In February the Bay Area sewing community was shocked to hear that Stonemountain & Daughter Fabrics was going to stop offering sewing classes at the end of June. This great store had offered classes for two decades. Owner Suzan Steinberg made this momentous announcement on her Fabric Lady blog. You can read that post here.
As the news about Stonemountain’s classes gradually spread, I could tell from conversations I had with a few people at Bay Area Sewists meetups (I’m the organizer of this Meetup group), that there was some confusion about why the decision was made and what it meant for the future of the store. So I decided to go directly to the source and interview Suzan. After our phone interview concluded, she also sent me these two paragraphs about the store, which will give you some sense of its history:
Our family has been in the fabric business for nearly 100 years and in our current incarnation since 1981. My Dad and I are third and fourth generation! You may look around your home and see a little bit here and there from Stonemountain – in your closet, curtains, quilts, crafts & more. We cater to the creative community – serving the crafter, quilter and garment maker with a wide variety of fabrics, patterns, buttons and sewing notions.
Twenty years ago I dreamed of teaching classes here at Stonemountain & Daughter in our upstairs discount fabric room. 1996 was a sewing school desert in the bay area. Since we began our school, I have been blessed to see it grow into one of the most successful in-store sewing schools in the country: a place to come and learn how to sew, design and play with our amazing fabric while growing our sewing community. Our classes have helped Stonemountain & Daughter Fabrics survive by teaching the next generations how to create and use the fabric they love!
C Sews: In a March blog post on your Fabric Lady blog, you said that you came to this decision based on “looking at ALL current economic realities, long-term trends heading our way, the vast amount of time it takes to schedule, produce and administrate the classes, and the great benefits of selling fabric in the upstairs bargain room.” Can you please expand on that?
Suzan Steinberg: There are many things going on in the world, especially with having a brick and mortar fabric store. I’ve been doing this since 1981. There were tons of fabric stores in the area when we opened up. I’ve seen many stores going out of business over the years. We are a family business making a living providing goods and services to a community that really needs it. That’s why I joined the business with my father! I felt that “need” but the need lessened as I watched these multimillion-dollar businesses close around us. Poppy Fabric, New York Fabrics, and Kaufman’s – they’re all gone.
Besides Britex Fabrics, we’re one of the only full-service fabric stores in the Bay Area. Other stores are around but they are hit or miss. They’re based on bargains alone. We’re based on a curated collection from all the categories of fabric: cotton, wools, rayon, linen, silk, knits, and also patterns and notions needed to complete a project.
We are one of the last great full-service fabric stores in the country. There are less than 50 in the country – there used to be at least one in every city and town! Our sales people are talented and can answer your questions and help you out. They are consultants. If you go to Joann Fabrics (a national chain) you may not find people to answer your questions.
I come from the perspective of always trying to stay ahead and to not necessarily base my decisions on what is happening with other stores but trying to stay true to our customer base. We’re at another phase and crossroads. We’re also dealing with higher rents and rising costs. We rent our storefront and the people who work for me are paying higher rents in the Bay Area as well. It’s time to navigate through these changes and get even stronger.
At the beginning of the year, the writing was on the wall for many Bay Area businesses. I’ve been looking at every aspect of my business with my team, asking where is it fun and where is it worth our time? Where is the greatest need and where do they intersect? For me I never really thought about NOT doing the classes.
I didn’t consider that until my CPA suggested it in February of this year. After all, we jump-started the sewing revolution and have held space for classes when very few were sewing clothes. Spending hundreds of hours on the classes (outside of my full-time job running the store) has been a ‘labor or love’. We wanted to provide low-cost quality instruction in our store classroom upstairs and look at what we created! It really feels like a time of graduation and completion. Twenty years later, my personal life is moving in a new direction. In my spare time outside of Stonemountain, I’m an astrologer, I have a family, and I love to travel. This is a significant time to pass this mission onto the next group of teachers.
We are still dedicated to education. We’ll focus on our blogs, newsletters, and other forms of social media that are reaching thousands of people – putting out quality content and inspiration. All of this takes time and creative focus to share the quality of our message we strive for.
We will have more in-store events and videos on YouTube. We have people in our store that are good at that and ready to go! Please refer to our Affiliate Teachers in our Guide to Bay Area Sewing Classes when you are ready to have guidance in all of your fabric arts projects.
