I am afraid of fabric stores.
I am aware that this is a somewhat unusual fear. Sharks. Spiders. Speaking in front of large groups. Of course. But fabric stores…
And yet, I love them. Floor to ceiling bolts of brightly colored cloth, every pattern imaginable. Zebra skin. Tiny elephants. Frida Kahlo faces.
Shiny scissors of every size and price range. Silky ribbon and trim. Envelopes stuffed with patterns – what I imagine to be the Holy Grail of well-fitting clothing.
Trouble is, I can’t sew. And I am terrified that I wear this deficiency like a scarlet letter. An indelible ink tattoo on my forehead which reads, “She doesn’t know what she is doing.”
I’ve tried. In high school, when I had designs on a career in fashion design. I knew this skill was non-negotiable. My mother’s friend offered to teach me. Together, we made a skirt out of a blue-green burlap-y material. I was pretty delighted, and I wore it a lot. But I still couldn’t sew a button-hole, make pleats or even thread a bobbin on my own.
About 20 years later I took a sewing class in Berkeley, at the shop next to the cleaner who washed and folded my massage sheets each week. Up the hidden staircase at the back of the store to the loft above it, I sat with six other women on Tuesday afternoons for four weeks. And when it was over, I walked out with a very expensive kimono – which I wore for years, until it became greasy from the oil I slathered on my body every morning and no amount of cleaning could take it out. And no closer to knowing how to sew.
I visited a fabric store on Queen Anne Avenue in Seattle a couple of years ago. I was embarking on The Artist’s Way for the first time and took myself there on one of my tentative, first Artist Dates. I felt intimidated and scared, hoping, praying no one would ask me if I needed any help. No one said a word to me.
When I returned to Chicago, I stated my intention to make curtains using ironing tape on Facebook. My friend James was horrified. He sent me a private message saying “Please,don’t,” and offered to sew for me. He did. Mustard-colored with sprigs of white blossom hang in my living and dining rooms, one set tied back with bow ties, the other with scarves. Cartoonish leaves in grey, orange and green cover my bedroom window.
All of this comes rushing back to me as I walk into The Needle Shop, Artist Date 54 – a crazy mingling of curiosity, desire and fear.
Hanging in the windows are bolts of the happiest, most whimsical fabrics I’ve ever seen. I promised myself I would go in “one day.” Ever since it opened up across from the Trader Joes where I shop no less than twice a week. Today is “one day.”
It is small inside. There is nowhere to hide. I take photographs of the bolts. If anyone asks, I will say I am thinking of making pillows and want to see the fabric in my living environment.
This is not untrue. My friend Julia said she will show me how. And that she can help me shop for a starter machine so I can really learn – through practice and repetition.
No one asks. Instead, a sales clerks encourages me to take swatches, pre-cut and pinned to the bolts, along with tags of price per yard.
Brown cotton with turquoise doves and cream-colored plants. White with graphic grey and yellow flowers. Green with turquoise ginkgo.
I wander over to the bin of patterns. They are “high end.” Nothing like the McCalls and Simplicity patterns strewn around my ex-mother-in-law’s sewing room. (Although they have these too.) Sassy 1950’s style tap pants and bras. Messenger bags. Wrap dresses.
The fantasy returns. I will learn to sew. I will make my own clothes. I will have trousers that fit like they were made for me. Because they were made for me. I will make couture. I will make curtains and pillows. I will surround myself with gorgeous, happy, sumptuous fabrics.
I sit down in a stadium folding chair with a sewing book written by a cool-looking, hipster chick. I am immediately overwhelmed and quickly put the book back on the shelf.
I pick up a card listing sewing classes. Easy alterations. Roman shade. Ragland sleeve top. Sewing 101. “We show you how your machine works.”
Yes. But first I need a machine.
Not today though.
Today, this “one day,” I leave with a fistful of fabric scraps and the notion that there may be something here for me – a reason I continue to find myself in fabric stores nearly 30 years after my first visit.
Perhaps I am bound for a fourth or fifth-act career, in fashion. Perhaps I will just learn to hem my own trousers. At not-quite 5’3”, petites are still too long.
Or maybe it is nothing more than my Libran birthright, which calls me to surround myself with beauty. The swatches in my bag, a talisman – guiding me.