Entering a fabric store is like going into a small town art gallery: most of the offerings will not please your eye, but occasionally you will see a painting you could hang in your home, exhibiting enough gentle nuance, the use of color and skilful brush strokes that you think it is beautiful.

As a young and frugal stay-at-home mid-twentieth century wife, my mom sewed almost all of our family’s clothing.  When I was growing up, in the 1950’s and 60’s, Americans spent about 10% of their annual income on clothes. Most of the fabric was milled and the garments were sewn in this country. Today, Americans spend about 3.5% of our income on what we wear. We have closets full of items because we are content to overlook whatever pain and suffering workers in distant countries endure to make sure what we buy at Wal-Mart or Nordstrom’s looks good at the office — or at least is presentable on Zoom.

When my children were growing up in the 1980’s, making an outing to the nearest Borders or Barnes & Noble was a fun family ritual. But when I was a small child, fabric stores were our recreational hangouts. Baby brother still rode in the pram, but I could wander around, hidden by the tall bolts of fabric, like a kid in the Iowa cornfields, marvelling at the softness of a draping piece of flannel that Mom would turn into a nightgown, or the rough weave of a plaid piece of blue and green and black wool she would stitch into a pleated skirt for herself. Mr. Levin owned this shop and knew my mother well. I didn’t realise that his bearded face, in this pre-hippie era, was probably emblematic of his observant Jewish status. I just knew he was congenial and that he created a welcoming environment for this curious little girl.

I don’t have an image of the stores where we hung out during my elementary school years, but I remember the fabric. One year, Mom made herself a formal (there were still faculty balls at the university where my dad taught in 1950’s) out of a pale blue silk with a little matching handbag. She stitched up a replica of both gown and bag for my Ginny doll (flat-chested forerunner of the Barbie).  Doing her part to smash gender-based play, she also cut the hair off one of the Ginny dolls and made him (them?) a little sports coat out of a very sharp blue and red striped broadcloth, so my brother could play dolls with me too.  A favourite photo of Mom and me shows us sitting in the sun on the steps of our house; she with her wavy, dark brown shoulder length hair, wearing a beautiful shirtwaist she’d sewn of white cotton with pale blue butterflies scattered all over it; me in my little grade school version of the dress in what I considered the most beautiful fabric ever!

The family settled in Seattle when I was twelve, and I was ready to start my own sewing projects on mom’s sturdy, metal Singer machine, black with gold scrolls on it. I even got to do some of my own shopping.

There was a small fabric shop in the Madrona community where we lived. We only went there when mom didn’t have time to take us downtown to the (hilariously named) Fuxon’s or, when we were feeling especially posh, to the eighth floor of Frederick and Nelson’s, the Seattle branch of Marshall Fields, where, years later, mom bought the fabric for my wedding dress— Spanish white cotton with white swirls of thread embroidered all over it.

Mrs. E’s was small and crowded.  It had the distinctive fabric store smell, combining the acrid aroma that new fabric gives off with dust. I only remember one piece of cloth I bought there. It was for the apron I sewed in my eighth- grade home economics class – white polished cotton with yellow and black flowers on it.

Mrs. E. had concentration camp numbers tattooed on her arm. My family’s friends, my parents, even my east coast relatives, were mostly second or third generation Jewish immigrants, and in our Madrona community there were a lot of Jewish families… middle class wives still usually didn’t bring home the pay-check then, but they were all college educated and had husbands who were professors, like my dad, or doctors or lawyers. The E. family lived in the neighbourhood too, close to the store, but they had accents and had moved to the U.S. post World War II. They didn’t go to the cocktail parties or 1960’s dinner get-togethers my parents and their friends hosted. Instead, they kept the sabbath; kept kosher; kept to their community, which wasn’t ours. I may have seen the dad once or twice, but I have no idea where he worked.  The oldest daughter was a casual friend in high school. I hear she and her sister emigrated to Israel years and years ago.

The little fabric store in Madrona closed while I was away at college. By 1971, the Orthodox Jewish synagogue in Seattle was sold to the city and became the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Centre. The congregation moved to another neighbourhood, so the remainder of the Orthodox Jewish families moved that way too.

