exception for eBay of 16 ounces)and that is the lowest cost. Then after that it’s Priority. If it is cheaper to use a flat rate box that is what I will pick but there is a different weight limit than US. It isn’t always cheaper though. Confusing, right? As sellers we also have nothing to do with customs fees and in that vein….please don’t ask us to falsify a customs form! We won’t risk federal prison for anyone! Plus the labels all print with the box already marked if printing from eBay. My suggestion? Buy from people willing to work with you to find the lowest rate. If you are able to use flat rate see if buying a few more items will change the weigh too much so you can take advantage of the rate. I cringe at the cost of international shipping and personally think the rates are crazy but don’t look for them to come down. Rates in the US have changed three times in the past year! As a side note……when using the eBay label system it costs me a minimum of $2.45 to mail a 1 ounce pkg. Yep! I have lower priced items (all w/free US shipping)and take offers….patterns for example. If I have a pattern for $4.99 and you offer $2.50 I have to pay a minimum of $2.45 for shipping!!!!!!! We are all at the mercy of a very flawed system.

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    1. I’m in Australia and I used to buy a LOT from the US and I try to avoid it now because the shipping is just out of control. I can’t justify paying $50 for shipping for a $20 item! I know the companies I’m buying from aren’t ripping me off, they’re just passing on the shipping costs, which they have to do. It also costs more to post to the US from here than almost anywhere else. it’s cheaper to get things posted form the UK, and they come much quicker! I’m not sure what the reason for it is but it’s very frustrating as a buyer and I imagine even more so as a seller!

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    2. Oh gosh, that’s all so complicated and must be so frustrating! I”m sure the weak Canadian dollar isn’t helping your sales… it’s $1CAD for 75 cents US!

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  19. Wow, that is really shocking. We don’t have fees like that in Aus (as far as I know, and I order a LOT online), and I can totally see how it would put you off shopping. I just can’t believe how arbitrary and unfair some custom fees seem.

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    1. I”m glad you don’t have additional fees, because from everything I’ve heard, your shipping costs are already high! Woe to all of us colonies!😉

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  20. I’m in Australia and I now refuse to buy from the US unless there’s free international postage (thank you Knitpicks and Fabric.com!). I’d love to buy from Craftsy but the postage is just waaaay too much.

    Australians can import up to $1000 worth of goods before being hit with customs and brokerage.

    Shipping from Aus to USA is extremely expensive and takes a very long time. I used to run a little Etsy store, but stopped when I couldn’t keep up with the postage hikes to the US.

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  21. The only company I order out of the States with is Knitpicks and Connecting Threads. Their shipping rates are the same as I pay within Canada and there are no customs or brokerage fees because the company drives over the border and actually uses Canada Post. Other than these companies, the astronomical exchange rate and unreasonable shipping/customs/brokerage fees makes on-line shopping out of the States just out of the question. I’m happy to support my LQS as I think it’s cheaper in tne long run (plus it’s fun to shop in person). I do wish I could take advantage of the low prices you can get out of the States, though. But as you said, by the time it gets to you it isn’t a bargain anymore.

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  22. I’m in Australia and try to avoid international shipping if I can. We don’t pay tax on most things coming from abroad, which is great, but the shipping fees are indecent unless you’re ordering from Asia (or books from Book Depository!).

    I used to live in Brazil and over there the situation is a lot worse – as well as very high shipping rates, most items get heavily taxed on import and can end up costing 2-3x the original price.

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    1. Oh goodness, that’s some steep fees! I used to live in japan, and it was the opposite there – such a high population density in a little country that you could get a big box of refridgerated groceries sent to you door for only $5!

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  23. Oh I share your woes here. I live on the West Coast (of Canada). Due to our “potential” postal strike which hung over our heads for months this year, I and/or the stores used courier services like UPS recently. I have found that when I get delivery via courier, they always charge customs, whereas when I get delivery via postal service I do not. It’s very weird. This is definitely a situation that has caused me to pause about buying online from outside Canada. The other thing had to do with the slow down in delivery due to customs and Canada Post this year. However, maybe enough people complained as now delivery times seem to have improved a bit. Bottom line for me is I try to use the postal system rather than a courier service.

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    1. Ooh, interesting! I didn’t notice the post slowing down much, but the fees for big packages are worth avoiding! Oddly, my husband gets records or CDs often, and he’s never ever charged… I guess the value of each package is lower than my giant fabric orders!

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  24. I too am from Canada and find shopping on line costs me double the price.But if you factor in the cost of driving to a store and shopping time, I like shopping on line. I like shopping at Fabric.com and Fabric Fairy for cotton knits that my store just doesn’t carry The prices are half ours here and I wait for sales on patterns.

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    1. That’s how I feel too! Sometimes I just don’t have time or energy to drive 30-60 minutes each way to a store, and I’d rather pay more to have it arrive at my door!

