Sew What? Why D.C.’s indie crafters still have to go to the ’burbs for fabric

In a Material World: Allison Lince-Bentley opened Bits of Fabric to meet rising demand for raw crafting materials.
Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

To get to the District’s only fabric store, you must walk through a metal gate, past two buzzers, and up a narrow set of carpeted stairs, into two crammed room above a McDonald’s. The store has a limited selection, with pieces of gently used fabric at prices that match their secondhand nature. Material hangs from posts made of plastic tubing, an odd assortment of textures and patterns. Plastic bags full of thread are sorted by color, and piled on plastic bins. Mismatched glass jars full of buttons sit on a windowsill, and a stack of vintage sewing magazines lays on a folding table near the door. It’s an unorthodox setup.

The Adams Morgan shop is a collaboration between the Bits of Thread sewing studio and Scrap D.C., a local nonprofit that rescues potentially useful arts and craft supplies headed to the dump. It’s an amazing example of creative reuse, but with most of the fabrics cut into lengths too short for a dress, it’s not the ideal resource for an aspiring seamstress. Yet in a city so full of makers and craftsters, this tiny room of off-cuts is pretty much all we’ve got.

Crafting is on the rise, both nationally and in D.C. Locally, crafting culture has two key elements in place: people with the itch and time to create, and people with the money to buy their creations. What it doesn’t have is a third essential ingredient: raw materials. After years of decline during which fabric stores ran for the suburbs, demand is back. The stores aren’t, thanks to high rents and online competition. But that might change.

Allison Lince-Bentley, who owns Bits of Thread, has watched the sewing scene grow quickly over the past five years. When she and a friend started a local sewing lounge in late 2008, there were about six people at the first event. “By the second event it was 30 people, and by the next month there were 30 people on the waiting list,” she says. “There was a huge response.” Lince-Bentley initially offered classes at the Sitar Arts Center in Adams Morgan, then began private lessons. She grew into the studio space on Columbia Road in November 2010. At first, her beginners classes were most popular. Now, she teaches a solid cadre of advanced sewers, and the classes regularly sell out. One upcoming workshop has room for eight students—and there are dozens more waiting for an opening.

Lince-Bentley attributes the growth “partly thanks to the whole DIY movement,” she says. “But also, Project Runway is huge. I think those shows have gotten people inspired and boosted the status of sewing.” All these sewers have one question, Lince-Bentley says. “Three times a day, four times a day people ask me, ‘Where do you buy fabric?’”

Lacking a local supplier, crafty D.C. residents have two choices: the suburbs or the Internet. Joann, Michaels, and A.C. Moore are the big-box outlets that dominate the craft market nationwide, and all have locations in Maryland and Virginia. Hancock Fabrics is another popular national chain, but its local stores are miles from the District. There are stores specializing in African and Indian fabrics in Wheaton, Langley Park, and other suburbs. Without a car, though, they’re not easily accessible.

The scene wasn’t always so bleak for local sewers. There was G Street Fabrics, founded back in 1942 on G Street NW. But the shop, despite its name, bailed on the District in 1983; it now has branches in Rockville, Centreville, and Falls Church. Haute Fabrics, based in Marshall, Va., had a Georgetown location, which is now temporarily closed. Exquisite Fabrics, also once in Georgetown, closed in March. Stitch DC, which sells yarn and quilting fabrics, had locations in Georgetown and on Capitol Hill. Both are now closed, and the store has relocated to Tenleytown.

G Street president and CEO Joel Greenzaid, a veteran of the textile business, says the decades-long slump of maker culture prompted the industry’s move out of the city. “There’s less fabric stores in general, because there’s less people sewing. Usually a few great stores in one metro area services a sewing community,” he says. “You have to have the demographics and the density to support a fabric store.”

You’d think the District would have enough demand to lure a fabric store. Interest in making is definitely on the rise, as evidenced by the popularity of the annual Washington City Paper-sponsored Crafty Bastards fair, the rise of the D.C. Craft Mafia (a cohort of makers who promote craftiness in the District), and the profusion of smaller-scale events like the recent Make It Mount Pleasant street market. Etsy, the online marketplace for handmade goods, has more than 15,000 items currently on offer from D.C. craftsters.

So why hasn’t any fabric retailer moved in? It turns out that the fabric-store exodus, like so much else in D.C. these days, is partly due to the rent being too damn high. Average retail rents in the District are around $36 per square foot, according to the CoStar Group Inc., a real estate research firm, down from a high of $42 in 2009. Of course, those rents, being averages, don’t quite reflect reality for local business owners. “You have some areas of town having rents up to $75 per square foot,” says Stacey Price, executive director of Think Local First D.C., a nonprofit group that promotes independent retail in the District.

High rents can translate to high prices. “The Susie Sunshine part of me wants to think that we all enjoy going into stores, but the reality is that we do have the ability to find almost anything online and make a cost comparison,” Price says. Except in D.C., makers don’t have a store to go into.

