in which I mourn the decline of fabric stores

I have fond memories of fabric stores.

When I was young, my mom made a lot of my dresses.  We would return from an afternoon at the fabric store — which, when I was seven, was cavernous, full of seersucker and straight pins and pinking shears — and she would immediately get to work.  As I sorted through an old tin of mismatched buttons, creating small piles and patterns on the rug, she opened the white envelope that held the pattern for a new Easter dress, unfolded the onion-skin-thin brown paper, and began pinning flower-sprigged cotton to the pre-traced forms.

She was great with a sewing machine and smocker.  I remember one dress in particular — a light blue, puff-sleeved number with a line of swans sewn across the front.  I’m pretty sure it’s wrapped in tissue paper and carefully stored, along with an entire wardrobe of sundresses, in a white wicker trunk somewhere in Charlotte, waiting for the possibility of a daughter.

A few months ago, I dragged Danny into the Jo-Ann Fabrics next to our grocery store, looking for embroidery floss but, perhaps, also thinking I could somehow reconnect with that feeling of sitting on the thinly carpeted floor of a fabric store, helping my mom choose a new summer skirt pattern or leafing through a book of Christmas ornament cross-stitch patterns.  As we pushed through the heavy door on our way back to the parking lot, I wondered if the fabric store business had really suffered such a downturn or if, instead, I was remembering my afternoons at the fabric store through the fuzzy filter of childhood.  Because wow.  That was the most depressing fabric store I have ever encountered.

Tonight, Danny and I passed Jo Ann Fabrics on our way home from a late-night cookie run, and I mentioned again how sad and hopeless it had been inside.

“Yes,” he agreed.  “In there, it’s like somebody poured battery acid on my soul.”

Perhaps Jo Ann Fabrics is, for me, a special case, as it’s so entangled in childhood memories.  But we began talking about depressing stores in general.  I’ve blogged about the depression-inducing atmosphere of Party City.  The Burlington Coat Factory has the same effect on me.  Is it the aggressive fluorescent lighting?  The pervasive odor of synthetic fabrics?  The sad shells of overstock, second-rate designer pea coats?

All I know is that I’m going to be avoiding Jo Ann Fabrics from now on.  I’ll rely on those tissue-paper-wrapped dresses to recall my fabric store days with mom.  I’ll buy a dainty pair of Crane scissors and a tomato-shaped pincushion as mementos for those afternoons of trying on half-finished dresses, bristling with tiny pins.  Or perhaps I’ll begin collecting buttons in an old shortbread tin and break them out on rainy days.

Because really.  Who can be blue when sorting rogue buttons?


15 thoughts on “in which I mourn the decline of fabric stores

  1. One of my non-academic hobbies is quilting–and I would guess that if you went into a quilt shop you might have those warm fuzzy nostalgia feelings again. Not that quilt fabric and textile fabric are the same, but most quilt shops don’t have the cavernous feel of a flourescently lit hell. I will never get tired of the feeling of running my hands all over the bolts of fabric beautifully organized by color and pattern.

      • We have a quilting be of sorts. Every Wednesday, Eric, my mom and a long time family friend that’s my mom’s age get together to quilt. It’s very therapeutic to produce a tangible object at the end of an evening. Especially when working 7 hours on 3 crappy dissertation paragraphs.

  2. I remember well the sound of mom’s sewing machine. And the tomato-shaped pin cushion is a vivid memory. Heck, she even had Todd and I cross stitching at one point.

    • I have a few of mom’s cross-stitched Christmas ornaments and might have one or two of yours. I should send them along!

  3. I wish I had inherited Mom’s sewing ability but two broken sewing machines in costuming class at ASU say different

    • I wish I had, too. Although I haven’t really tried. Maybe there’s a sewing machine in my future…

  4. Have to agree with you – fabric stores are just lost in despair these days, they are trying to survive for those few hopefuls out there that still can sew and actually own a sewing machine but they are definitely endangered and it shows.

    The older I get the more I remember things fonder than they are/were – its ok though my memories won’t change and I don’t need to go to the seedy place they call the fabric store. I will keep my memories as they are 🙂

    My Mom used to sew all my Sunday school dresses, although my memories are not quite as fond as your (My Mom was not the greatest of seamstresses) and there was a lot of being poked with straight pins pulled from her purple wrist band pin cushion but the trip to the fabric store was always a highlight – while Mom liked the little flowers and plaids I always picked out cartoon Disney patterns (Robinhood, Mickey Mouse, Dumbo) no one had dress like me in Sunday school (but I liked them!)

    • I was always fond of the animal prints, myself. Mom actually made me a very fetching tiger costume for Halloween one year.

  5. I must admit that, as a knitter, I am addicted to fabric stores. I have a huge arsenal of yarn and, yet, cannot resist the aisles and aisles of endless colors and textures. And then I have to figure out something to knit out of all that yarn (which can be a problem and results in endless knitting projects, few of which are complete). But yes, Joann’s is kind of a sad place, and the people who work there are a little scary.
    But I love the story about your mom. I hope another little one can rock that swan dress someday. Clearly I’m not producing any females for you to lend it to! 🙂

    And, I MUST teach you to knit.

    • You DO have to teach me how to knit! I would love to join the Knutty Knitters, but alas, I am in Houston.

      And I am SO PSYCHED that you’re having another little boy. You’re good with the boys, so another is in due order. Hooray!

  6. Next time you are in DC, we can go to G Street Fabrics! It’s so wonderful and brings back the same kind of warm and fuzzy memories for me. It will restore your faith in fabric stores.

    • Bee, I would LOVE to go to G Street Fabrics with you. Did you get the sewing machine on your wedding registry?

  7. If you’re ever in Carrboro, Mulberry Silks is wonderful. I hated fabric stores when growing up, because ours was already the miserable place you describe. (Plus I hated sewing, and nothing that either I or my mom made was remotely stylish.) Mulberry Silks made me want to sew because it is so beautiful in there. I tried, though, and I just don’t have the patience or spatial skills.

    I own a Singer Featherweight that I bought online for small projects, and it is a beautiful machine. My mom inherited my dad’s grandmother’s, and one of the few things I liked about sewing was the smell, sound, and look of that lovely example of fine early twentieth-century design.

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