It was no coincidence that Mr. Levin, Mrs. E. and even the Fuxon family (who did change their name to “Fuson”) were part of the Jewish immigrant merchant class of the early 20th Century.  Other immigrant groups took over the small stores and bodegas, but I don’t think another ethnic group picked up the tradition of fabric shops. So now we’re stuck with the less imaginative chains, unless you’re lucky enough to be a quilter and have one of those cute little specialty shops, full of squares covered with flowers or birds, to visit. I don’t have the patience or the talent for fancy crafts projects myself.

Mom kept sewing, though, into her late 80’s. She did not fulfil her plan to use up all of the rows of fabric, neatly folded and filling shelf after shelf in her basement. That was distributed among us, her survivors, but mostly the women of my generation. None of the men and certainly not my adult daughter took any. Literal remnants of the past.

I did sneak through a chain fabric store recently looking for elastic for the cloth masks I was making, and, of course, I couldn’t resist buying two yards of the off-white calico sprinkled with orange-red and pink hollyhocks, because it might do to cover a throw pillow or two, even though those shades didn’t really match any of my décor. The hollyhocks have now joined the pile in my closet, awaiting the motivation to sew. Maybe when grandchildren come on the scene, I’ll be inspired to rev up my old Singer, but I know I’ll never find a homely, homey shop like Mr. Levin’s for them to wander around in with me.

Article by Author/s
Kresha Warnock
Kresha Richman Warnock retired to the Pacific Northwest corner of the U.S., with her husband, Jim, in January, 2020. They were happy to have their furniture set up before the pandemic struck, and she has spent the time since writing her memoir, reuniting with nearby family, and taking the piano lessons she wishes she had had as a child. Kresha formerly taught Child Development and worked in the field of Early Childhood Education. She is the proud mother of two adult children, their spouses, and two grand-dogs. She has had essays published in Eat, Darling, Eat and acceptances in Instant Noodles and San Fidele Press.


  1. Pingback: Jewish Women of Words - Kresha R Warnock

  2. Irma Schneider Reply

    I got tears in my eyes with the memories you shared of your travels through fabric stores.
    I grew up in Madrona as well. My mother essentially was a married woman with fours daughters raising them alone. We lived on 35th avenue. My mother was simply amazing. She never drove a car because she couldn’t afford one, She was a Microbiologist & commuted to work on the bus to Firland’s Sanatorium working with TB . Every night, After preparing a healthy home cooked dinner, us girls did clean-up & she sat down in her sewing room sewing on her Phaff sewing machine. She loved sewing & sewed all my sister’s & i’s clothes until we went off to college. All stylish, handfit with touches of lace trim & needlework on the bodices. We had pleated skirts, matching Tams, beautiful blouses, coats. You name it & she could sew it. We went to Fuson’s too. Mom especially loved going to the Pike Place Market & pick beautiful fabric’s for making our clothes. The vendors were ethnic & I’m not sure where they were from but I always enjoyed watching my mother interact with them. My mother earned extra money to help support us by doing alterations. One of her friends she sewed a lot for was Mrs. Oppenheimer on 34th avenue.
    My mother wore shirt waist Cotten dresses as well. She chose fun & textile speaking, beautiful fabrics . She wore the same Mother of Pearl chained belt with her assorted dresses everyday. I was lucky enough
    to inherit her belt. My mother was like the teacher in the children’s book,s. “The Magic Schoolbus” series with Ms. Frizzle wearing a different dress with patterns teaching children about reptiles, plants, & various other subjects. That was my mother to a T. I know how to sew but gardening as a child held my interest more than sewing. My twin sister loved sewing with my mother & got a degree in Textiles & worked her career in the garment industry. She is quite a talented seamstress. I get by but I am not.
    Kresha, your article brought back so many memories of my childhood & us both growing up with talented mother’s, living in an ethnically diverse & rich neighborhood. I wonder if my mother knew yours? We had many Jewish friends & neighbors. I don’t know why I didn’t play in the neighborhood with you. I simply remember being your classmate.
    Thank you for posting this beautiful story. Is this part of a book or a one time life story. Let me know.
    Very well written & touching.
    Irma Schneider. (Address below I lived in for 19 years until I left for college)
    1632- 35th Avenue
    Seattle, Wa.

  3. Judith gussmann Reply

    Oh, my goodness! That smocked-bodice dress, so like one from my childhood — an instant memory throwback to the 1950s. And, I loved the rest of the story, even though I did not come from a home sewing family. My one junior high skirt project hung crooked at the hem.

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