Hello Friends, I had gotten to know Nancy from New York after she commented on my 2014 Christmas post. You can read more about it here. Upon further correspondences with Nancy, I found out that Nancy is one of the earliest woman quilt shop owners in America. I am so excited that she graciously wrote her story to share with the Ivory Spring readers. A huge thank you to Nancy for sharing her quilting history with us!
[Note: Pictures inserted are mine to break up the text. But for once, I would like you to ignore the pictures, and focus on the text. :)]
Now, go grab a cup of coffee or tea, and and come back to enjoy Nancy’s story! Be sure you read the entire story – that old man in the story was such a sweet dear!
And here’s Nancy recounting her story for us…
Years ago my friend and I wanted to open a Fabric Shop. Back then women did not own fabric shops, meaning that the entire fabric industry was only led by men. If a women was involved in textiles, years later they could only work in textile mills such as a men’s shirt factories etc. In the early day’s of my life I made my own clothes and my children’s clothes.
Now as an old gal 75 years young I cannot recall my actual quilt shop opening date. It was so long ago. That info is now boxed up in my attic. What is more important is the difficulty on how women were treated in the NYC textile district in the earlier days. Today that has changed.
Years ago I met a friend who loved to sew and our friendship developed due to our sewing interests. Much later down the line she noted that she would like to open a fabric shop, and she asked me if I was interested. We had women friends who own businesses in our town. They encouraged us to take on the idea.
New York City was only 2 hours or less from where we lived. My friend and I hopped on a bus and went into the Textile District in NYC several times. Our first wish was to select clothing fabrics. Few folks were quilting in this time frame. If they were quilting they most likely were using any cotton cloth they could get their hands on. Eventually we opened up our fabric shop, having to jump through many hoops to get it open. Our first fabrics were clothing textiles. Followed up much later with the old fashion quilting calico’s as shown below. The first lesson we learned “women were not suppose to be in the textile industry”. We were told time and time again it was a “men’s business”. We should go home and sew.
Well we opened up our quilt shop eventually. First with dress goods and later we added quilting fabrics. But not with ease. The colored fabrics below were called Calico’s. This grouping was called “poison green”. It was produced by a company named Ely Walker. The company would use the same print styles again and again in different colorations.
Later they included more quilt prints and colors. Such as mustard yellows, deep turkey reds, bright yellows, orange reds, normal greens, royal blues etc. All fabric bolts were small. These calico’s were made with a “very narrow” width. It would be folded in half and placed on an 18″ bolt. For every color they all had the same print designs.
One had to wash these early Calico’s independently from other fabrics because many of the dyes would run. The above fabric prints were also sensitive to the sun which created a lot of work before and after making a quilt.
Within the Ely Walker business was a David Walker who was the great-grandfather of President George Herbert Walker Bush. Later Burlington Industries took over the Ely Walker company in 1954. Down the line the old Ely Walker prints began to show up in the fabric industry once again.
Those of us who started to quilt in the 1960’s and 1970’s desired these prints because they were happy colors and historical. Quilters would travel far and wide to get them. We placed these quilting goods in our fabric shop. The original Ely-Walker Dry Goods Company called it Quadriga Cloth previous to being taken over by the Burlington Company. This cloth always had distinct patterns and the weave was very different compared to what we have today. The fabric would shrink when washed.
Below I tell the story of my friend and I opening up a Fabric Shop in an small village in Upstate NY. We had a dream! We loved to sew! Let’s open a fabric shop! Sounds simple. It was not easy. Initially it was a nightmare.
My partner and I made numerous trips to the Textile District in New York City. We would knock on Showroom doors and tell our story. We were politely told “over and over again” to go back home and sew! The textile industry was for only men. We were told “Only men owned fabric shops” which they did at that particular time. We were thrown out from several textile places over time. It was discouraging. We made one last trip to NYC and were thrown out again. Being physically exhausted we sat on a park bench, emotionally depleted. While sitting my friend said “Lets try one more place.” I noted I was ready to throw in the towel. I was tired of being put down. She kept pressing, and yes we went to one more company.