CS: You have a YouTube Channel?
Yes, we started it a long time ago but haven’t activated it lately.
CS: The impression is that because people need to buy supplies for the class, they would be buying things from Stonemountain so that helps you make money.
Yes, that is a point that has been greatly considered. Let me address that. Not having classes will affect our business, but we have to ask, what is the cost in going after that sale? So much of the store’s energy goes into classes, but is it sustainable? That’s what we have to look at and be brave and courageous and see what is better for our business long-term. As we transfer our time into supporting staff, customers, other shops, schools and teachers, then the larger our sewing community grows with ease and fun!
Another interesting point it that the last number of times I’ve gone upstairs to look at the classes, 50 percent of the people are not buying fabric from us. Maybe they’ll buy some thread and zippers, but they are buying fabric from Joann Fabrics or other places a lot of the time. That’s their decision. We give them an option and a coupon to purchase our fabrics, but we’re not forcing people to buy from us. So seeing as how about half of our students don’t actually buy that much from us, it makes me feel better about our decision.
CS: Upstairs the space where your sewing tables are will be replaced with fabric. What will be different upstairs?
We can now buy larger lots of fabric and fill the upstairs. We’ll have the space to display one-of-a-kind designer discount fabrics. All the fashion schools want it and sewing groups, like you! We’re filling a big need and it’s an opportunity to have more designer goods at great prices.
The basis of a great garment is finding a great fabric. Our store is based on choice. The decision is really to further serve the community in a joyful way, to change the store around to make it more airy, spacious, and creative.
We received 14 barrels for fabric on Friday. We’ve been painting the outside of the barrels and they will be tubes of delight, filled with Designer over-runs and sample yardage. So exciting!
CS: You’ve also made some other changes with the sewing patterns you carry. What’s happening there?
Of the big corporate sewing patterns, we carried Vogue, Kwik Sew, New Look and Burda. These companies are now selling online, directly to the consumer for cheaper than our wholesale prices. This has hugely undercut our pattern sales and the big companies have no sympathy or remorse. When we asked for fair pricing, they denied us because we are a retailer. Not to mention it costs us thousands of dollars to manage and stay up on inventory control. So, the decision was really made for us.
Another part of this decision is asking, how would we run the business if we were to start now, if this were our first year of being open? What patterns would we choose to carry? We want to be here for as long as we can to serve the growing sewing community in the Bay Area, nationally, and internationally. Bottom line, these big pattern companies were not there to support us.
CS:So all the sewing patterns will now be indie patterns?
Yes! We chose our indie pattern lines because they are made by real people, for real people. Each pattern is drafted with care and the sewing community brings it to life. We have personal contact with many of our indie pattern designers and we get to see them grow in their business with us. This is how sewing should be. We appreciate the mutual support we receive from them, something that was missing from our relationship with the larger pattern companies.
Our complete collection is up on our website, as well as in our store. We love supporting the independent and local business movement! What can be better than having great fabric, tools and inspiring pattern choices?
CS: How does it feel now that the Stonemountain Fabrics era of sewing classes is over?
I feel very proud of our contribution. We’ve taught over 20,000 people to sew and over 300 kids each summer. We completed this phase of our mission and now our dream is widening. It feels great, but I do understand the sadness people feel about the loss of our classes upstairs. It has been a fabulous place for people to sew. I’m grateful to everyone who has taken a class with us. They made it as good as it was. What a 20 years it has been!
Many of the people who taught classes at Stonemountain & Daughter Fabrics are still teaching in the Bay Area. Stonemountain compiled this helpful Guide to Bay Area Sewing Classes for Adults. So all is not lost! You can still take classes with some of your favorites teachers who may be teaching in a variety of locations in the Bay Area. For example, Barbara Beccio is now teaching at Lacis and the Stitch Sewing Lab in Berkeley, the Handcraft Studio in Emeryville, and at her own studio (visit her website Desideratum, for a full list of classes.)
Did you take any classes at Stonemountain? I took Nicole Vasbinder’s “How to start a craft business” when I considered making hats to sell. She provided plenty of useful information which I still have – if I ever decide to do that.