Amina Ahmad makes hand-dyed shirts, bags, and scarfs under the name Handmade Habitat. She was selling her creations at the Make It Mount Pleasant event on a sweltering Sunday in June. “I stockpile a list of supplies for ten weeks, then make one trip” to Joann, says Ahmad, who lives in Takoma Park—closer to Joann than many makers in the District proper. And for fabric, Ahmad turns to the Internet. It’s not just convenience that pushes Ahmad online. When there were fabric stores in the District, “they were often extremely overpriced.”

But online shopping can be a challenge for crafters who want to handle the fabric and assess its weight and texture. Ahmad only orders simple cotton, she says, because “you know what you’re buying.” Going by pictures alone, Internet purchases can be expensive disappointments.

There’s something about wandering the aisles of a craft store that the Internet can’t beat. Many makers get inspiration from touching the fabric, exploring how two patterns clash or match, talking to the store staff and other patrons. An online shop just isn’t the same.

That’s why Karen Klein started Scrap D.C. The project began with Klein and her co-director Heather Bouley scouring the Freecycle website for craft supplies people were giving away. The effort quickly snowballed. “We had accumulated two and half tons of stuff in our houses before we realized it,” Klein laughs. “Once a quilters group gets wind of you, you’re toast.”

Those tons of stuff find their way to the minishop on Columbia Road and a scrap store on O Street NW that sells a hodge-podge of craft supplies. The randomness of the wares can inspire tremendous creativity, Klein says. Like the guy who scored a small suitcase that once held pastels, now empty. “A man walked in, saw it, and shouted ‘Portable zen garden!’,” Klein says with a smile. “I was like, OK!” But, Klein says, “it’s hit or miss. If you’re looking for Michaels or A.C. Moore, it’s not us.” She says that eccentricity is part of the store’s charm. “They’ve taken arts out of the schools. We really want kids to know you don’t need a fortune to make art. Just imagination and the right funky materials,” she says.

At G Street’s suburban stores, kids are an increasingly common presence, Greenzaid said, walking in and getting a spark of inspiration from the colorful shelves.

“There’s been a little bit of a resurgence with some of the young teens. Thirteen, 14, 15 years old, wanting to learn to sew,” he says. G Street offers week-long classes for teens every summer, and they’re always packed. “It gives them self-esteem: ‘I made this myself.’”

And, he said, with maker culture on the rise, and retail growing in the District, G Street just might return to its roots.

“The last few years, it’s crossed my mind that it could be intriguing to be back down there” in D.C., Greenzaid said. G Street, after all, sells everything from basic cottons to high-grade pure wool, from silks for evening wear to rugged upholstery fabrics. “I wouldn’t be surprised if D.C. could use a store like that.”

Our Readers Say

<i> as evidenced by the popularity of the annual Washington City Paper-sponsored Crafty Bastards fair, </i>

Where is our Crafty Bastards? Crafty minds are worried!
There was a crafts store on Barracks Row that had a small selection of fabrics but it closed about a year and half ago.
DC has a lack of appreciation for local businesses that aren't bars and restaurants. Residents bemoan the dearth of retail in their neighborhoods but then do not spend their money on items they think are so much cheaper in the big box stores of the burbs. Also, city officials and citizens alike block the entrance of national chains that anchor shopping areas and would encourage, not inhibit, the support of small business. And how do I know this? Because I was the owner of that craft store on barracks row. But I'm not bitter. I just took my entrepreneurial spirit to Philly where they appreciate that kind of thing a little more
The timing of this article is crazy. There's a knitting supply store opening up in DC this weekend...

The Knitting Loft, located at 1227 Pennsylvania Ave., SE in Capitol Hill, will celebrate it's Grand Opening on August 4, 2012!
I own a beautiful fabric store in Charlottesville, Va. We do not yet have an online store (tho we are working on it!), but we do mail swatches upon request. We ship fabric and notions anywhere in the world! Our staff is knowledgeable and friendly, and our fabrics are hand selected and always quality. I do invite you to pay us a visit when you are heading to Monticello! Or visit our website and shoot me a message!!
The fabulous fabric store in Charlottesville, Va. is
Les Fabriques. The phone #434-975-0710. We carry all kinds of fabric: great cotton prints, fine imported cottons, silks, wools, linens, bridal and formal fabric. We also carry sewing machines by Pfaff and Brother. Our classroom is rocking most of the time with children and adults learning all levels of sewing, fashion drawing and pattern drafting. And an ever changing selection of vintage goods, linens, housewares,clothing and lots of accessories! Check it out!!
Like Libby B, and as a Crafty Bastards alumna, I'd love to know the status of the show this year. A lot of us in the handmaking community are getting very worried, as it's the best show of the year for many of us, and we would be happy to help with anything if needed in order to keep the show going!
Great comments thread -- especially useful/thoughtful stuff from Karen and Carla.

If life takes you down to Harrisonburg VA, I am a big fan of Ragtime Fabrics which is just a block from the courthouse at the town center. I go there every time I visit the city to see family.

