Fabric departments

In the days before Consumerism and Product Liability lawsuits, we rode around in nonsafety carseats, and slept in cribs and playpens with unacceptable slats. Safety was all about not taking candy from strangers, and always covering filling station toilet seats with rows of tp.

Mom sewed most of our clothes, so we spent a huge chunk of our Wonder Years in the fabric departments of Montgomery Ward, Kresges, J. C. Penneys, Miller and Paine, Golds, and Hesteds. We flipped through innumerable Butterick, Simplicity, and McCall's pattern books, and tried hard to not get into trouble with the clerks or Mom. We learned the true nature of suffering without contemplating Buddhism or wearing Love Beads. We did select a lovely remnant of floral printed corduroy all in rusts and lavendars for an excellent Nehru jacket, though.

At Kresges and Hesteds the fabric was mostly large folded pieces and bolts laid out on big wood tables. The fabric smelled of sizing, the accumulated aromas of old buttered popcorn, coloring books, dust, blue parakeets, and yellow canaries. This was where Mom would buy yards and yards of corduroy in red, bright yellow, Robin Hood green, royal and light blue to make jumpers and bathrobes.

The fabric department at Miller and Paine was spacious, and smelled more of wool and yarn and well-sharpened scissors. I think it was on the fourth floor, and had windows and natural light. That's where I picked out the pattern and bright blue fabric with red and white Flower Power daisies all by myself to sew my first bellbottoms (with elastic waistband) in about 1967. I felt that the long-time clerks did not really approve of my choices, but I sincerely believed the pants would be groovy as I rode home on the bus after shopping.

At Golds you had to be careful because the fluorescent lighting distorted the fabric colors. The department had a low ceiling that tended to make children bored and restless, and moms irritable.

The clerks in the sewing department of Miller & Paine were extremely knowledgeable. They could tell the shopper how to lay out the patterns, and could even demonstrate sewing techniques on the department's sewing machines. At Golds the clerks would help you find just the right buttons and notions to achieve a look straight out of Seventeen magazine. Then you could ride the escalator down to buy some Yardley white lip gloss.

You rode up the escalator to the Penneys fabric department. Mom always had to go look there, even though she rarely bought anything. I bet it was on the third floor, because it was upstairs from the floor with the restrooms, which was upstairs from the first floor candy and nuts. Someone tried to reach over the door of the stall to steal my Aunt Shirley's purse, so safety became about watching your purse while covering the toilet seat and then trying to not fall in! I'm pretty sure it was a white crinkle-patent leather purse with a gold chain!

Montgomery Wards fabric department was a very small area jam-packed with endless bolts of gingham, children's prints, plaids, dotted swiss, and later double-knits, walling in small kids like an evil corn maze leading to a pattern book table crowded with moms and kids one step over the line from sane. Or two. It was there that we found the patterns and bargain fabrics for Halloween costumes and Easter dresses, winter coats, and flannel nightgowns. I still have flashbacks to the rows of buttons, thread, zippers, rickrack, and bias tape, but therapy is helping a little!

The Wards' shoe department was right across the central aisle from the fabric. The entire area smelled like the rubber soles of inexpensive Skips--the Wards' version of Keds. The shoes were in big bins, so you had to scrounge to find the right size. This is where we learned that Consumerism was all about checking for ourselves that both shoes of a pair were the same size, and that one was left and the other right. Let the buyer beware. In the cheapo jewelry department we could waste our allowance on John Lennon tinted granny glasses and surfer cross necklaces.

Let the kid beware. Next to the sewing department, and across the aisle from the Skips, was the escalator, fenced in with a cast iron railing with unsafe bar spacing. Down the escalator you could buy Hot Wheels, light bulbs, 45 rpm Top Forty hits for eighty-eight cents, and cotton candy. You could even imagine escape from a sewing department that seemed like a perpetual cartoon anvil drop. In a moment of incredible fabric-induced tension, my little brother stuck his head through the bars to watch the relative calm of the escalator. His head would not come back out of the bars. Firemen had to be summoned to release this Monkey Wards captive from his escalator zoo.

My own sons managed to get their heads stuck in the backs of rocking chairs, and their jaws trapped in mixer beaters. Panicking sons and their very pregnant mommy got stuck in the indoor playground slides of McDonalds and Richman Gordman stores. I probably could have sued Sunbeam, the maker of the mixer, for millions of dollars since the world has changed.

I went into Hobby Lobby this afternoon to buy some felt. I needed to cut nine one foot squares. There was one yard remaining on a bolt of 72" wide light blue. I picked up that bolt because it was easier to carry than a full bolt, and because I thought the store might give me the whole yard at a discount instead of cutting the 2/3 of a yard I wanted. (Boy, that's such a Seventies idea.) First thing, I asked the clerk if the felt was really 72" wide. She ignored me and went on folding a pink remnant, so I measured it to make sure. I told her I wanted 2/3 of a yard. Instead of cutting through the fold for a 72" x 24" inch piece, she turned it ninety degrees so that she actually cut two pieces 36" x 24" inches. I told her I was completely mystified why she did that, and had to explain to her what difference it made. I said I would take it anyway, since I wasn't making a 72" banner. I didn’t want Hobby Lobby to dock her pay, which is undoubtedly minimum wage. This is like a sixth grade arithmetic story problem with the answer in the back of the book. She never will figure it out. Very sad, but it didn't smell like either Skips or stale popcorn.

© 2007 Nancy L. Ruder

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