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  25. Honeymooned in Victoria–lovely. place. We shopped, mostly small ticket items except for his suit. Going thru customs before we left? A mess. I got dinged $4 on a $6 trinket. The Ex and his new suit? Declared a book, paid $1 and walked thru the stile. In his new, made-in-Canada wool suit.

    Arbitrary fees? Tell me! Think of the fees,etc., they passed up. Although that suit was so ugly, they probably thought it came from some tacky US strip mall! What a brazen, stupid thing to do!

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  26. Ok, Gillian, I’m just going to say count your blessings sugar. I live in Barbados. Our dollar is pegged to the US dollar at US $1 = BBD $2 on paper, but for all credit card and Paypal purchases, it’s $1 to $2.11. So for me, any and every online purchase is a tough decision. I have a US mailbox in Miami, to where I ship most US orders, and this is a freight forwarding service, so then I pay them a handling free for shipping it from the US. If the order is over US$35, I can be sure to be charged a minimum of 20% import tax, plus 17.5% VAT, plus brokerage fees.

    It isn’t often that the USPS rate is worth shipping straight to Barbados; but when it is an option, I also have noticed that there’s rarely a large customs fee, if any. Honestly, I look for free shipping to the Miami mail box or at most US$10 shipping. Anything else, puts the purchase at ludicrous.

    I don’t order any fabric, patterns or notions from Europe for 2 reasons – time taken to get to me (a minimum of 4 weeks) and shipping costs. So I can salivate over Deer and Doe patterns all day, but they’re not going to get purchased unless I win some money or get a coupon.

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  27. I had a birthday present sent by a friend on the states once arrive with $70 of fees attached! I declined the delivery and the friend gave it to me later when he visited in person. (It was a trilobite fossil he collected in Utah—basically no commercial value)

    I think UPS is the worst for tacking on brokerage fees—I don’t generally ship with them if there’s another option.

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  28. I’m in GB and occasionally have ordered fabric from the US, but similar to you customs fees are charged for goods INCLUDING postage to the value of more than £15. Personally I think its a cheek to include the cost of the postage in the taxable value. I ordered some gorgeous Anna Maria Horner fabric a couple of years ago to the value of about £40 and by the time I’d paid postage and customs it was nearer to £90. Like you say, bloody expensive fabric!! Trouble is, here we just don’t have the range of fabric available as in the US because I presume that’s where its often made and because it costs to ship it here for the retailers too. So that also means its so much more expensive here, as well as having less choice. I’ve thought about placing individual orders for a couple of yards at a time from the US as it would be cheaper to pay postage for each fabric than have it sent together and incur customs. I order quite a lot from Europe too but dread the coming of bleeeeep Brexit (dammit) as (apart from many other issues) then I’ll have to pay customs from there too. I think sew-ers should set up a network whereby fabric purchased online from abroad could be delivered to another sew-er in that country and then shipped by them as a gift, thus avoiding customs, as the maximum value of gifted goods is higher. Assuming that the extra postage wasn’t too much, and internal postage is often low and can be free. The goods might have to be paid for by the sender I suppose, to be legal(?), to be either reimbursed or reciprocated in kind. We should fight back😉 ! Jen

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    1. It seems most of the fabrics available in the US are made elsewhere, most often China or another Asian country.. Basically where ever the manufacturers can get the cheapest labor, with fewest safety and environmental oversight. At least this seems the case in the chain store fabrics, I haven’t yet made the leap to online fabrics yet.

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  29. Hi! Margo from Creatinginthegap sent me to this post. I live in Montreal. I feel extremely limited in my sewing (fabric availability). I would love to order online but I’m scared of custom and other fees. Reading this makes it even scarier lollll! But from what I read, I think that I may take a chance ordering from UK? Let’s see what happens! Thanks for sharing!

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  30. Hello, I live in Connecticut, East Coast USA and ordered from Tessuti in Australia on November 9. They shipped on the 10th and I received my package from DHL on the 14th, which was from Thursday to Monday! I paid enough for my lovely Italian knits to get free shipping (over $150AUD), which was risky because I REALLY need to feel fabric first. It was signature required, which I changed online to leave at door, and boom, it was there with no drama! If you are able to spring for spending the $150AUD I would strongly recommend Tessuti as their free shipping is worldwide.

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  31. I purchased fabric from Tessuti in Australia and it shipped free to CT, USA because I spent over $150 AUD. That was a challenge because I really like to feel fabric before buying. I purchased some Italian knits and swimsuit fabric. It took three days to arrive, including the weekend! they shipped DHL and there were zero problems or additional fees. I would strongly recommend them, but you must spend a lot for the free shipping. It was worth it.

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  32. For UPS, brokerage fees only get charged if the sender uses UPS Standard shipping (which is the cheapest one.) For UPS Standard if the value is under $20 CANADIAN they also won’t charge brokerage (irritatingly, they will apply the exchange rate to the value on the package, a value of $20.01 or more will result in brokerage.) All other UPS levels have brokerage built into the price and won’t cost you anything. You can see the full table of fees here: https://www.ups.com/content/ca/en/shipping/cost/zones/customs_clearance.html

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