I also fabric shop in New York City, the garment district is amazing and so convenient to the Penn Station area where the train and bus are.

I really miss Exquisite Fabrics and hope they re-open -- SOMEWHERE -- sooner rather than later.

I think it's cute that the article emphasizes the serendipity and creativity of the two venues they are writing about. But -- wow -- it also seems to me like an insane business model and not geared towards a real customer base at all. Secondhand and thrift stores are an okay ADDITION to a thriving marketplace in a particular type of consumer merchandise, but they don't make sense as the main or only option. I think Allison is a great, energized person who is working hard to improve things for DC sewists and the local fashion industry, but it is a tough world if her little quirky store has to be the flagship for DC crafts.
Exquisite Fabrics opened their new location in mid-September, in Culpeper, VA (a very cute town) They are also expanding their online presence, and their prices are (and always have been) lower than you might think on notions, thread, and the like. Some of their supplies and most of their fabrics are far and above, quality wise, what I find anywhere else, for my purposes (sewing clothing mostly for myself), so I'll shop online with them and make an occasional trip out there. I also like to buy fabric when I travel, but my choices are disappearing everywhere.

I agree with Sara. The article is helpful to the businesses/concepts highlighted by the article, but not very helpful to people who need predictable supplies of fabric. There's no garment district in DC (and it is disappearing in NYC) so it's not fair to expect wholesale prices from businesses on small, crafty purchases. Joanne Fabrics (where I really only buy notions in a pinch) is very expensive unless you hit a sale AND bring a coupon. Plus, the store in 7 Corners is downright depressing. If the "craftiness" of the DC area will support it, maybe an outlet of some kind is what is needed...but I don't see that happening if a non-profit is already filling that need.

Incidentally, if people have fabric to donate, consider giving it to the "Sew and Know" program through the DC Dept. of Parks and Recreation. That's where Exquisite Fabrics donated a bunch of fabrics and notions, and where they told me I can offload some of my excess. The kids in the program learn how to sew clothing, a great way to empower themselves.
Most of the fabric outlets that remain sell either fleece, piecing cottons, bridal and evening fabrics, home dec or really cheap and ugly stuff. There are very few outlets, of any kind, where one can go in and purchase a reasonable length of nice fabric to sew an everyday garment.
Pick up a printed sewing pattern and refer to the suggested fabrics to sew that garment. Then, take a look at Joann, Hancocks, or GStreet and just try and find one of those fabrics. You WILL be very disappointed.
If you can find anything suitable, the price may be so high that you reconsider.
The past week I purchased an 8 yard length black linen from Joanns. If it were not for the fact that I really want a new pair of pants and a designer dress, I would have just walked away. Even with a 60% coupon, it still cost me all of $50 just for the fabric. Linen is about the only real fabric that you might find in a fabric store anymore. That is why I wear so much linen.
GStreet used to be great place to shop. Some years ago they started shrinking and the selection for everyday fabric got so scarce that I rarely go there anymore. Most seems to be high end that I have no use for. Their flat fold table used to be a virtual goldmine and a sewing delight! I would spend hours there and never leave empty handed. Then, it changed. I very rarely ever go there anymore. I used to meet the most interesting and varied people there. Sad, so sad. I used to tingle with delight when I was on my way to GStreet. And, I used to lay my fabrics out on the front seat of the car so that I could fondle them at every stop. No more---gone, all gone.
Also, I have to take exception to the calling of all things that are made by an individual as being "crafts". I enjoy the needlearts. They are "arts", not "crafts". Joanns is full of "crafts" that use glitter, glue, resins, paper, paints, etc. Those are crafts. When one wields an embroidery needle, a tatting shuttle, a pair of circulars or taliors a garment, that is NOT craft. There is a very old and time honored art being practiced. They all have ancient origins, have influenced and recorded history, and are well represented in the halls of museums. Scrapbooking, on the other hand, is just a way of keeping bits of stuff and decorative fluff.
Phi's Discount Fabric on University Blvd. E. in Silver Spring is relatively accessible by car from Columbia Heights/Petworth as well as some areas of northeast DC. I'm a fairly serious dressmaker, and Phi's has a good selection (for the DC area) with both commercial grade and couture options, and fantastic prices.The owner also knows what she's doing, and has offered some useful tips on how to manage certain fabrics. She'll order what she doesn't have in stock, and she gave me a discount when I needed 20 yards of silk. (The people at JoAnn's and other chain stores can't even tell the difference between silk and rayon, and I doubt they'd know what to do with a sewing machine if they saw one.)
I have a lot of material that belonged to my grandmother, great seamstress, and my mother. My mother passed away recently and I'm seeking some place to donate this material. Does your organization accept such donations.
Donald L. Williams

Thank You!!!
There is a gem of a fabric store on Silver Hill Road, in Suitland MD. The store is Paradise Fabrics and is located at 4819 Silver Hill Rd, Suitland, MD 20746 Phone:(301) 568-5599 The store is packed to the hilt with a wonderful selection of fabric of all kinds and at great prices. You will not be disappointed.

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