Sunday, July 19, 2020

But what you don't get is

I was going to talk about teaching but right now teaching has become a lightning rod in my nation as everyone seems to weigh in on what we should do with school buildings reopening for the fall and I just, I just, I'm tired. I know what I think, I know what I want for my family, and I also know full well that the handbasket this country is sitting in is going straight to hell and does not care a whit what I think.

So I'm going to talk about when I worked at Cloth World, which doesn't exist anymore but was transformed into one of those big box crafting stores. Back then, fabric was the majority of what was sold, and the current mutation is mostly craft kits, cheap crap from China, and polar fleece.

Things the outside observer might not have understood about what was entailed in this just-above-minimum-wage job:

*You had to be really good at fractions and quick mental math. This was before the little sku gun that did the multiplication for you. 3 and 7/8 yards at $5.89? Do it. I learned all my fractional equivalents of decimals at that job.

*You had to understand fabric. Plaids are cut differently than other wovens. Knits have to be matched up in the corners first. Jute burlap has to have a thread pulled, you have to spread out the fluff on fake fur. And velvet? You rip that shit. It's awesome to watch a customer nearly faint as you rip $40/yard velvet in front of them.

*You had to be able to read and understand the intricacies of sewing patterns. This means not only knowing the difference between a georgette and a challis, but also fabric width and shrinkage and grain and interfacing and buttons and zippers and thread.

*You had to kill a lot of bugs.

*You had to understand a variety of repair jobs. Car headliner. Upholstery. Clothing. Quilts. Heirlooms.

*You had to have soft skills, too. How to praise someone on their choices or how their quilt was coming along. How to advise the mom who plans on making a halloween costume and has arrived at your store on October 27 with a vampire-to-be.

*You had to be quick on sales days, which of course is any retail job. But fabric is different, perhaps a little like dressing room work, or a deli, in that you have to portion off a part of the item and then put the rest back. You learned tricks, like that you could count on a bolt's folds to see how many yards were left before you unraveled the whole thing and found out you were two yards short of the ten you needed.

I go to the big box fabric store these days and I find that many of these skills are no longer required. It is assumed that the customer knows what she needs and advice is not given, or perhaps not even known. Fabric is limited, and I watched a young woman at the cutting table cut a plaid homespun fabric without lining up the stripes and I had her cut it again for me. "We don't do it that way," she apologized. "We just cut and go."

I only worked at Cloth World for 7 months, quitting right before the Christmas rush in preparation for apprentice teaching the following spring (and I didn't want anything to do with a Christmas rush). I learned a lifetime's worth of fabric and sewing knowledge in that 7 months, however. I am going to go ahead and say that this probably isn't true anymore. Just cut and go.


  1. Oh, I love this, both because I have spent a lot of time in cloth stores over the years. And yes, to watch someone tear the fabric always amazed me - I knew it was right, I just knew I'd never be brave enough.

    And the fractions made me laugh - metric is just easier. lol But what a skill to have. I'm jealous. (Have you ever seen the British game show, Countdown? You'd ace it.)

  2. This made me a little sad--it feels like our world is continually being dumbed-down. And/or that we're not willing to recognize and pay for quality (either of people, or goods).

    At the same time, I--who knows nothing about sewing or fabric--found all the details fascinating. I am in awe of people who have these types of skills. If an apocalypse were to occur, I would be wandering around naked and hungry, unlike the farmers and tailors.

  3. Very fascinating. My first job was in the fabric/sewing department of a Ben Franklin Five and Dime store. I didn't know any of that, including fractions -- or if I did I have long forgotten.