I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know how to sew. By age five, my mother had put a needle and thread in my hand and showed me how to stitch fabric.
One of my fondest memories was going to the fabric department of Jon’s Department Store in my small Midwestern hometown. At age five I chose material for my own doll clothes. My mother told me not to go hog wild; at 49 cents a yard, money didn’t grow on trees.
I have scraps of those fabrics still: a dainty ballerina print, a delicate yellow and pink calico, a bold Hawaiian orange. Hawaii had just become a state.
My sewing machine came later—a Sears Kenmore model for my 11th birthday. From that point on, my wardrobe was populated by sewing projects. Creating something useful from nothing seemed way more exciting than watching summer reruns. A kindly neighbor lady taught me the basics of using a pattern and adjusting it to fit. I took home ec in high school, though my schoolmates made fun of me. Home ec wasn’t cool.
Years later I sewed costumes for the school play, my high school graduation dress, my flower girl’s dress. Years later, I made maternity outfits, our son’s baby clothes, stuffed animals, cloth dolls for our nieces, gift aprons, Halloween costumes, chair pads, curtains for our new house. In one stitching frenzy, I once sewed a mattress cover for a roll-away-cot.
When we moved to Catawba County in 1979, home sewing was still something women did. There were several places to buy yard goods: Clyde’s Fabrics along the railroad tracks in Hickory, Kmart (in the old W. T. Grant building on US 70 West), Piece Goods (near that same Kmart) and the legendary Mary Jo’s Cloth Store, before it caught fire and moved from Dallas to Gastonia.
Over time, my interest in sewing ebbed and flowed. I wasn’t particularly into sewing again until my granddaughter arrived 19 months ago. Then the stark reality hit me. Home sewers have left the building and left fabric stores on the scrapyard of history.
Thanks to NAFTA and other global trade agreements, most all fabrics are imported, and the quality has suffered. Mary Jo herself warned me about this several years ago. She helped me find fabric for a dress I was making to wear to a Hawaiian-themed wedding. “That’s the last of the lot. There won’t be any more of this made in America.”
She was right.
Sadly, her landmark store has shifted from a haven for quilters and home sewers to an outlet for upholstery and drapery fabrics and bridal supplies. Sewing has become a four-letter word: W-O-R-K; it’s something people hire other people to do—professional upholsterers and seamstresses. Few high school students will ever spend half a semester learning to sew like I did. Their kindly neighbor lady is shopping the bargains at Belk, not cutting out dress patterns.
Fabric entrepreneur Mary Jo Cloninger passed in 2017. Back in 1951, she started with a $500 loan and a few scraps of cloth and realized the American dream, spinning her idea into a world-famous destination for fabric and sewing that drew customers from across the Southeast.
I remember seeing busloads of quilters and home sewers disembarking at Mary Jo’s, the lodestone of sewing nirvana. Bolts of cotton cloth and cotton blends by the hundreds were labeled with hand-lettered signs: animals, astronomy, automotive, baby, cartoons, Christmas, Disney, floral, fruits and vegetables, sports, Civil War, religious. It was inspiring to take in all the colors and designs.
What we didn’t see back in 1979 was the coming dearth of not only fabric making, but and fabric buying. While many of you weren’t watching, hometown fabric stores died away as yardage prices skyrocketed to $9.99. So much for saving money with the old Kenmore.
If you want to buy yard goods in Catawba County these days, you have three choices: Joann Fabrics and Crafts (a national chain), Walmart (another national chain), or fabric.com.
Local fabric stores have passed to the scrapheap of Remember When, save at least one exception. Last fall on our trip out west, we happened upon the Bakersville Pioneer Village near the Amish community in Webster County, MO. I was dubious until I stepped into the seed store. filled with what appeared to be every heirloom seed known to man.
And then, eureka! There is a back room was shelves of calico in more colors than a Crayola box. Instantly I became a five-year-old again, hem-hawing about fabric. I eventually settled on a yellow floral and a blue cowgirl print that will become outfits for my granddaughter, all at the bargain price of $4.99/yard. It was a good day.
Photo credit: Wolfgang Lonien