This company was a back street location that looked shabby and there was a tiny fabric sign hanging over a dark door. We opened the door having to climb up a long stairway. Which by the way had only one small ceiling light. I stopped dead in my tracks and said “This is NYC and I’m not going up to the top of those stairs.
My friend and I chatted and when we got to the top of the stairs we knocked on an old antique wooden door. A women yelled “We are closing.” Quickly followed up by a Man’s voice saying “Let them In”! We looked at each other and carefully opened the door. An elderly man came out and said, “What can I do for you ladies?” He led us to his office. We told him our story. When he sat down behind his desk he shook his head from side to side and said “This industry has to change for the better!” This gentlemen had to be in his late 70’s or more. He noted that he had beautiful fabrics and that he did. He must have rented that spot years ago and never removed himself from this old area.
He suggested if we opened a fabric shop we had to purchase fabrics that were special and unique that no other fabric shops had in our local area. He asked how much money could we put out? We knew that we could not afford his fabrics as a start up. He said, “Don’t worry. Take a look at my fabrics and put the ones you like aside.”
Well, we lived in a historical small town in upstate NY. Could we sell these fabrics? He said mostly likely we could and, “I have an idea.” He told us that he was ashamed of the men who worked in the textile district, noting that old habits had to die in the textile industry. Sadly today I cannot grasp his name too many years have gone by.
Back then most bolts held 20 to 25 yards per bolt. He asked us how much yardage we wanted for each bolt. Other companies would not cut the bolts down. If one made a mistake on a bolt of fabric they would have to eat it.
We reviewed his fabrics and set them aside as suggested. He looked at us and said: “I will ship those fabrics and I will not send you a bill. Pick out what you want and how many yards you want on your bolts. I will ship it to you and you can send me payments at your discretion. This will help you get up on your feet.” He noted that we seemed to be responsible ladies and the deal was sealed with a handshake. That could not happen in 2015. Start-up’s need thousands of dollars.
Back home we had rented a small room behind a popular gift shop. We had a grand opening with about 20 bolts, beautiful ribbons, buttons, zippers and pattern companies. When we had our Grand Opening our two husbands were outside leaning on a parking meter, not believing that we would have a grand opening, with barely any goods. Never underestimate the power of women. Locals showed up and they spread the news.
We called our shop the Buttonhole because we were so tiny. My partner and I worked for 5 years without a paycheck. All funds went back into new fabric and supplies. Basically it was a labor of love. Thankfully our husbands had good jobs and this was why we could do the above.
The front gift shop eventually closed and we had a chance to rent the larger areas in the building. The building was a four story historical building on the NYS Historical List. We taught sewing classes and eventually sold Bernina sewing machines. Eventually a Quilt Guild was started in our area and they were asking for calico’s like shown above. Down the line we did Quilt Shows and more ladies came into the shop.
Approximately 10 years later, The American University of Women acknowledged our business. They recognized that we were women who broke the glass ceiling. They requested our story, and we were told that it was placed in a box buried at the NYS Senate House to be opened in a hundred years.
Now as an elder, many of my former customers are still talking about the Buttonhole when we bump into each other in a modern quilt store or at local Quilt Retreats. They still say they miss our shop which is lovely to hear. Quilting brings much into ones life! New friends, helping hands, generous hearts, shared skills, joyous laughter and pleasant thrills!
With the onset of computers and women like Ivory Spring, I do have to say that I totally love her site stories, seeing her marvelous quilts and reading her gentle stories. She has personally chosen to live close to the earth and sincerely knows what really counts in life. She also knows a lot about American History and yes, I will be making her recent pie recipe….The Martha Washington Pie. It was George’s favorite birthday pie!
Happy Quilting To All!
I hope you have enjoyed Nancy’s inspiring and very sweet story. I hope you will leave in the comment section a few words of appreciation for Nancy, and thank her for sharing her story with us. You may click here in case you are wondering about George Washington’s birthday pie.